SERMONS - DECEMBER 2006
3 December 2006 - Advent 1 - Jeremiah 33:14-16
During the confirmation class that was held at my home this past Friday, we were discussing the Eighth Commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” One of the applications made by our catechetical textbook was that a broken promise is a violation of this commandment. And when you think of it, a broken promise is probably one of the more egregious and severe violations of God’s law against speaking falsely. When we look back on our life, it is likely that the most distressing disappointments we have experienced over the years have been on the occasions of broken promises. And the more we cared about the person who made and broke the promise, or the more we thought that he or she cared about us, the deeper and more painful was the disappointment.
On the occasion of the Babylonian invasion of Judah, and the capture of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., it seemed to many people that God had broken his promise - to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; to Moses; and to David - about the preservation of the people whom he had chosen to be his own. The northern kingdom of Israel, which had separated from the southern kingdom of Judah many years earlier, had already been destroyed by the Assyrians. Its inhabitants, who had been polluted by much idolatry, and who had for the most part turned their backs on the God of their fathers, were basically absorbed into the larger pagan world of the Assyrian empire. But Judah - the tribe of David and of the royal lineage - remained as a nation. Therefore, the Godly heritage of the patriarchs and prophets remained.
But when the Babylonians invaded the southern kingdom, wreaking havoc and destruction, and when in their victory they prepared to take the surviving people of Judah away into captivity, the faithful remnant wondered about the Lord’s promise. Would the nation survive? Would the temple someday be restored? The events of the time gave every outward indication that these things would not happen. The events of the time gave every outward indication that the Lord’s ancient promise would not be kept. Imagine the grief, the despair, and the hopelessness of those who contemplated such things about God, and about their own future, on this occasion. The physical suffering was bad enough. It was compounded by deep spiritual anguish, and by doubts about everything they had always believed.
But the Prophet Jeremiah, who spoke for God, assured the people that their Lord would keep his promise. In the verses that precede today’s Old Testament lesson, we read as follows: “Thus says the Lord: In this place of which you say, ‘It is a waste without man or beast,’ in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are desolate, without man or inhabitant or beast, there shall be heard again the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voices of those who sing, as they bring thank offerings to the house of the Lord: ‘Give thanks to the Lord of hosts, for the Lord is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!’ For I will restore the fortunes of the land as at first, says the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts: In this place that is waste, without man or beast, and in all of its cities, there shall again be habitations of shepherds resting their flocks.” The exiles would return. The temple would be rebuilt. The promised land would once again be the home of God’s people.
But then, as the prophet continued to speak the divine words that the Lord gave him to say, he went on to describe mysteries, and fulfillments, and blessings that went far beyond the more immediate concerns that were on the minds of most of the people at that time. Jeremiah’s audience was certainly glad to know that the physical nation of Israel would be restored, as in fact did happen after seventy years. But now his listeners were also made to know that the Lord’s promise would find its ultimate fulfillment in something - in someone - beyond this political restoration. There would be a new David, who would rule forever, and a new Jerusalem, which would endure forever as the dwelling place of the Lord’s holy nation.
Listen to what he says. “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” A literal rendering of the phrase translated here as “promise” would be “good word.” In Hebrew, a “promise” is a “good word.” Of course, in reaction to the sins of his people over the centuries, the Lord had often been compelled, by the requirements of his own holiness, to speak a bad word to them. A word of judgment. A word of punishment. In fact, the nation’s captivity in Babylon for seventy years was the result of a bad word - a chastening word - that the Lord has previously spoken to Judah because of its idolatry and lack of faithfulness.
And the Lord will speak a bad word to us too, whenever we need to hear it. God is not a God who only makes promises. He is also a God who makes threats. He threatens to punish those who are ungodly, unjust, unfaithful, and uncaring about the needs of others. And his threats are never idle. They are always to be taken seriously. The people of the southern kingdom were given seventy years to think about this, before God gave them another chance as a nation. And we have been given time to think about it too, since the time allotted for our repentance has not yet expired. But someday it will.
And yet, God makes it clear that he does not enjoy speaking a bad word to those who despise him, but would much prefer to speak a good word to those who turn to him and call upon him. We read, for example, in the book of Ezekiel: “As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” God had spoken a good word - he had made a promise - about the coming Savior. He first made this promise to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. He repeated it to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; to Judah; to Moses; to David; to Solomon; to the prophets; and to many others, who clung to that promise by faith.
And God was going to keep that promise, because his promises are never empty or unreliable. Jesus would emerge from the royal house of David. But unlike David, who fell into notorious and shameful sins during his lifetime, Jesus would in all things, and at all times, “execute justice and righteousness in the land.” Jesus would be the “righteous Branch” of David’s royal tree - perfect in all his thoughts, words, and deeds. Jesus would be righteous not only in his behavior, but also in his person. Indeed, David prophetically addressed him as his own Lord - as God in human, Davidic flesh. He was to be David’s son, yet he would also be one greater than David - David’s Creator, David’s Redeemer.
Another aspect of the Messianic promise that God was ultimately going to keep pertained to “Jerusalem,” where the Lord’s temple was located. Here was the Lord’s own dwelling place, and here too was the special abode of the Lord’s people. When the Messiah would come, he would transform and exalt these sacred realities. The living temple, and the new spiritual Jerusalem, are now among us in the fellowship of the church. In his First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”
Again, hear what the Lord says through Jeremiah: “In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’” Jesus in his divine-human person is righteous. Jesus in his thoughts, words, and deeds is righteous. And Jesus, in the midst of his people, bestows his righteousness upon them and credits it to them. This is the greatest aspect of the promise that God has made, and that God will keep. This is the greatest aspect of the promise that God has kept for us. Christ died under the curse of the law in our place, so that we, who by faith are a part of his church - inhabitants of the spiritual Jerusalem - are now placed under the declaration of God’s acquittal. We are righteous before God, not because of what we are in our person, but because of who Christ is in his person. We are righteous before God, not because of our thoughts, words, and deeds, but because of Christ’s thoughts, words, and deeds. When the Spirit of Christ dwells in us, as living stones in his living temple, he does make us more experientially righteous than we used to be. He does cause our thoughts, words, and deeds to be better than they used to be, and more in harmony with the will of God than they used to be. If this process is not happening, and if no inner changes are taking place, then we are not really living in the heavenly security of the new Jerusalem, but are instead unbelieving hypocrites.
But for those who do cling in faith to Christ, and to the unbroken promises of God, it is not the process that causes us to be righteous before God. Rather, the fact that we are righteous before God by being cloaked with the perfect be righteous of Christ, is what causes and energizes the process. As the Holy Spirit makes us ever more righteous in our daily Christian life, we are not becoming what we are destined to be as much as we are becoming what we already are. We are citizens of the holy city of God. And as such, we are included under the name by which that city is called: “the Lord is our righteousness.” The Lord is our righteousness. The Lord is your righteousness.
God keeps all the promises he makes. Even when it may seem that he will not be able to keep a promise, he finds a way to do so. He is God, after all. And his keeping of his promises often turns out to be greater and more wonderful than the best that we ever could have expected, even from God. He doesn’t promise us the moon - although if he did, we would eventually have it. But he has promised something much better, and much bigger. He has promised us the saving and cleansing righteousness of his Son: the Messiah of Israel, the Savior of all nations.
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’” Amen.
10 December 2006 - Advent 2 - Luke 3:1-20
I first wanted to be a pastor when I was three years old. I was so persistent in “playing church,” and in pretending to preach to an array of stuffed animals and dolls - my sister’s, not mine - that my grandmother sewed for me a custom-sized set of play vestments, which were presented to me at Christmas that year. So, after that, I would put on those vestments whenever I “preached.” But something else that I always put on at those times was a pair of plastic toy eyeglasses. I did not wear glasses back then, but I always put on a toy pair when I was pretending to be a pastor, because the actual pastor of my home church did wear glasses. I was, at that early period of my life, still in the so-called “concrete-operational” stage of child development. I did not think about wanting to be a pastor, in a more abstract or general way, but I thought about wanting to be the pastor. I was imitating the particular preacher I knew, rather than imagining the unique style or approach that I might follow, in harmony with my own gifts and personality, if I would perhaps be a preacher myself someday, for real.
In today’s text from the Gospel according to St. Luke, we are introduced to a preacher who was, shall we say, very unique in his style or approach. In St. Matthew’s parallel description we have more detail about the appearance and dietary habits of John the Baptist: “Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.” In his lifestyle, John was certainly not a conformist. And in his “pastoral style,” as it were, John was not very conventional either. St. Luke tells us: “He said...to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’” Notice that he was not speaking this way only to open blasphemers and irreligious mockers. This is the way he spoke to “prospects” or “visitors,” as we might call them - that is, to people who were coming out to hear him preach, with a desire for John to minister to them.
I doubt that the home mission board of our synod ever tells church planters to imitate the approach or methods of John the Baptist. He was a one-of-a-kind prophet, unique in the history of the world among the ministers of the Lord. He is to be remembered and revered as a courageous servant of God, and his faithfulness is to be imitated by all of us who likewise wish to honor God in our lives. But the external details of John’s lifestyle and ministry are not to be imitated by the pastors, preachers, and missionaries of today. As with John the Baptist, God does still call the ministers of our time to proclaim his Word, and to administer the sacraments that he has instituted. But he calls them to fulfill this ministry with the use of the gifts and abilities that he has given to each of them, and according to the style or approach that is natural for them and suitable for the circumstances in which they are serving. Like John the Baptist, each of us is a servant of the Lord. But each of us is not a little “John the Baptist.”
Now if this principle holds true regarding the church’s ministers - that is, men who are serving in essentially the same vocation as John the Baptist (albeit without John’s unique prophetic gifts and personal idiosyncrasies) - then it is certainly true also in regard to believers in general, who are not necessarily called to a public church office. Even the people who were led to repent of their sins under John’s ministry, and who were renewed spiritually by the forgiveness they received through John’s baptism, were not called by God to begin to imitate the prophet’s manner of living. They were, instead, called by God to live out their new faith daily in their own occupations, and to show forth the genuineness of their repentance in the way they treated others according to their own station in life. John said: “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” And the people who had received John’s baptism were to bear these fruits according to what was proper and suitable for the regular circumstances of their own life, and according to the unique gifts and abilities that God was nurturing within them.
Regardless of how much they admired John and appreciated the ministry that he had carried out for them, they were not to copy the Baptist’s mannerisms and methods. Each person had his own calling from God. John certainly had his calling, which he discharged faithfully and boldly for the spiritual benefit of the people of Judea, as he helped them to prepare their hearts for the coming of the Messiah. But the people of Judea who responded to John’s ministry had their own callings too. These callings were different from John’s. But they were no less important, and no less pleasing to God, as long as they were fulfilled in an ethical way, motivated by a God-given desire to serve others through them.
John did not call upon those who trusted in the promise of the coming Messiah to change jobs, and to take on an overtly “religious” or “spiritual” occupation as a sign of the earnestness and sincerity of their faith. Rather, any honorable occupation could and would become “religious” and “spiritual,” in an inner sense, when the person who worked in the occupation would be governed in his attitudes and actions by his love for God, and by the Word of God.
This is the way St. Luke describes the teaching of John the Baptist on this point, in regard to two particular occupations that in his day had pretty bad reputations among the people of Judea: “Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Collect no more than you are authorized to do.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.’”
Even the job of a tax collector could be a godly calling, if the tax collector himself was a godly man. Even the job of a soldier could be a godly calling, if the soldier himself was a godly man. Believers in these occupations were told by John to remain what they were. But they were also told not to retain their old corrupt way of dealing with people from within these positions. Instead of abusing the authority of their offices for their own gain, they were to use them for service to others, in the name of God and to the glory of God.
This is the way it is for us as well. There may be people we can think of whom we admire very much because of their Christian faith and witness. We no doubt have particularly fold memories of those pastors who played a special role in our lives at pivotal times in our spiritual pilgrimage: when we were brought to faith; when we were confirmed; or when we were guided by God’s Word through a unique time of personal testing or spiritual renewal. We should be thankful for the men who faithfully carried out the ministry of the Lord among us at various times in our life, and who brought to us the Lord’s saving message of forgiveness and grace in Jesus Christ. And we should imitate their faith, as we, with them, cling to the promises of the Gospel.
But at the same time, as we have grown in faith under the ministry of such men, we have also grown into what we are called to be in Christ. As disciples of the Lord, living within and under the ministry of Word and sacrament in the fellowship of his church, we are shaped and molded by the Lord into the kind of people the Lord wants each of us to be. We are prepared for the avenues of service on which the Lord wants each of us to travel. We are strengthened in the gifts and abilities that the Lord knows we will need, for the unique calling in life that he issues to each of us.
We are not to copy or imitate someone else’s calling. But we ask the Lord to guide us to see and embrace our own calling. We are not, in a superficial manner, to copy the style or approach of others. But we ask the Lord to guide us in the development of our own Christian character, and to help us to grow into ways of carrying out our God-given duties that are natural and appropriate for each of us. May the Lord make each of us to be faithful to what we are supposed to be and do in him. May the Lord make each of us to be genuine, reflecting the uniqueness of who we are as God’s beloved children, in what we are supposed to be and do in him.
As Christians, we do each have our own individual calling from God. But we do not each have our own individual Savior. There is one Lord, one faith, one Baptism. We have all inherited the same sinful nature from the same common ancestors, but the sins of each of us have also been atoned for by the same supreme sacrifice. The everlasting life that has been bestowed on each of us has been guaranteed by the same glorious resurrection. We are alike in knowing the only-begotten Son of God as our one and only Redeemer. We share together in the same saving grace that flows to us all from our risen and ascended Lord.
John the Baptist called all people - high and low, rich and poor, famous and obscure - to repent of their sins, and to receive the remission of their sins through the baptism that God sent him to administer. We, too, have all been called to repent of our sins, and to receive the remission of our sins in the same way. In the Nicene Creed we all “acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins.” In this Baptism which we share, and in the common faith that our common Baptism engenders in us, we are brought together in one spiritual household, as members of the Lord’s one family. We are, in these very important ways, the same.
And it is the one Gospel that we all believe that likewise causes each of us to have the same underlying motivation in our pursuit of our respective callings. The callings are different, and the personalities of each of us as we fulfill our callings are different. But the reason why we do what we do, insofar as we are Christians, is the same. We love others because we seek thereby to show our love for God. And we love God because he first loved us. We serve others because we seek thereby to show our desire to serve God. And we serve God because he first served us - in the person of Jesus giving his own life as a ransom for many.
Most of us do not have an overtly “religious” or “spiritual” occupation. But in a deeper sense all of us do have a “religious” or “spiritual” occupation, because in Christ we have been made to know that our individual earthly occupations are callings from God, in which we have been given an opportunity to bear the fruits of faith to his glory. We don’t all have the same personality, or the same style, as we do what we do. But in Christ we are all growing into an ever more genuine expression of the person he has created each of us to be. Amen.
17 December 2006 - Advent 3 - Zephaniah 3:9-17
Hear with me the words of the prophet Zephaniah. Thus says the Lord: “For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord. From beyond the rivers of Cush my worshipers, the daughter of my dispersed ones, shall bring my offering. On that day you shall not be put to shame because of the deeds by which you have rebelled against me... They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord, those who are left in Israel; they shall do no injustice and speak no lies, nor shall there be found in their mouth a deceitful tongue. ... Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: ‘Fear not, O Zion... The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.’”
The prophet Zephaniah, in the verses that precede today’s text, had condemned the people and rulers of the kingdom of Judah for their idolatry; for their shameful desire to imitate the practices of the pagan nations that surrounded them; and for their rebellion against the Word and ways of the Lord. Even though they had the unchanging written Scriptures, and had heard the testimony of many prophets throughout their history, the people of Judah as a whole had not been willing to remain faithful to the God who had brought their fathers up out of the land of Egypt, and had made them a nation. They had not resisted the temptation to embrace the “popular” yet false religions of their neighbors. And even those who had not actively participated in these sins were still accountable, because they hadn’t done very much to prevent others from doing what they did.
If you can think of an instance when you were disappointed or annoyed by the actions of a person who actually didn’t know any better, and if you can think of another instance when you were disappointed or annoyed by the actions of a person who did know better, at which individual did you become more angry? No doubt the one who knew better, but who decided to go ahead and do what he knew he should not do anyway. Well, that’s similar to the Lord’s disgust at the people of Judah. They knew better. With everything that God had done over the centuries to teach them and guide them, they were without excuse. But they did what they knew was wrong anyway. So, we are not surprised that the Lord made it known to them that he had finally had enough, and that he declared through his prophet that a divine chastening would come upon them. And, he also told them to expect suffering at the hands of their enemies. After all, when they ran away from the Lord, they ran away from the Lord’s protection too. So, not only would they be judged by a holy God, but they would also be cruelly attacked and abused by the hostile empires that surrounded them.
And what about us? What about you? How often have you done something that you knew was wrong - contrary to the Ten Commandments - but you did it anyway? We all know better, yet we have all done things that we knew we should not do. As people today think, speak, and act in disobedience to the Law of God, they are, like the people of ancient Judah, thereby inviting God’s judgment upon them. They are, like the people of Ancient Judah, in effect running away from God’s protection into the clutches of their enemies.
But in the section of Zephaniah’s prophesy that we are considering today, the prophet speaks divine words of hope and forgiveness to the people of Judah - and to us. There is a way back to God’s fellowship and protection. There is always a way back. It is the way of repentance and faith. As undeserving of another chance as the people of Judah may have been, they were going to get another chance anyway - not because of who they were, but because of who God is. As much as God would be within his rights to cut them off, and start over from scratch with another nation, that’s not what he was going to do. And that’s not what he is going to do with you.
Listen to the words of the Lord: “For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord. From beyond the rivers of Cush my worshipers, the daughter of my dispersed ones, shall bring my offering. On that day you shall not be put to shame because of the deeds by which you have rebelled against me...” Are you sometimes not sure what words to use to tell God what you’re feeling - to tell him that you’re sorry for your failures and compromises, and to ask him for his forgiveness and help? Don’t worry. He himself will show you how to call upon him. By his Spirit he will change your speech to a pure speech, teaching you how to pray, how to ask for what you need from the Lord, and how to confess him before others.
The Holy Scriptures are the chief tool he uses to do this. They are his Word to us, and they also give us words that we can then speak back to God, with the confidence that we are saying things that are pleasing to him. God speaks to us his word of pardon and restoration, lifting from us his anger against us, and lifting from us our shame before him. And he then teaches us the words of joyful praise that we use to bring him an offering of thanksgiving in response.
Listen again: “They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord, those who are left in Israel; they shall do no injustice and speak no lies, nor shall there be found in their mouth a deceitful tongue.” In the world in which we live, sadly, we all know what a “refugee” is. It is a person who flees from life-threatening danger to a safe and protected place. And God invites us, as we are threatened by the sinful world, our own sinful flesh, and the devil, to find refuge in his name. Notice that he doesn’t simply tell us to find refuge in religion, or in spirituality, or even in “God” in a generic sense. We can’t find true security simply in the idea that there is a God, or some kind of higher power, who is or might be capable of protecting us. Rather, the Lord invites us to flee for protection to his name. He has made himself known to us - ultimately and chiefly in the sending forth of his Son Jesus Christ. He has established a covenant with us in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. And most concretely and personally, he has placed his name upon us in our Baptism, marking us as his own.
Sometimes, literal refugees who are on the move in troubled countries don’t really know where they are headed. They just want to go in the opposite direction from the turmoil. But as God’s Baptized people, we know exactly where we are headed when in faith we seek refuge in the name of the Lord. We are continuously invited by the open hands of our crucified Savior to seek refuge under the perfect righteousness that he spreads out over us, and with which he clothes us. He beckons us to return to him, again and again, as he calls out to us, and comes to us, in his Gospel. And under the protection of Christ, as we cling to him in joyful faith, the power of sin will not destroy us or have the mastery over us. Our loving Lord guards and keeps us in the shadow of his cross.
God’s message through Zephaniah continues: “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies.” Humanity’s sinfulness places us under God’s judgment, and provokes his anger. But when God forgives us for the sake of Christ, he takes away these judgments. They are lifted. The judgments were actually there. Humanity’s sin - our sin - was and is an offense to the Lord’s holiness. The point here is not that God’s judgments are only an illusion, and that God is actually a very indulgent and benign being who is no threat to anyone. That’s not the point, because that’s not true! Rather, the point is that his judgments - his very real judgments - have been lifted from us in the Lord’s mercy.
When God’s Son went to the cross as our substitute, he drew those judgments away from us and onto himself. In Christ they are drawn away from us even now. And in Christ we are also restored to the Lord’s protection. Our enemies - the dark powers and evil principalities - cannot get at us when Jesus envelops us and brings us into his sheepfold, and when we likewise cling to him. By the power of God’s Word, which we believe, these enemies are cleared away from our life, and our life in Christ is filled instead with rejoicing and exultation.
The prophet continues: “The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: ‘Fear not, O Zion... The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.’” Do you envision God as a distant being, seated on a glorious throne, looking down from afar on the smallness of our world and on the smallness of our own lives? Well, in a certain sense he is like that. He is glorious and majestic, all-knowing and all-powerful. But he is also right here with us, in our very midst. Through the miracle of the incarnation, God became a man, with a real body and real blood. He came into our world in order to accomplish humanity’s salvation in his perfect life, his innocent death, and his victorious resurrection. And, especially through the miracle of the Lord’s Supper, the divine-human Savior is still intimately present among us today, with his body and blood, to apply to his people the blessings of his salvation. He comes now to those who, in repentance, are ready to meet him, and to those who with the eyes and ears of faith are able to see and hear him.
The idea that God is right here, seeing everything and knowing everything, could be a frightening idea. If we love sin rather than God, then it’s not such a pleasing thought to know that God is around watching and listening to everything. But if our hearts and minds have been transformed by God’s love in Christ so that we are seeking his help in overcoming sin and the suffering it brings, then it is a great joy to know that he is right here, wherever his Word and sacrament are, always accessible to us: to forgive, to heal, to restore, to renew. When by his grace we are growing in our love for the things that he loves, then it is a glad and hopeful thing to know that he is with us in this journey, and will not abandon us.
And God himself is utterly delighted to be with us, his children. He rejoices over us with gladness and exults over us with loud singing. Truly, in the Words of his Gospel he sings his life and peace into us, and surrounds us with the joyous strains of his love for those whom his Son has redeemed.
“For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord. From beyond the rivers of Cush my worshipers, the daughter of my dispersed ones, shall bring my offering. On that day you shall not be put to shame because of the deeds by which you have rebelled against me... They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord, those who are left in Israel; they shall do no injustice and speak no lies, nor shall there be found in their mouth a deceitful tongue. ... Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: ‘Fear not, O Zion... The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.’” Amen.
24 December 2006 - Advent 4 - Luke 1:39-56
In the Formula of Concord, one of the Confessions of our church, we declare that “we believe, teach, and confess that Mary did not conceive and give birth to a child who was merely, purely, simply human, but she gave birth to the true Son of God. Therefore, she is rightly called and truly is the Mother of God.” In the history of the human race, this occurrence is unique, to say the least. No one before the time of the Virgin Mary ever experienced anything like this, and such an event will not be repeated in the future. The eternal God - the Second Person of the Holy Trinity - became a man only once, and he remains such at the right hand of the Father on high. He received from his mother the nature according to which he is our true human brother, and in which he suffered and died for our redemption. The Virgin Mary therefore holds an unequaled place of honor in sacred history. Of all the saints of the past, her name is the only one that we repeat every Sunday, in our weekly recitation of the Creed. So, we do indeed think and speak about the Virgin Mary on a regular basis, and acknowledge her special standing among God’s people.
The Apology of the Augsburg Confession states that “the blessed Mary...is worthy of the highest honor,” and that she “wants us to consider and follow her example.” We can, I suppose, easily appreciate the statement that she is worthy of the highest honor. But how, practically speaking, can we consider and follow her example? None of us has been called upon to give birth to the Messiah. We cannot follow her example in this respect. In becoming the mother of God she was not setting an example for others to imitate, but she was experiencing something totally unique and unrepeatable. In what way, then, does she set an example for us, in the things that we are called to do?
Today’s text from St. Luke’s Gospel tells us. Elizabeth speaks these words to Mary as she meets her: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! ... And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” We are familiar with the story of what had happened to Mary. The angel Gabriel appeared to her, announcing that she would be the mother of the Savior. Her pregnancy would be miraculous, since her son, Jesus, would have no human father. But her pregnancy would be real. She was indeed going to be the “mother of God,” as the ancient church put it, and as the Confessions of our church also affirm. God would draw a true human nature from her humanity, and unite it to himself in the personal union in Christ. She would not be merely a surrogate mother, but the real human mother of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.
By faith Mary accepted this message and this blessing from God, believing that it was true, and that it would be so. She said to the angel, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” God did not bring about the human conception of his Son through any kind of coercive or forceful means. But, in the gentle and faith-creating words that he brought to Mary through the angel, he graciously invited her to receive this gift. The Holy Spirit worked through these words to give Mary the humble and joyful desire to accept what God was giving, and the Holy Spirit likewise caused within her the miraculous incarnation of which the angel was speaking. “Let it be to me according to your word,” she said. And now, as Mary approaches her relative Elizabeth, the divine-human Savior of the world - her own Savior - truly was living within her by the Lord’s power and grace.
God has not invited us to believe anything like this about ourselves. There will be no more virgin births of additional Persons of the Holy Trinity in human flesh. One incarnation is all that God’s plan for our salvation included and needed. But God does announce to us some other important things about Christ: about where he is, and about where he wants to be. And God want us to accept and embrace as true the wonderful things that he tells us. Through the proclamation of the angelic messenger whom God sent to Mary, he made know to her his plan to work a miracle in her life. Through the proclamation of the human messengers - the pastors and preachers - whom God sends to us today, he makes known to us his plan to work a miracle in our lives.
To those who are alienated from God because of their sins, God offers and bestows in his Word the gift of forgiveness and reconciliation. To those who are spiritually dead, without a genuine relationship with God, God offers and bestows in his Word a new spiritual nature and the gift of his own indwelling.
In a natural way Christ dwelled within his pregnant mother for nine months. In a supernatural way he dwelled within his faithful and believing mother for her whole life. And God wants to dwell within us in this way too. He invites us to turn away from a life of sin and to be turned by his grace to a life of faith. He invites us to turn from the living death that is humanity’s existence without God, and to be turned to a new beginning, a new life that lasts forever. He wants us in repentance to acknowledge the emptiness of a life without Christ, and to be filled instead with Christ. God offers all these miraculous blessings to us in the Gospel of his Son Jesus Christ. And the Holy Spirit works through the Gospel to instill within us a desire to receive what he offers.
Dear friends, let us not be like the unbelieving inhabitants of Jerusalem in New Testament times, who rejected the Messiah and the blessings of his salvation, to whom St. Stephen was forced to say: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit.” Let us not harden ourselves against the invitation of the Lord. Instead, let us in faith receive what God offers and gives to us, just as the Virgin Mary received what God offered and gave to her. By the grace of God, let it be that the words which were spoken truthfully of Mary can be spoken truthfully also of us: “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
In his Gospel, St. John says regarding Christ: “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” St Peter encourages us in this way in his first epistle: “love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” And St. Paul, in his epistle to the Romans, writes: “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.”
This is how the Holy Scriptures describe those on whom the Lord has bestowed the gift of his indwelling Son, and the gift of the new birth by his Spirit. This is how the Holy Scriptures describe you, as you believe the Lord’s promise to save you from the guilt and power of sin.
Listen also to the great fourth-century church Father St. Ambrose, who wrote: “[Elizabeth] says, ‘blessed is she who believed.’ But you also are blessed who have heard and believed; for a soul which has believed has both conceived and bears the Word of God and declares his works. Let the soul of Mary be in each [of us], so that it magnifies the Lord; let the spirit of Mary be in each [of us], so that it rejoices in God.”
In faith, following the example of the Virgin Mary’s faith, let us join in the words of her song: “for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.” In faith, as we prepare for the celebration of our Lord’s nativity, let us also join in the prayer of Charles Wesley, embodied in one of his most famous and beloved hymns:
Hail, the heavenly Prince of Peace! Hail, the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings, Risen with healing in his wings.
Mild He lays his glory by, Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth; Born to give them second birth.
Come, Desire of nations, come, Fix in us thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conquering seed, Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Now display thy saving power, Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join Thine to ours, and ours to thine.
Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface; Stamp Thy image in its place.
Second Adam from above, Reinstate us in thy love.
Let us Thee, tho’ lost, regain, Thee, the life, the inner Man:
O! to all thyself impart, Formed in each believing heart. Amen.
24 December 2006 - Christmas Eve - Luke 2:8-20
“And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.” This is how the Gospel writer describes the reaction of the shepherds to the appearance of an angel from heaven on that first Christmas Eve so long ago. Another English translation says that they were “terrified.” Literally, the original text says that they “feared a great fear.” We might wonder, why were the shepherds so scared by this occurrence? Why would one angelic visitor throw them into such a state of fright?
Well, quite simply, for the same reason why any of us would be frightened if this sort of thing happened to us: because of our human sin, and because of the weakness and shame that come along with it. St. Paul tells us in his epistle to the Romans that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The human race - to which we all belong - is a fallen race. In our natural state - the state in which we come into this world - we are not in fellowship with God, and are instead, from the time of our conception and birth, on a pathway away from God. So, if we, in this natural condition, would be exposed in a direct way to the glory of God - as the shepherds were when an angel from heaven appeared to them - then we, too, would be frightened. We too would “fear a great fear.”
If you don’t think that this would be your reaction, then you are underestimating either your own moral frailty, or the Lord’s profound holiness, or both. For people who are as unholy and corrupted as we are, the holiness and majesty of God would indeed overwhelm us. In our fallen state we would not be able to take it.
But the angel did not leave the shepherds in their fear. He spoke words that were so filled with spiritual comfort and security that they removed this fear from the shepherds’ hearts, and replaced it with the boldness and joy of faith. What were these words?
The angel began by saying, “fear not.” Now, telling a frightened person not to be afraid would not really have the effect of diminishing the person’s fear, unless a reason would be given as to why he should no longer be afraid. A soldier on a battlefield, for example, facing a determined and well-armed foe, will be afraid of what is coming. If one of his comrades tells him, “do not be afraid,” he will still be afraid, if he looks across the battlefield and sees that the enemy is still there, preparing for an attack. But if a comrade gives him a reason not to be afraid; if he says, “do not be afraid, because the enemy is retreating,” and if it turns out to be true, then and only then will the soldier’s fear subside. The statement, “do not be afraid,’ all by itself, will not do the trick.
But in the case of the angel, this statement was not all by itself. The angel gave the shepherds a reason why they should no longer be afraid of the divine glory and holiness that were reflected in his appearance to them. He said, “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.”
The Savior who had been born was Christ the Lord - the Lord of glory, the eternal God himself come down to earth. But he had come in humility, in a way that would not be likely to frighten anyone. The glory and majesty of Christ was hidden within the humble form of his humanity, which he received from his virgin mother. God became one of us that night in Bethlehem, so that we could approach him without fear, and without being repelled or undone by a strong and direct dose of his divine glory.
But that’s not the whole story. In fact, that’s just the beginning of the story of why the shepherds - and we - no longer need to be afraid of the glory and holiness of God. Let’s listen to the whole passage of St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans from which we already quoted in part: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Christ Jesus came among us in humility in order to deliver our race from sin, and from the weakness and shame that come along with it. This would be accomplished for us by his perfect life, his innocent death, and his victorious resurrection.
Jesus, as a perfect man, would offer his life as a perfect substitute for all men under the judgment of his own law. He would thereby remove from us the curse of the law by absorbing that curse into himself. He would thereby remove from us the shame of our sin by washing our sins away with the shedding of his own blood. And in his resurrection, God’s pardon and forgiveness in Christ would be announced to the world. As we cling to Christ in faith, his death is our death to sin. And in his rising again, we rise with him, and look forward to our own bodily resurrection on the last day.
In all of this - in the promise and in the fulfillment - God is showing us his merciful, Fatherly heart. His unmeasurable love is made manifest to us. And as St. John tells us in his first epistle, “perfect love casts out fear.” This is why the angel is able to say to the shepherds, and why he does say to them, “fear not.” And this is why the message of the angel is a message also for you.
Because of your sin, and everything that sin has done to you, you should be afraid of the holiness and glory of God. But because of Christ’s work of redemption, for which he came into this world, your sin is forgiven - completely forgiven. And with this forgiveness, fear is “cast out” of your heart by the perfect love that your heavenly Father has toward you in Christ.
On Christmas Eve, and on every evening and day of the year, the message of the angel to you is the same message that he proclaimed to the shepherds all those years ago. You, too, are invited, today and every day, to believe in your Savior, to find peace in his forgiveness, and to be delivered from your fear by the love that God makes known to you in the good news of his Son’s redemption. “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.” Amen.
31 December 2006 - Christmas 1 - Luke 2:22-40
The song of Simeon, called in Latin the Nunc Dimittis, is very familiar to us. We chant this song as a part of our regular Communion service. But as with other familiar things, it can be beneficial for us to reflect for a few minutes on the significance of these oft-repeated words. That’s what we will now do.
Simeon uttered his song on the occasion of his encounter with the Holy Family in the Temple, as today’s Gospel recounts. St. Luke tells us that Simeon “was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” We get the impression that he spent a lot of time at or near the Temple, waiting for the day when the Holy Spirit would guide him to the specific person for whom he was waiting in faith.
Much to Simeon’s joy, that day came when Mary and Joseph traveled to Jerusalem with Jesus to fulfill two important obligations of the ceremonial law: the purification of Mary, which was necessary for all mothers after a certain amount of time had passed following the delivery of a child; and the dedication of Jesus, who, as a male first-born child, was considered as belonging to the Lord in a very special way.
When Simeon took the baby Jesus in his arms, he broke out into his short song - comprised of only one sentence. But this song captured and reflected a lot of what was going on in Simeon’s life. He said, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”
God had promised Simeon that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Simeon’s statement about his departing in peace has therefore often been taken as an allusion to his death. Because Simeon had now seen the Messiah - had held him in his arms, and embraced him - he is ready to die. His conscience is at peace. His earthly life has found its fulfillment, since God’s word to him concerning his Savior, and his salvation, has found its fulfillment.
Christian artists through the centuries have usually pictured Simeon as an old man, with gray hair and a long gray beard. We, too, may naturally assume that it must have been so, since we tend to operate with the idea that a human life has not really been fulfilled, or been lived out to its full purpose, unless it has been lived out for many years.
In that regard, my own mind is drawn to the memory of my maternal grandmother’s passing in 2003, at the age of 95. Her life had been long and fruitful. She had told me on one occasion that she would consider her life to have been complete if she could live long enough to see her grandchildren grow up to get married and start their own families. She did live to see that, and much more as well. And so, when the time came for her to pass from this world, she was ready, and so were we. Certainly her loved ones were saddened by her passing, but the members of her family had a sense that her time had come. And because she trusted in Christ as her Savior, and had been regularly comforted with his Word and sacrament up until the time of her death, she, like Simeon, could say in faith that the Lord was now letting her depart in peace, according to his word.
But in regard to Simeon, and his willingness to depart in peace according to the Lord’s word, there is actually nothing in the inspired text to indicate that he was an old man. We usually assume so, but there is no reason why we should. If Simeon was still a relatively young man, he would still have been able to say what he said on this occasion. As a believer in the Lord’s promises, he was ready to depart at any time in which the Lord would have called him.
This makes me think of my paternal grandfather’s death in 1976, when he was only 58 years old. He still had children to raise - my father’s younger siblings. His aged father - my great-grandfather - whose only child my grandfather was, still needed the kind of care that the Fourth Commandment enjoins on all children. There were still many things that my grandfather could have accomplished in life, and that he wanted to accomplish. But it was not to be. His life was cut short: incomplete, unfulfilled. It seemed so unfair. But my grandfather was a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ. He confessed Christ as his Savior from sin, death, and the devil. His life in Christ, as he departed from this world, had indeed found its fulfillment. He, too, as a child of God, was ready to depart in peace.
On a certain day about two years after my grandfather passed away, my two-year-old cousin began to feel a little sick. It didn’t appear to be too serious, but my aunt let him sleep with her in her bed that night. It seemed to be comforting and reassuring for him to be cuddled up with his loving mother, as they fell asleep together. And that’s where and how he died, from a congenital problem that nobody knew about. I think we would all react to something like this in a similar way, perceiving that his life, coming to an end so tragically and so early, was an unfulfilled life. His earthly life was over before it really got started.
But my cousin had been baptized. God had claimed him as his own, and had placed his sacred name upon him - the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. He was an adopted child of his heavenly Father. His sin was forgiven by his Savior. He had been born again of water and the Spirit. He, too, in his own way, would have been able to join in the song of Simeon: “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”
I’m quite certain that these three vignettes from my own family history have parallels for all of you, as you think of relatives and friends who have lived and died in similar circumstances. When people pass away at an advanced age, we tend to think that it is understandable and even acceptable. When someone dies in middle age, we tend to ponder with sadness all that could yet have been accomplished, while also acknowledging that at least some of life’s joys and challenges were experienced by the person. But when a small child dies, none of us are really able to accept it at an emotional level, or to think that such a small one was actually ready to go. We cannot help but to grieve over the ending of a life that was, it would seem, incomplete, unfulfilled, and lacking in so much that could have been and should have been.
But the truth of the matter - the comforting and liberating truth - is that those who know Christ, and are known by him, are always ready to depart. Even when they may not feel ready at an emotional level, and even when there might be so much more that they would have wanted to accomplish, they are, in faith, ready. Their readiness to depart does not come from an accumulation of years on this earth, or from an accumulation of life experiences or accomplishments. Their readiness comes, ultimately, from what Simeon sang about in his song.
Those who have seen the Lord’s salvation in the person and work of Jesus Christ, which God prepared in the presence of all peoples and for the benefit of all peoples, are ready. Those who have been partakers in faith of the saving means of grace - the Gospel in Word and sacrament - are ready. Those who have been adopted into God’s family, whose sins have been washed away, and who have been given a new life in Christ, are ready.
And every time you sing Simeon’s song, you are confessing that you, by God’s grace, are ready to depart in peace, if that would be the Lord’s will for you. Even if your faith is weak, and even if it would be a difficult test of your faith to face a terminal illness or a deadly injury, God has made you ready, deep down, for something like this. He has made you ready by giving you the gift of his Son, and by allowing you to hold his Son, and embrace him, through your faith in the Gospel.
God’s timing in matters of life and death is often not the same as our timing. God’s ways and purposes are mysterious to us - although we do know, as an article of faith, that his ways are always ultimately good, because he is good. What would seem to us like a premature death may be a merciful intervention, which preserves us from things that would have happened in later years that would have caused us great spiritual harm. What would seem to us like a life that has not yet reached its fulfillment may, in God’s eyes, be a very complete life, because of the greater value that he puts on the humble and almost unnoticeable accomplishments of young and humble people.
It truly is most fitting for us to sing the song of Simeon as our response to the reception of the Lord’s Supper. As we receive the blessed bread and wine into our mouths, and thereby partake of the body and blood of Christ, we are experiencing at the Lord’s altar something very much like the experience of Simeon, who took the baby Jesus into his arms at the Temple in Jerusalem. As we believe Jesus when he says, “This is my body, which is given for you; this cup is the New Testament in my blood, shed for you for the remission of sins,” God’s consoling word is giving us peace - a peace that removes from us even the fear of death.
And of course, when you are ready for death, you are also ready for life. You are ready to enjoy each day for its own value, and not just as a stepping stone to the future. You are ready to embrace each opportunity to serve God and your neighbor that comes your way. Even though you may not have additional opportunities for service in the future, that’s not a problem, because the opportunities of today are opportunities that you can use today, to God’s glory.
Simeon may have been a very old man. He may have been a very young man. He may have been a middle aged man. But none of that really mattered for his song of faith to be true. And none of that really matters for us either. God has given us a Savior. In the Lord’s mercy we have what we need. Our lives are now filled with the eternal meaning and purpose that God had bestowed on them in his Word and sacraments. If it is the Lord’s will, we are ready, in Christ, to live for 70 or 80 more years. If it is the Lord’s will, we are ready, in Christ, to pass to the next world tomorrow, or later today. “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” Amen.