SERMONS - DECEMBER 2005
4 December 2005 - Advent 2 - Isaiah 40:1-11
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
We read in the book of Isaiah: “A voice says, ‘Cry out.’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ ‘All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.’”
The quest for immortality. Men of every age and place have pursued this quest, in one way or another, throughout human history. It is understandable that there would be, inside all human beings, an inborn craving and impulse to live forever. Buried deeply within the consciences of all people, believers and unbelievers alike, there is a nagging sense that we are not supposed to die.
And this is true. Humanity was created to live, and not to die. God placed our first parents in Paradise, with ready access to the tree of life and its fruit. And according to the book of Genesis, the consumption of this fruit would have enabled them - and us - to live forever.
When Adam and Eve sinned, however, they brought the curse of death upon themselves. They brought a curse upon the earth in which they lived. Their rebellion against God incurred the sentence of expulsion from Paradise. Through the promise of the Seed of the woman, who would crush the head of the serpent on their behalf, God brought forgiveness and a second chance to the first humans. In spite of their sin they heard that they would be saved by the redeeming work of their virgin-born Savior, and they put their hope in that promise and in that salvation.
But the unnatural bodily death that they had brought upon themselves remained as a consequence of their transgression, and this mortality was passed on to their descendants. A corrupt sinful nature was likewise passed on to all their progeny, and it remains in us - in all of us - as long as we live on this earth. And this sinful nature prompts people to follow various pathways - some foolish and some evil - in a search for the immortality that their consciences tell them was once theirs but is now lost.
Some have pursued the quest for immortality with a very crass concept of eternal life - that is, with a desire for the unending perpetuation of the bodily life that we experience in this world. We’re probably familiar with Ponce De Leon’s search for the fountain of youth in the early sixteenth century, in what is now the state of Florida. But the legend of the existence of such a fountain, and man’s search for it, go back long before the age of exploration in the New World. Perhaps we’ve also heard of the vile and shocking practice of the notorious sixteenth-century Hungarian Countess Erzebet Bathory. She was a sadistic and murderous sorceress, sometimes called the “female Dracula,” who attempted to preserve her youth and life by bathing regularly in the blood of virgins.
While we might be amused at the naivete of De Leon, or horrified at the brutality of Bathory, each of us in his or her own way probably pursues the quest for some measure of youthfulness - or the appearance of youthfulness - beyond the actual circumstances of our life. There’s nothing wrong with trying to lead a healthy lifestyle, or making ourselves presentable in our appearance, but it is possible for us to become obsessive about these things in a way that would suggest, at a deeper level, an unwillingness to accept the reality of our mortality.
Others pursue the quest for immortality in a different way. The kings and emperors of the past often built huge monuments to their greatness and achievements, in an attempt to perpetuate their memory into future generations. And in more modern times, how often have the presidents of our country shaped the policies of their administration with a view toward trying to build a “legacy” that will endure in world or national affairs, beyond their term of office? How many authors yearn to live beyond their lifetime in their writings? How many artists yearn to live beyond their lifetime in their paintings and sculptures?
No one here is a king, an emperor, or a president, but do we perhaps spend more time than we should thinking about how to mold the organizations and associations of which we are a part, and “institutionalize” our tastes and judgments within them, so that they will remain under our influence even after we are gone? And while none of us - as far as I know - has a book in the Library of Congress, or a work of art in the Louvre, might we still be overly concerned sometimes about “leaving a mark” on the world in which we live, so that we will not be forgotten after we are physically gone? In subtle ways of which we may not even be consciously aware, do we sometimes try to imprint ourselves on our children, so that they will, at least in part, live our lives for us, and pursue our dreams, rather than following their own destinies?
To all of these things the Lord says: “All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass.”
“All men.” that includes you and me. Our common anxiousness to perpetuate ourselves is like grass. Our carnal efforts to enshrine our own glory and achievements are like the flowers of the field. But the grass withers, and the flowers fall. It is a vain dream, spun out of the sinful imagination of man, that we can in any truly enduring way, by our human striving, keep ourselves alive either literally or figuratively. The fact that this dream is universally pursued in fear and pride by the sinful nature in all people does not make the dream any less vain, or the pursuit of it any less futile.
But let us listen to what Isaiah goes on to say: “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.” “Forever.” That’s the thing we all want: a life that goes on forever. But there is one and only one way to have it, namely when we have the word of God. Or a better way to say this would be when the word of God has us.
The Hebrew term translated as “word” here does not connote something static and unmoving, but it describes the living and active voice of the Lord. The word of God is a word of promise and a word of hope. It is a word that comes to us and grasps us, so that we in turn grasp it and believe it. The word of God comes to us, in the midst of our vain quests for immortality, and gives us in their place a contentment with God’s gift of eternal life in Christ. Through this word, the Holy Spirit - whom we confess to be the Lord and the giver of life - enlivens us in faith, and draws us into the fellowship of the Father who loved us and the Son who saved us.
Isaiah goes on to say: “You who bring good tidings to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’ See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and his arm rules for him.” By the solemn call that the Lord of the church has given to me to be your pastor, it is my duty and privilege to bring these good tidings to the little corner of Zion that gathers in this place.
As recorded in the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel, the apostle Peter said to Jesus: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” It is the Holy One of God who is present when Jesus Christ is present. And when Jesus Christ is present, in and with his word, God’s gift of eternal life is present.
Dear friends in Christ, please listen to me when I say, “Here is your God!” In his word, which stands forever, the Lord Jesus Christ comes among us with power - the power to change even the most fearful and prideful of men. In his word, which stands forever, his arm rules for him - a loving rule that extends to all who have received his Spirit and confess him as Savior. In his word, which stands forever, he speaks his forgiving presence into the bread and wine of his Holy Supper, and he speaks his pardon and life into the hearts of his people.
And the life that we’re talking about here is the real thing. It is not a life that just keeps us going in our current form of existence, but it is a divine life that extends beyond this world into the next. It is not a life that just enables us to avoid the grave, but it is a divine life that gives us victory over the grave. It is not a life that keeps us focused on ourselves, with selfish dreams of monuments and legacies, but it is a divine life that turns the focus our attention onto others, so that we live in order to serve.
The quest for immortality - mankind’s search for a way to survive - is a universal quest, but it will reach a dead end - literally - whenever it is pursued by human means and with sinful motives. But God in his word is also on a quest. He sends out preachers to proclaim to Zion and to the world his message of life - true eternal life - through the death and resurrection of Christ.
St. Peter was very familiar with the book of Isaiah, and as a New Testament believer he knew what Isaiah had been talking about. We close with an excerpt from chapter 1 of Peter’s First Epistle:
“Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart. For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. For, ‘All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever.’ And this is the word that was preached to you.” Amen.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
7 December 2005 - Wednesday in Advent 2 - John 7:14-19, 25-31, 37-40
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
The word “prophet” means a person who proclaims a message on the basis of special, supernatural authority. Prophetic speaking is often associated with the idea of seeing into the future and telling people what will happen, and the prophets of the Lord did often do this. But a legitimate prophet will often be raised up by God also to speak about the things that are happening now, explaining what they mean and how God wants us to react to them. A prophet of the Lord reveals the Lord’s will and ways to his people, in a context when they might not otherwise know his will and ways.
This is largely the kind of prophetic ministry that Moses exercised among the children of Israel at the time of the Exodus from Egypt, and during the nation’s wanderings in the wilderness for forty years. Insofar as he was exercising the prophetic ministry to which he had been called, the voice of Moses was the voice of God. And through Moses God had some very important things to say to his chosen people.
First, he needed to reintroduce himself to them. During their sojourn in Egypt, the Israelites had largely forgotten the God of their Fathers, and had come under the influence of the polytheistic paganism of the Egyptians. They had essentially forgotten the God who had established a sacred covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And if they preserved some remnants of the religious faith of their ancestors, it was in a garbled form, blended with the false beliefs and practices of the people among whom they lived. That’s why Aaron, the brother of Moses, actually thought that he was honoring the God of Israel when he erected the golden calf. When Aaron made this statue, he did it in the context of decreeing that there was to be “a feast to the Lord.” But it was not a feast to the Lord, regardless of Aaron’s intentions, and regardless of the wording of his decree. Aaron was not a prophet. He did not speak for God.
But Moses did. When Moses rebuked the people because of their sins, God was thereby rebuking them. When Moses exhorted the people to look to the Lord for forgiveness and help, God was thereby showing his own mercy to them. When Moses warned the Israelites against the idolatry of the Canaanites, and forbade them to imitate their hellish religious practices, God himself was thereby warning and forbidding.
Moses declared, as we read in Deuteronomy chapter 18, “When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a wizard or a necromancer, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord.”
After Moses died, it was said of him, as recorded in the last chapter of the book of Deuteronomy: “And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and the wonders that the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, and for all the mighty power and all the great deeds of terror that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.”
But before Moses died, he had also spoken these words: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers - it is to him you shall listen.” Israel was not to listen to fortunetellers, interpreters of omens, sorcerers, charmers, mediums, wizards, or those who presume to communicate with the dead. Instead, Israel was to listen only to the Lord’s prophets, and ultimately to the final and absolute prophet whom the Lord would raise up in their midst.
Sadly, though, as was demonstrated during the centuries that followed, the warnings and prohibitions of Moses - and of God - were ignored more often than they were heeded. Israel and Judah so often turned a deaf ear to their Lord, and to the message of his chosen prophets, and listened instead to the Canaanite voices that they had been told to ignore. And the consequences were disastrous.
Our Muslim friends believe and teach that Jesus was a great prophet. Others, too, have been willing to concede that Jesus was a prophet from the Lord. And we agree with that belief, as far as it goes. But an acknowledgment of the prophetic office of Jesus is not enough. He was and is, in his person, also the divine-human Savior of the world. He did not simply tell us about God, but he was and is God in human flesh, who in his life, death, and resurrection has redeemed us from sin, death, and the devil. Truly, Jesus was much more than a prophet.
But Jesus was not less that a prophet. He healed the sick and performed many other miracles, but he also preached - with supernatural, divine authority - about the spiritual healing that God’s forgiveness brings, and about the deeper miracle of faith in the promises of God, engendered by God’s Spirit in the hearts of men. He accomplished what was necessary for our salvation by his perfect life, his innocent sufferings and death, and his glorious resurrection, but he also explained - with supernatural, divine authority - the true meaning of these saving acts, which otherwise would have remained hidden from our understanding.
As was mentioned a moment ago, our Muslim friends recognize Jesus as a great prophet, but they recognize Muhammed as a greater prophet. They believe that Jesus was indeed a prophet for his day, but that he has been succeeded and supplanted by Muhammed.
But Jesus, as the ultimate prophet of God to the human race, has not been succeeded or supplanted by anyone. It’s true that he was a prophet for his day, but he is still the definitive prophet of God because his day has not yet come to an end. In his resurrection Christ won the ultimate victory over death and the grave. He is therefore alive, nevermore to die. And his day - the day of his authority in heaven and earth; the day of his prophetic office - is a day that is still with us, even as Christ, the living Lord of the church, is still with us.
It was said of Moses that he knew the Lord face to face. It might be difficult to imagine a closer relationship between a prophet, as God’s representative, and the God whom he represents. But in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the condescending grace of God broke through the limitations of our human imagination, and brought the Lord himself into our midst. On one occasion, as recorded in John chapter 14, “Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me...’”
Jesus is the greater prophet - the greatest prophet - predicted by Moses. Jesus is the prophet of God - the prophet who is God - for our day. Moses declared: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers - it is to him you shall listen...”
But do we listen to him? The “Canaanites” of the twenty-first century are all around us, providing easily accessible alternatives to Christ and his prophetic ministry. Fortunetellers, interpreters of omens, sorcerers, charmers, mediums, wizards, and those who presume to communicate with the dead are still operating, in ways that are not much different from how practitioners of the occultic arts pursued their shadowy craft in the time of ancient Israel. But even if we make a point of avoiding astrologers and tarot card readers, do we perhaps allow our thinking to be influenced by the more subtle alternatives to Christ and his Word that are ever-present in our city and country? Secularism, moral relativism, materialism, and fanatical “tolerationism” all have their false prophets among us. Are our Christian convictions diluted by these influences? Are our beliefs compromised by these worldviews? Do we erect golden calves of our own making, and decree feasts of the Lord that are not actually feasts of the Lord?
Well, we probably do. But Christ is still with us, even as Moses remained with the children of Israel throughout their wanderings in the wilderness. Christ the prophet of God is there to rebuke us in the name of the Lord when we heed alien voices, and to call us to repentance. When we are humbled by his rebuke, and acknowledge our sin, Christ the prophet of God is again there, with unquestionable divine authority, to proclaim the Lord’s pardon. Jesus says, “He who sent me is true... I know him, for I come from him, and he sent me.”
The Father sent the Son into the world to be our Savior. And the Father sent the Son into the world to proclaim to us this salvation. The Word of Christ is the Word of the Father. This divine Word is permanently preserved for us in the Holy Scriptures, and it is savingly applied to us in the preaching of the Gospel and in the administration of the sacraments. Jesus, as the greatest of prophets, speaks forth in these ways the unchanging message of God’s mercy to all sinners. With a prophetic ministry that will never be silenced until the Last Day, Jesus declares to us the message of the Father’s love for the world, manifested in his own saving work on our behalf.
When we are tempted, Christ strengthens us with his prophetic Word. When we are confused, Christ calms us with his prophetic Word. When we are frightened, Christ reassures us with his prophetic Word. When we begin to weaken in our faith, Christ restores us with his prophetic Word.
When the crowds heard the extraordinary teaching of Jesus Christ, as St. John reports, “some of the people said, ‘This really is the Prophet.’” Yes, this really is the Prophet: the ultimate, final, and absolute prophet of God. Amen.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning is now, and will be forever. Amen.
11 December 2005 - Advent 3 - Isaiah 61:1-3
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Americans are a very religious people, at least when compared to other western countries. On any given weekend, about half of the population is in attendance at religious services of one kind or another.
But to what kind of religious beliefs do Americans hold? In a free society such as ours, there is no official government-mandated belief system that must be promulgated in all the houses of worship in the country. So, Americans are free to choose what kind of church they will attend, and what kind of teachings they will heed.
One of the things that many Americans are looking for in their search for a church to attend is “guilt-free” religion. We don’t want to go to church and come out feeling guilty. We don’t want to feel bad about ourselves, but we want to feel good about ourselves. We want to be optimistic and positive, not pessimistic and negative.
Along with this, Americans usually don’t want to think about any other unpleasant things in church either. We want our churches to be places where we will hear about success and prosperity, not poverty; and where we will hear about happy things and happy times, not grief and sadness. We want to hear about uplifting things - about our human potential to find fulfillment and achieve what we set out to accomplish, and not about our limitations and weaknesses. We already hear enough about poverty, mourning, and despair on the news. We don’t need to go to church to hear even more about it.
So, in large numbers, Americans don’t. Churches and “worship centers” that promise positive and practical messages are attracting large crowds. People flock to hear those preachers and religious leaders who agree to stay off of topics like sin, grief, and human failure.
But there’s only one problem with all of this. It doesn’t match reality! Certainly we don’t enjoy feeling guilty, but sometimes we should feel guilty because sometimes we are guilty. We do hurt others - and God - by the words that we say, and by the actions that we carry out. The pain and disappointment that others have endured because of us will not just get erased if we decide not to think about it. The sufferings of conscience that we have inflicted upon ourselves because of our transgressions will not disappear just because we decide not to talk about it, or just because we decide not to listen to ministers who talk about it.
There needs to be more honesty in our society, and indeed among all of us, regarding what our human situation is really like. Our sinfulness is like a deep, gangrenous wound in our souls. Ignoring it may seem to be a viable option for a while, but it is an approach that ultimately must he abandoned, lest we die. Sadness and disappointment are a part of the burden that we carry. Everyone who has lived long enough is weighed down to one degree or another by remorse over mistakes of the past than cannot be undone. We are scarred by regrets over bad choices with which we, and others, are now stuck. And in all of us, to one extent or another, there are those captivating and destructive temptations from which we just can’t seem to escape, and that seem to pursue us and overtake us again and again.
Sugar-coated preaching, positive religion, and optimistic beliefs about human potential and fulfillment cannot and will not erase the deeper truth of what it is really like to be a part of the fallen human race. As a society and as individuals we need to admit this, and stop fooling ourselves. These problems will not go away if we ignore them. These inner burdens will not be lifted from us if we pretend that they are not really there.
The role of the church, as a divine agency on the earth, and the role of the church’s pastors, as divine spokesmen, is not to encourage the pretenses in which we engage in order to avoid facing up to what is really going on in our world, in our country, and in our own hearts. Rather, the role of the church, and of its pastors, is to proclaim God’s very real remedy and cure for the very real problems of the world, the country, and the human heart.
Jesus walked among us, as the anointed of the Lord, to preach a message of deliverance and comfort to those who are honest about the way things really are, and about the way they really are. And he continues to preach this message to all who have ears to hear it. Listen to him, as he speaks prophetically through his servant Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the LORD God is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion - to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.”
When the Lord Jesus Christ walked among us, he did not pretend that the problems of human existence that we have been discussing were not really there. Instead, he was completely honest about those problems, and confronted them head-on, for you and for me. He lived a life that was filled with the knowledge of God and the goodness of God, and in this way he restored to impoverished humanity the spiritual riches of which sin had robbed us. He bore on the cross our griefs, and carried in his own body our infirmities, and in this way he restored to grieving humanity the joy of a restored fellowship with God that will never be broken. In his resurrection he broke the bonds of death - and all other bonds and chains - and in this way achieved for captive humanity a total victory over the wicked world, the sinful flesh, and the Satanic foe. And all of this - all of this - he did for us, for you and for me.
Dear believer in Christ: Don’t deny or try to ignore the spiritual impoverishment that a misspent past has created in you. Admit it, and then hear your Savior tell you in his Gospel and sacraments that all is forgiven, and that all is restored in him. Don’t try to keep a stiff upper lip before the Lord, and think that you can hide from him the sadness and regrets that have broken your heart. Admit them, and then experience how your Savior’s healing touch, in his Gospel and sacraments, renews your joy.
And, God sees and knows all things. So, if you feel imprisoned by destructive forces that are beyond your control, stop trying to hide from him your depressing sense of powerlessness over these influences, as they threaten to ruin your life and the lives also of those you love. Be honest and open before the Lord, and then listen to your Savior when he proclaims and applies to you, in his Gospel and sacraments, the freedom from this captivity that his Spirit brings.
Jesus says that the Lord has anointed him to preach good news to the poor. If you are poor, then be of good cheer, because the good news of Christ is right now enriching you with his grace! Jesus says that the Lord has sent him to bind up the brokenhearted. If you are brokenhearted, then be of good cheer, because the healing touch of Christ is right now restoring your heart and making you whole. Jesus says that the Lord has sent him to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners. If you feel in your conscience that you are trapped and chained down in a dark and frightening place, then be of good cheer, because Christ is right now opening the prison gates, unlocking those chains, and carrying you out into the light of his life and salvation.
And Jesus says as well that you who believe in him “will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.” Imagine that! When you admit your weakness, you don’t lose out, because God makes you strong - like an oak - in Christ. When you admit your sin and failure, you don’t lose out, because God declares you to be perfectly righteous in Christ. When you admit your powerlessness to keep yourself stable and secure, you don’t lose out, because God deeply plants and roots you in his salvation. He displays you in Christ as his very own treasured possession, reflecting his glorious mercy and his gracious splendor.
There is nothing better than this - not a man-made guilt-free religion, not lopsided practical sermons, and not artificially optimistic beliefs. There is nothing better, in this life or the next, than the Lord’s pardon in Christ, the Lord’s riches in Christ, the Lord’s comfort in Christ, and the Lord’s gift of eternal victory over sin and death in Christ. Amen.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
14 December 2005 - Wednesday in Advent 3 - Matthew 21:12-16
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
In Old Testament history, King David is both a glorious figure and a tragic figure. He was a man who was capable of extraordinarily honorable behavior, such the way in which he continued to respect the royal authority of King Saul, David’s predecessor, even during a time when Saul was trying to kill him. He was also a man who was capable of extraordinarily dishonorable behavior, such as the way in which he treated Uriah, a loyal soldier in the army of Israel, whose wife had become the object of David’s lustful desires. In David we also see a man who fell into the most destructive of temptations and into the most wicked of sins. And in David we see a man who penitently humbled himself, completely and without qualification, before the judgment of the divine law.
David, in his person, was a deeply flawed and dangerously weak human being. With good cause he cried out to the Lord for divine mercy and help, in a song that we have been well advised, by the liturgical tradition of our church, to sing along with him: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me; cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy Holy Spirit from me; restore unto me the joy of thy salvation, and uphold me with thy free Spirit.”
David was a man who believed, and lived, in the mercy of his Savior. As he joyfully confessed in Psalm 32: “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity...” It was this man - clothed in the righteousness of the promised Messiah - who was chosen by the Lord to be the king of Israel, and to be the founder of a dynasty that continuously ruled over God’s people for century after century.
As recorded in Psalm 89, the Lord made this promise regarding David and his royal line: “I have granted help to one who is mighty; I have exalted one chosen from the people. I have found David, my servant; with my holy oil I have anointed him, so that my hand shall be established with him; my arm also shall strengthen him. The enemy shall not outwit him; the wicked shall not humble him. I will crush his foes before him and strike down those who hate him. My faithfulness and my steadfast love shall be with him, and in my name shall his horn be exalted. I will set his hand on the sea and his right hand on the rivers. He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation.’ And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth. My steadfast love I will keep for him forever, and my covenant will stand firm for him.”
In these ancient times Israel was in quite a bit of political and military danger. It was threatened externally by the Philistines, the Moabites, the Arameans, the Ammonites, and the Canaanites. It was threatened internally by the possibility of dynastic civil war and regional insurrection. Against all these threats, both external and internal, God raised up David, a man after his own heart, to rule as king, and to protect and govern his chosen people. In spite of his deep personal flaws and human weaknesses, David faithfully served in the office to which the Lord had appointed him. God in his grace had chosen him; God in his grace helped and sustained him to the end.
Without a king like David, the people of Israel would have been helpless against the many threats to their survival that surrounded them, and that lay within them. Either the country would have been overrun by its enemies, or it would have disintegrated through civil strife, or both. Without David, the promises made to Abraham and to Moses would not have been fulfilled.
But God never breaks his promises. He never allows the forces of sin and death, ultimately, to prevail. He will govern and guide his people through the servants whom he chooses for this task. God’s beloved children will not be abandoned by their heavenly Father. The Lord’s beloved bride will not be forsaken by her heavenly bridegroom. God never breaks his promises.
And among his promises are also these, again as recorded in Psalm 89: “I will establish [David’s] offspring forever and his throne as the days of the heavens. If his children forsake my law and do not walk according to my rules, if they violate my statutes and do not keep my commandments, then I will punish their transgression with the rod and their iniquity with stripes, but I will not remove from him my steadfast love or be false to my faithfulness. I will not violate my covenant or alter the word that went forth from my lips. Once for all I have sworn by my holiness; I will not lie to David. His offspring shall endure forever, his throne as long as the sun before me. Like the moon it shall be established forever, a faithful witness in the skies.”
The literal kingdom of Israel, according to God’s Old Testament civil institution, is no more. After the time of David, over many centuries, the people again and again turned their hearts away from the Lord, who had established them as a people, and served false and empty idols instead. In the end, the Lord allowed the nation to be chastised for its many sins by being carried away into captivity. But the kingdom and dynasty of David, in the deeper sense, did not die when the political independence of Judah died. This kingdom - a hidden spiritual kingdom - lived on, and lives on. God’s promise that the royal offspring of David shall endure forever, and that David’s throne shall last as long as the sun, has found its fulfillment in the life and work of Jesus Christ.
David, as a penitent sinner, was declared to be righteous through the mercy of God. Jesus, however, was and is the total embodiment of God’s righteousness in the flesh. David, and all believers of the past and present, were and are justified in Christ and are clothed in Christ’s righteousness. Jesus is both the son of David and the Lord and Savior of David. It was he, in his pre-incarnate state, who had been the true heavenly king of Israel, whose divine rule had been carried out in and through his servant David. And Jesus is still the king over the people of God.
But the kingship of Christ is not exercised in this world in a way that can be seen and experienced as earthly kingships are seen and experienced. Jesus said on one occasion to some of the Pharisees, as recorded in Luke 17: “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” Again, before Pontius Pilate, Jesus testified: “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”
This does not mean, however, that the kingdom of Christ, and the kingship of Christ, are not real. He truly is the Son of David, and he truly does reign within and among his people. In the Large Catechism, which is one of the official Confessions of our church, Martin Luther explains what this kingdom is all about, and how each of us, by faith, is a part of it. In commenting on the meaning of the Second Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, he writes:
“What is the kingdom of God? Answer: Simply what we heard...in the Creed, namely, that God sent his Son, Christ our Lord, into the world to redeem and deliver us from the power of the devil, to bring us to himself, and to rule us as a king of righteousness, life, and salvation against sin, death, and an evil conscience. To this end he also gave his Holy Spirit to deliver this to us through his holy Word and to enlighten and strengthen us in faith by his power. We ask here at the outset that all this may be realized in us and that his name may be praised through God’s holy Word and Christian living. This we ask, both in order that we who have accepted it may remain faithful and grow daily in it and also in order that it may find approval and gain followers among other people and advance with power throughout the world. In this way many, led by the Holy Spirit, may come into the kingdom of grace and become partakers of redemption, so that we may all remain together eternally in this kingdom that has now begun. ‘The coming of God’s kingdom to us’ takes place in two ways: first, it comes here, in time, through the Word and faith, and second, in eternity, it comes through the final revelation. Now, we ask for both of these things: that it may come to those who are not yet in it and that, by daily growth here and in eternal life hereafter, it may come to us who have attained it. All this is nothing more than to say: ‘Dear Father, we ask you first to give us your Word, so that the gospel may be properly preached throughout the world and then that it may also be received in faith and may work and dwell in us, so that your kingdom may pervade among us through the Word and the power of the Holy Spirit and the devil’s kingdom may be destroyed so that he may have no right or power over us until finally his kingdom is utterly eradicated and sin, death, and hell wiped out, that we may live forever in perfect righteousness and blessedness.’” So far Luther.
The children and crowds of Jerusalem declared, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” and they acclaimed Jesus as the true king of God’s people. We can be quite certain that many if not most of them didn’t understand the full implications of what they were saying. But we who have been baptized into the kingdom of Christ, and who are nurtured in our citizenship in this kingdom by Christ’s Word and Holy Sacrament, have been blessed with a divinely-given faith that allows us to appreciate what it means to have Jesus as our king.
We today are surrounded by Philistines, Moabites, Arameans, Ammonites, and Canaanites. Oh, not literally, of course; but our faith is threatened externally by the world and the devil in so many different ways: The discouragements and opposition that we face in this world can lead to false belief. The trials and times of testing that we endure in this world can lead to unbelief. And the devil and his minions never rest in trying to find our personal weaknesses in order to exploit them - thereby to hurt us, and through us to hurt others. But as we are surrounded by these enemies of the Lord, we are also governed and protected by the Lord’s anointed. We have a “David” too - the Son of David who sits on his throne in power and glory forever. His holy angels protect us. His powerful Word is our shield and our fortress.
From among us - that is, internally - the flesh also threatens to stir up insurrections against the Lordship of Christ, and rebellions against his authority. There’s a frightening part of each of us - the old sinful part - that doesn’t want Christ to reign, and that tries to wrench us out from under his protection. But again, we have a noble and faithful Sovereign ruling in his church, and in the hearts of those who believe in him. This loving and gracious king draws us back to our baptism every day, to fortify us against these temptations, and to renew our standing as citizens of his kingdom, under his watchful care.
In this way he continually and zealously cleanses his living Temple, the church. He does care about what is going on in our lives, and he is not indifferent to our need for his help. In the repentance that his law works in us, we drown the old Adam. In the faith that his Gospel engenders in us, we rise to newness of life, confessing Christ as Lord, embracing Christ as Savior.
We close with the words of a well-known hymn:
Hail to the Lord’s Anointed, Great David’s greater Son!
Hail, in the time appointed, His reign on earth begun!
He comes to break oppression, To set the captive free,
To take away transgression, And rule in equity.
Over every foe victorious, He on His throne shall rest,
From age to age more glorious, All blessing and all-blest.
The tide of time shall never His covenant remove;
His name shall stand forever, - That name to us is Love.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.
18 December 2005 - Advent 4 - Luke 1:26-38
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
According to the Apology of the Augsburg Confession - one of the official Symbolical Books of the Lutheran Church - the Virgin Mary is “worthy of the highest honors.” The Apology immediately adds: “nevertheless she does not want to be made equal with Christ but instead wants us to consider and follow her example.” Today we will have an opportunity to do this.
Mary is a good example for all Christians to consider and follow for several reasons. The chief reason is illustrated very vividly in today’s text. Mary believed God’s Word and promises, regardless of how impossible those promises might seem to have been from the perspective of her human reason and experience. The angel spoke a divinely-given message to Mary that went against everything she had ever experienced or ever could have imagined. Even though she was still unmarried, and had never been intimate with a man, he told her that she was to be the mother of God’s own Son.
Mary could not understand how this could be. She could not understand the process or mechanism that the Lord would use to accomplish this miracle. So she asked, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel did not scold her for asking this question, but he gladly explained how God was intending to accomplish this: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the Holy One to be born will be called the Son of God.” Once the angel had explained the means by which this blessing would come to her - that is, through a miraculous intervention of God’s Spirit - Mary submitted herself completely to the promise of God: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”
Six months before his visit to Mary, the angel had also visited a man named Zacharias, who was married to Elizabeth, one of Mary’s relatives. This story is also recounted by St. Luke, in the first half of the chapter from which today’s text is taken. The purpose of that visit was similar to his visit to Nazareth. The angel announced that Zacharias’s wife, who was past the age of childbearing, would nevertheless bear a son. The angel told Zacharias: “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.”
But Zacharias did not believe this message. He asked, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” The angel was displeased with Zacharias’s unbelief, and scolded him for it. He declared: “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.”
We might wonder why the angel was displeased with Zacharias’s question, but not with Mary’s. This is the reason: Zacharias was reluctant to believe that God was going to accomplish what he had promised, even though God had told him, through the angel, not only that he was going to do something extraordinary, but also how he was going to do it. The means that the Lord was going to use to give Zacharias a son would be his normal marital relationship with his wife. Remember what the angel had said: “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.”
But, even though the Lord had revealed the means that he was going to use, Zacharias still did not believe in the miraculous promise of God, and he was accordingly chastised for his unbelief. His human reason and experience told him that what God was promising was impossible, and that the means for fulfilling this promise that God was intending to use simply would not work.
It was not like this with Mary, and with her question. The angel had told her that she was going to bear a son, but he had not yet told her the means that the Lord would use to bring about this miracle. God does not mind at all if we ask him what means he is going to use to accomplish something miraculous that he has promised to do. And so, the angel then explained to Mary that her son would be conceived through the special activity of the Holy Spirit, rather than through the normal procreative process. At that point, Mary did then believe, without any hesitation, that God would accomplish what he had promised, and that he would accomplish it in the way that he had stated.
This is what faith in God’s Word means for us too. God has promised some extraordinary and miraculous things to us as well. Of course, none of the men here has been told by an angel that his elderly wife will conceive and bear a child, and none of the women here has been told that she will become the mother of God! These were unique promises, made in unique circumstances to specific people. We are accordingly not invited by the Lord to appropriate these exact promises to ourselves.
But there are some general promises that the Lord has made to everyone, and consequently to each of us. He has promised to send his Son Jesus Christ into our lives. He has promised to forgive all our sins. He has promised to fill us with his Spirit and give us a new spiritual life, and continually to strengthen and renew our faith. By making these promises God has pledged to perform miracles in our lives. Converting us from spiritual death to spiritual life, and from unbelief to faith, is a miracle just as spectacular as any other - perhaps even more so. But, God has not only promised that he will do these things for us and in us; he has also told us how he is going to do them.
It might seem reasonable to some Christians to suppose that God’s miracle-working grace is available to them through icons, statues, or relics; through prayer cloths that are sent to them by television preachers; or perhaps through other religious objects that have a sanctified or mystical aura about them. But God has not revealed this to his church. It would be presumptuous for us to believe that God is going to do something that he has not told us he is going to do. It would be presumptuous for us to believe that God is going to use means that he has not told us he is going to use. Objects of religious art and other types of Christian symbolism can and do serve a valid and useful purpose, as external aids in our religious devotion. But according to the sure and certain promises of Holy Scripture, God has not told us that these are the means he intends to use to convey his saving and sustaining grace to us.
We read in St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans: “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of God.” St. Peter declares in the book of Acts: “Repent, and let everyone of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” And St. Paul asks rhetorically in his first epistle to the Corinthians: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?”
In these and in many other passages of Scripture, God our Savior has not only told us that he is going to save us and give us eternal life, but he has also specified the means that he will use to accomplish this: namely, his Holy Word, as it is preached and read; and his divinely-instituted sacraments. When God reveals to us his gracious saving intentions, he also reveals to us his methods. He doesn’t play cruel games with us, or keep us guessing in regard to something so important. Therefore when we believe all of the promises that he makes to us, and cling with confidence to his words, we are able to know not only that he is going to perform such miracles, but also how and where he is going to perform them.
Again, the Lord doesn’t expect us to believe in the forgiveness of sins without knowing exactly where and how that forgiveness will be available to us. But, when he reveals that this forgiveness and the blessings that flow from it are indeed available to us in his Word and sacraments, he does then expect us to cling to those means of grace in faith, and to look for these blessings there and only there. And with the faith that only God can give to us through the power of his Word, we do cling to those means of grace. We do so with the joyful expectation that God’s miraculous, life-giving, and life-changing grace will without any doubt be there, because he has promised that it will be there.
Our human reason and experience do not prepare us for the idea that the simple message of Scripture which is uttered by a pastor is filled with divine, heavenly power, but it is. Our human reason and experience do not prepare us for the idea that ordinary water can be a channel for the cleansing of the soul, but the water that is connected with God’s institution is. Our human reason and experience do not prepare us for the idea that bread and wine can carry to us the glorified body and blood of God’s own Son, but the elements over which Christ’s Words are spoken do. These things are all so because God’s promises are always true - his promises about what he wants to do, and about how he wants to do it. As the angel told Mary, “For nothing is impossible with God.”
The Virgin Mary, as a woman who believed the Word of God, truly does set an example for us to consider and follow. In faith she accepted the Lord’s declaration of what he would do, and how he would do it, even though it went against everything that she ever would have expected. We too, as we follow her example, are able and willing, in the strength of God’s Spirit, to believe what the Lord has told us. We joyfully believe in the miracles that God has promised to us. We joyfully believe that our sins are forgiven, that Christ is our Savior, and that eternal life is ours. And we joyfully believe that these great blessings are available to us, and are conveyed to us, through the means of grace that God himself has instituted and entrusted to his church. When we hear the preaching of the Gospel, when we return to our Baptism in repentance and faith, and when we partake in a worthy manner of the Lord’s Supper, we also say, with our Lord’s blessed mother, “Let it be to me according to your word.” Amen.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
21 December 2005 - Wednesday in Advent 4 - Matthew 12:38-50
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
The story of Jonah, and of his being swallowed by a whale or large fish, is one of the best known stories of the Old Testament. For many people it is also one of the hardest to believe. Those in the history of the Christian Church who have wanted to whittle away at the traditional belief in Biblical inerrancy and authority have often begun by aiming their historical-critical sights at the account of Jonah. It is relatively easy, they suppose, to persuade people that the story of Jonah is a parable or a myth - that is, a story that is clothed in the trappings of an historical account, but that is not historical. It is relatively easy, they suppose, to portray the account of Jonah as a story that somebody made up in order to illustrate a deeper spiritual truth, without the expectation that people would think that these things really happened. Liberals and skeptics, if they pay any attention to the story of Jonah, treat it like a fable. There was never an actual time in zoological history when a tortoise and a hare had a race. Likewise, there was never an actual time in Israelite history when a man was swallowed by a whale or large fish and lived to tell the tale. That’s what they believe, and that’s what they want you to believe.
But, that’s not what Jesus wants you to believe. In Matthew 12 he says that his impending death, burial, and resurrection would be like the experience that Jonah had in the belly of the great fish. Jesus certainly wanted his disciples to believe that his resurrection, though extraordinary, would really happen. And he certainly wants you to believe that his resurrection did really happen. Hence Jonah’s experience, likewise extraordinary, really happened as well.
The story of Jonah is extraordinary, indeed miraculous. The Lord had told him to go to Nineveh - the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, which then posed a serious political threat to Israel - and to preach a message of repentance to the inhabitants there. Jonah didn’t want to do this, however. He didn’t want the Assyrians to have an opportunity to repent, because that would give the Lord an opportunity to forgive them. Instead, as an Israelite nationalist, he wanted the judgment of the Lord to be poured out on them.
So, he “fled from the Lord” - as if such a thing were possible. What he didn’t realize, though, is that God had made him an offer that he couldn’t refuse. God was going to be God. Jonah was going to preach to the people of Nineveh, whether he liked it or not. When he tried to run, God pursued him. When he got on a ship to try to escape, God stirred up a storm. And when he was cast overboard, as the book of Jonah tells us, “the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.”
Jonah’s life was completely in the hands of the Lord. As a servant of God, he had no control over his future - absolutely none. There was nowhere for him to go. There was nothing for him to do. God was in charge, and there was now no doubt about it.
Jonah, therefore, with such a realization, offered from the belly of the fish this humble prayer, as recorded in the book of Jonah: “I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. ... When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord!”
With this, as the text tells us, the Lord then “spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.”
The reason for these extraordinary occurrences was the same reason that God had had in mind when he told Jonah to go to Nineveh in the first place. The Lord did not dream up this miracle in order to show off, or prove his power to skeptics, but he did these things because he wanted Jonah to preach to the people of Nineveh, so that they would repent and turn away from their sins. He did not want Jonah to stay at home. He did not want him to flee to a foreign land. And he did not want him to drown in a stormy sea. The Lord wanted Jonah to go and preach, and everything that he did - the storm, the great fish, everything - was brought to bear on the fulfillment of that divine desire.
And for Nineveh itself, the Lord likewise did not plan out some kind of outward display of miracles, in the skies above or on the earth below, to impress or frighten the people. Instead, he sent to them a humble - and reluctant - Hebrew preacher, to proclaim to them in simple words a warning of divine judgment against their sin. They shouldn’t have expected anything more than that, and they didn’t get anything more than that. But what they did get from the Lord, and from the Lord’s servant Jonah, was fully adequate. Contrary to Jonah’s expectations - and contrary to his personal sinful wishes - the Assyrians did listen to his preaching, they did repent of their sins, and the Lord did pardon their city.
Jesus, in Matthew chapter 12, invites us to consider the extraordinary experiences of Jonah, and the divine mission of Jonah, as we seek to understand his mission on earth. Many people during the time of our Lord’s earthly ministry were interested in him, in a superficial kind of way, but they wanted “proof” before they would acknowledge his messianic authority. They wanted miracles. Oh, not necessarily big miracles, at least not right away. A small one would no doubt do. They didn’t understand the hidden but very real power of preaching, and they weren’t all that interested in Jesus’ preaching.
But Jesus said of these people, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.”
Jesus was indeed greater that Jonah. Certainly he was greater because of who he was. Jonah was a mere mortal, whereas Jesus was God in the flesh. But also, Jesus willingly fulfilled the mission for which he came into the world. He preached to everyone who would listen. He ministered to Jew and Gentile alike. He went wherever his Father sent him, even when his Father sent him to the cross, to die for the sins of the world. Jonah, in contrast, did what he did reluctantly. But in at least one significant way the ministry of Jesus was and is very much like the ministry of Jonah.
Jonah emerged from three days in the belly of the great fish to preach a divine message of repentance from sin. And this message, filled as it was with the convicting power of God’s Spirit, turned the hearts of the Assyrian people away from their sins and toward the Lord. Jesus emerged in his resurrection from three days in the belly of the earth likewise to preach a divine message of repentance from sin. And this message, filled as it is with the convicting power of God’s Spirit, turns our hearts away from our sins and toward the Lord.
St. Luke wrote the Gospel that bears his name, and then as a “sequel,” we might say, he wrote the book of Acts. It’s very interesting to hear Luke say in the first chapter of Acts that in his former book - that is, the Gospel - he “wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven...” The activities of Jesus, during the time before his resurrection and ascension, were simply the beginning of his preaching ministry. Now, during the time period covered by the book of Acts, and on into our own time, Jesus is continuing to fulfill his mission. Through his servants he is baptizing, when the Trinitarian words of institution for that sacrament are spoken. Through his servants he is administering his body and blood to his disciples, when the Words of Institution for the Lord’s Supper are spoken. Through his servants he is forgiving sins, and bestowing gifts, when his Gospel is announced in our midst.
No one actually witnessed the miracle of Jonah’s expulsion from the whale’s belly, except for Jonah himself, but the people of Nineveh did experience the direct benefits of that miracle. Because of that miracle Jonah was alive, and he was preaching the life-giving Word of God among them. No one actually witnessed the miracle of Christ’s resurrection either. But the church throughout all the ages has experienced the direct benefits of that miracle. One of these benefits is that Jesus is alive - here and now - preaching among us. His word is ringing forth, and will never, ever be silenced. Ministers and pastors who publicly proclaim the whole counsel of God, and baptized Christians who privately share the message of Scripture with their neighbors, are instruments of Christ. It is Christ who is fulfilling his preaching task through them. It is still his Word, and through the lips of his servants he is still proclaiming it!
And God really wants you to hear this message, from and about his Son. God wanted the people of Nineveh to hear the message that Jonah was sent to proclaim to them, and he was willing to go to any length so that they would hear it. And he wants you to hear the message that Jesus proclaims to you, through the means of grace that he has instituted for the church, and in which he still acts and speaks.
If you are here now, listening to God’s Word, be assured that it is God who has caused all things to work together providentially in such a way as to allow you to be here. Whenever and wherever the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed to you, by the instrumentality of the Lord’s servants, be assured likewise that God has caused those circumstances to fall into place in that way, and that he has done this with deliberate intent for the sake of your soul.
The details of his actions in the affairs of men are hidden from us, and usually we can only guess as to what he is doing. But when the Word of Jesus Christ is proclaimed to sinners, we know that God is definitely at work in that activity. And in hindsight we can also then know that he was at work in whatever circumstances led up to the carrying-out of that ministry.
God is not interested in trying to impress you or frighten you through spectacular outward miracles. Some modern “church growth” experts say that “signs and wonders” of the Pentecostal variety are the way to go, if you want to draw unbelievers and church shoppers into your congregation. Well, it may be true that groups which have, or claim to have, such things going on do also have large numbers of people. But what Jesus said is also still true: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.”
By God’s grace, though, the sign of Jonah has been made known to us. A supernaturally alive message has been brought to us by a supernaturally alive preacher - the Lord Jesus Christ himself. In light of Jesus’ promise that he is with us always, even to the end of the age, we are able to know in faith that “something greater than Jonah is here.” Amen.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.
24 December 2005 - Christmas Eve - Luke 2:1-20
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
“There was no place for them in the inn.” That’s an interesting expression, when you think about it. The traditional interpretation has been that Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem after many other out-of-town travelers had already gotten there, and that these people had already taken all the available rooms. This may very well be what had happened.
Another possibility, though, is that there was still an empty bed in that inn, but that Joseph and Mary were not welcome to use it. For an analogy we can think of the segregationist past of our country. Minority travelers could often expect to be told that there were no available tables or beds - that there was “no place for them” in certain restaurants and hotels - because of their race, and not because there really were no unused tables or empty beds.
Joseph and Mary were, of course, of the same ethnicity as the other people in Bethlehem. But it is not inconceivable that they were discriminated against for other reasons. Mary was obviously pregnant - very much so. An innkeeper who invited such a woman into his establishment could expect some serious inconveniences for himself and his other guests. If Mary went into labor, with everything that comes along with that, the innkeeper and his staff could expect to be kept very busy, and to have quite a bit of extra work to do. And without a doubt there would also be complaints from the other guests. Who, after all, would welcome the prospect of being in a crowded place with a strange woman who was in the process of giving birth?
If you or I were on a vacation, or traveling for business, wouldn’t we feel very uncomfortable and ill-at-ease if something like that was going on, on the other side of the wall from the room where we were staying? We would probably suggest to the proprietor that it is inappropriate for this to be happening in a place of public hostelry. We might even threaten to go elsewhere, and to take our money to another hotel.
If we can see ourselves reacting in that way to such a circumstance, then we can probably also understand how the innkeeper in Bethlehem might have anticipated such problems when he saw who was standing there at the door asking for a room: a tired and dusty man, and a very pregnant woman. There may very well have been too great a temptation for this man to say to this unusual couple, “There is no place for you here”; “there is no place for the kind of inconvenience you would bring me.” Objectively speaking, there may actually have been a room that Mary and Joseph, and Jesus, could have used. Physically and literally, there might have been a place for them in the inn. But perhaps there was no place for these people - and for the changes and challenges that they would bring - in the heart, mind, and will of the innkeeper.
Is there room for Jesus tonight in your heart, mind, and will? - in your life? - in your “inn?” Before you answer that question, I want you to think about who Jesus is, and what he does. He would not be a normal “customer,” who could be expected to coexist peacefully with all the other ideas and attitudes that reside within you. Rather, he would call upon you to “take every thought captive to obey Christ.” He would not be a quiet “guest” either, who could be expected not to stir up any disturbances or controversies. Rather, this is the person who said that if his disciples ceased to proclaim his praises, “the very stones would cry out.” An “inn” that has accommodated itself to the standards and values of the sinful and godless world would probably prefer to keep Jesus out.
When Jesus enters into the “inn” of a person’s life, he does stir up a lot of “trouble,” as the world measures trouble. When Jesus comes under a person’s “roof” to dwell there, he is going to have a lot to say, and much of what he says will cause “discomfort,” as the world measures discomfort. With Jesus, nothing will stay the same; everything will change.
But would that be such a bad thing? Listen to these words from the Book of Revelation: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’ And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’”
These words are trustworthy and true. And so are the words that the angel proclaims to you tonight: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
When Christ enters your “inn” and becomes a part of your life, he reveals to you the forgiving heart of your heavenly Father. He takes away your fear of God’s judgment against your sins, because he makes known to you instead God’s perfect love, which “casts out fear.” When you believe the good news of this great joy, the goodness of God covers and protects you, and the joy of God fills you. When you confess Christ as Lord - that is, as the eternal Lord Jehovah in human flesh - your heart and life are united to God, and the Triune God himself dwells in you. As recorded in the Gospel of John, Jesus said: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. ... If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” That would not be such a bad thing at all!
“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” How sad this is - not for Jesus and his family, but for the in-keeper. May none of us be sharers in his sadness, and in his emptiness. By God’s grace may there always be a place for Jesus in your mind, heart, and will; may there always be a place for Jesus in your life; may there always be a place for Jesus in your “inn.” Amen.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.
25 December 2005 - Christmas Day - Luke 2:1-20
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
In the familiar Christmas Gospel which we heard read a few minutes ago, we see two stories about two authoritative rulers who have their sights set on the whole inhabited world. Each of them in his own way seeks to have a powerful influence on the whole inhabited world. Each of them in his own way seeks to fill the whole inhabited world with his word and message.
The first of these rulers is Caesar Augustus, the first emperor of the Roman Empire. Before Caesar’s time the dominion of Rome was a republic. Caesar, however, ruled with unquestionable authority, and he endeavored through a combination of military conquests and intrigues to spread Roman power - his power - as far as he could. Caesar’s pretentious-sounding claim to be ruling over the whole inhabited world was not literally true, but it was a true reflection of the ambition of this man, and of the empire that he controlled. By the way, the editorialized NIV rendering, which speaks of the census decree as pertaining to “the entire Roman world,” is not warranted by the original Greek, where the qualifying term “Roman” does not actually appear.
The time of Caesar was also the time of “Pax Romana” - that is, Roman peace. But this earthly peace came at a price. Rebellions were crushed mercilessly. The national aspirations of the Jews and others were subjected to the most degrading of humiliations. Those who lived within the borders of the empire had relatively safe roads and seaways by which to travel, and a system of predictable and enforced laws by which to live. But unless they were among the small and privileged class of “citizens,” they didn’t have the full measure of their dignity or their dreams. They were subject to Rome and to Rome’s emperor in every way, and they knew it.
St. Luke tells us that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This registration, or census, was one of the mechanisms of Roman control over the population of the empire. Taxes would be assessed on the basis of the information gained by the government in this registration. The people were to be identified, their resources were to be calculated, and plans were to be made for a portion of their money to be taken from them, for the support of a government that they did not want.
And there was no way to avoid this registration. Everybody was required to uproot himself from his place of habitation, regardless of the inconvenience and loss of income that would be involved, and return to his tribal or ancestral home. Here everyone would be counted, and everyone’s personal and family data would be collected.
There were approximately forty-five million people living within the empire at this time in history - all caught up in this census-taking process. Joseph and Mary, unnoticed by just about everybody in the crowds of travelers, were among them. We can easily imagine how Joseph and Mary may have felt. As a patriotic descendant of the royal family of Israel, Joseph no doubt resented the arrogance of the idolatrous Romans, and their disrespect for his God and nation. But he was powerless to do anything about it. He was powerless, too, to do anything about the Roman control over his personal life. He was told to go, and he had to go. He was told to pay, and he had to pay.
We can also easily imagine that Mary, great with child, would have preferred to stay at home, in familiar surroundings. I doubt very much that she was eager to embark on such a long and troublesome journey at such a time in her life, just to please the Romans. But she had no choice in the matter. Caesar had spoken. Caesar had flexed his imperial power. Mary, and Joseph, needed to obey.
Do you feel like this sometimes? I don’t mean to imply that the civil government under which we live is as oppressive and cruel as the Roman empire was. By the mercy of God we live in a free society, governed by democratic principles. But in other, non-political ways, do you sometimes feel that you lack control over your own life, and that your actions and opportunities are limited and restricted by forces beyond your influence? Are there “Caesars” of one kind or another in and over your life, issuing “decrees” that compel you to do things you don’t want to do, and to go to places where you don’t want to go? Two-thousand years after the first Christmas, can you relate to what Joseph and Mary were most likely thinking back then? Can you relate to the frustrations that they and others were probably enduring? Can you sympathize with the feelings of powerlessness, and even humiliation, that they no doubt had?
My guess is that it would not take any of us very long to think of some ways in which we do feel like this. The sinful world in which we live is a world that often traps people in situations in which they do not want to be. It is a world that often throws roadblocks in the way of the dreams that we would like to pursue. We are often unhappy - sometimes deeply so - in view of the injustices that we sometimes experience, and in view of the way in which our circumstances sometimes force us down some pathways on which we really do not want to travel. But the “Caesar” of our world has spoken - whoever and whatever “Caesar” may be for us. “Caesar” has flexed his imperial power, and, in this world, we need to obey.
Remember, though, that the Christmas Gospel tells us about two authoritative rulers who have their sights set on the whole inhabited world. At the time of the first Christmas, Caesar Augustus was not the only one. The Lord God Almighty was also doing something for the sake of the whole world, and he was also issuing a decree of his own for the attention of all people.
Through the instrumentality of his angel, the Lord made known to the shepherds outside of Bethlehem a message of life and salvation that he wanted everyone in the inhabited world to hear, and that he still wants the world to hear. “And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’”
Notice the reference to “peace” among those with whom God is pleased, in the song chanted here by the angelic choir. This was not the “Pax Romana” that Caesar guaranteed and enforced - a political and military peace that was only skin deep. The peace of which the angels sang is the inner and abiding peace that comes to the human heart when it knows that it has a Savior from sin. This peace is the inner and abiding peace that comes to the human heart when it knows that all is forgiven by God, that reconciliation with God has been achieved, and that eternal life with God is a sure and certain hope. The angels sang of this peace, because this is the peace that the Holy Babe of Bethlehem brings to all whose hearts have been touched by the “good news” of his saving presence among us, and of his life, death, and resurrection for our redemption.
It’s a bit ironic that many people today, especially in the popular media, speak of “peace on earth” as the theme of Christmas in such a way as to be talking more about something like “Pax Romana” than about the peace of Christ. While no one likes to see interpersonal and international conflict, and while all responsible citizens of all countries would do what they can to minimize it, we also know that Jesus was talking about something else when he said, in John 14, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” That’s the peace among men about which the angels were singing, and which the good news of Christ brings to us.
Of course, the shepherds in the field were not the first ones to hear the message of God’s loving plans for the world. An angel - probably the same one who spoke to the shepherds - had previously told Mary: “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” In a dream Joseph had also been visited by an angel, who said to him: “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
This was the message that sustained Mary and Joseph in the midst of their hardships, and in the midst of the aggravations they experienced under the yoke of Caesar. The message of divine peace in Christ, through the forgiveness of sins, did not in itself remove people like Mary and Joseph from the difficulties they were enduring under Roman oppression, and it does not in itself take away from you the burdens that life in this world has placed upon you. As a believer in Christ you will likely still be stuck in many of the situations that you find to be so frustrating or humiliating. But what the peace of Christ does is cause you not to care so much about these problems.
The forgiveness of sins and cleansed conscience that God gives you in Christ shift your concerns and priorities to other matters. The gift of God’s Spirit living within you allows you to see and experience great joys and successes in your life of faith, in spite of the discouragements of the world, and in spite of the irritations that are still always there from the many “Caesars” all around you. In Christ, and because of Christ, these things just don’t matter all that much. In Christ, and because of Christ, other things begin to matter much more - things that God gives to us, and that “Caesar” neither gives nor takes away.
And from the perspective of your Christian faith, you will perhaps also be able to see how the Lord uses the power-plays and “decrees” of our oppressors ultimately for his own purposes. The registration decree of Caesar Augustus, for example, was clearly used by God in bringing the Holy Family to Bethlehem, so that Jesus would be born in the place where he was supposed to be born. As St. Paul reminds us in his epistle to the Romans, “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
For two thousand years now, political kingdoms have risen and fallen. Pretentious “Caesars” of all types, with their sights set on the domination of the whole inhabited world, have come and gone. And they have all brought their share of grief to the people who struggled to live under their rule.
But also for the past two thousand years, the unsilenceable message of Christ - the divine-human Savior born in Bethlehem - has also been going forth into the world. God has never stopped inviting the world, and everyone in it, to repent and believe the Gospel. God’s vision for his church has never been anything other than a vision for the whole inhabited world. And it never will be anything other than that. Jesus says, in Matthew 24, that “this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then” - only then - “the end will come.”
The message that God has for the world, and that he has for you - today! - is the same message that he had for Mary, for Joseph, and for the shepherds: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” “‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” Amen.