SERMONS - DECEMBER 2008
14 December 2008 - Advent 3 - Isaiah 61:1-4
Marketers in America know how to sell products. They know what kind of advertising will appeal to consumers. And one of the oldest tricks in the marketing book is to describe a product as “new.”
In the world of marketing and advertising, the assumption is that nobody wants to stay with something that is old. Old is bad. New is good.
We want new clothes. A new house. A new computer. A new television.
Who wants to stay behind the wheel of an old jalopy, belching smoke, and with pieces falling off onto the road? Trade it in, and drive away with a new car!
We don’t want to look back to what is old. We want to look ahead to what is new.
Forget about old things. Put them out of your mind. Think about new things.
And, in some very important ways, this assumption about the badness of what is old, and the goodness of what is new, holds true also in the realm of our spiritual life.
The Bible is full of examples in which the sin and emptiness of a life without God is described as that which is “old.” And the saving grace of God, and all the benefits that this grace brings, are described as that which is “new.”
For example, St. Paul writes in his First Epistle to the Corinthians: “Cleanse out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.”
In his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, he says this: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
As Christians, we are tired of our old sins, and we want to escape from the harm and unhappiness that those old sins have caused. We want a new beginning with Christ.
In faith we seek to embrace these words of Jesus: “Behold, I am making all things new.” Old is bad. New is good.
Sometimes, though, in our earthly life, old is not bad. For example, it can be an exciting and enjoyable thing when an antique auto show is in town.
I know that I am fascinated at those times, when restored cars that are several decades old - and that are identified by their special license plates - pass me on the highway. Sometimes old is good.
And old is good in other ways too. Old friends are golden, we are told. We can trust an old friend.
We have sentimental attachments also to old places. We feel connected - in a good way - to the towns and regions where we grew up. In certain ways they made us who we are, and they remind us of who we are now.
When a New York Yankees baseball game is on TV, I am more inclined to watch than with other teams. The Yankees are my team. When I was a boy I went to Yankee Stadium.
That was a good and innocent time. Those old memories are good memories. Old is good.
And in regard to the promises of God, and the gifts of God, old is sometimes good too. In today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus is speaking.
He is speaking about what he will do when he comes to bring salvation to Israel, and to the world. He speaks, symbolically and prophetically, about the people who will be delivered from bondage and misery by his grace, and about what they will be able to do when his kingdom comes to them.
He makes promises. And some of the promises he makes are about old things: “They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.”
The old dwelling place of God’s people - the holy city of Jerusalem - was a precious place. God had given it to them. It was a place where God’s own temple could be found, where the Lord established peace and reconciliation with his people.
The Lord’s Holy City was a place where God had made many promises to them. And it was a place where God was going to keep and fulfill those promises.
But, according to the imagery of today’s text, this old city has been destroyed. It lay in ruins. This picks up on the devastation that actually did occur in history, when the Babylonians carried the southern kingdom of Judah away into a seventy-year exile.
In such a condition, would Jerusalem still represent the joyful hopes of God’s people? Would it not now represent their failures, and their punishment ? Their subjugation and humiliation? Their hopelessness?
Doesn’t this dilapidated and ruined old city now represent the alienation from God that their rebellion and disobedience have brought about? Who would want to go back to that sad place? To that old place?
Well, Jesus promises that as our Savior and Redeemer, he is going to bring us back to those ancient dwellings. Jesus promises that the forgiveness and healing that he bestows on us will lead us home, and that in his strength we will rebuild what was destroyed, and restore what was lost.
This promise applies to us at various levels.
The original harmony and righteousness that our first parents enjoyed in Paradise was lost because of sin. Adam and Eve had been created in the image and likeness of God himself.
But when they rebelled against God - when they betrayed God’s trust - they were cast out. In them, humanity was cast out - exiled from the Garden of Eden.
But now, in Christ, humanity is restored to the Paradise of old. The Lord Jesus, in his divine-human perfection, restores the image of God to humanity. And those humans in whom Christ now dwells have that image restored in them.
St. Paul says: “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.”
Through the Word of God - as we hear it, believe it, and meditate on it - our heavenly Father walks with us in the cool of the day. He pledges that he will never leave us nor forsake us.
Also, in Old Testament history, the kingdom of Israel - in particular the northern tribes - turned their backs on the God of their fathers. They turned their backs on the dynasty of David, whom God had designated as the earthly rulers of his people.
In their idolatry they destroyed their relationship with God. Through the invasion and depredations of the armies of the Assyrian empire, they were destroyed as a people, and were dispersed among the pagan nations.
But this old tragedy is now reversed through the “great commission,” by which the Messianic Son of David brings his Gospel of forgiveness and restoration to all nations. These are the very nations into which the northern tribes of Israel had been absorbed so many centuries ago.
God now makes disciples of those nations, and draws his elect from those nations. In the fellowship of the church - in which God is establishing a reunited and holy people - that old division is healed.
As we read in the prophet Isaiah: “He will raise a signal for the nations, and will assemble the banished of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.”
And, finally, it may very well be the case that you, as an individual, have fallen away from your first love. You have not remained firmly and resolutely in the grace of your baptism, by daily repentance and faith.
You have, as it were, drifted away from the church of Christ, in your heart if not in your body. And perhaps in both heart and body.
That old zeal - that old innocence - has been lost. The idealism and purity of the spiritual life of earlier and better times has now been polluted, by the inroads of the world, the flesh, and the devil.
But Jesus restores what has been lost. He rebuilds what has crumbled. When he forgives you for those shortcomings and those failures, and washes away the stain of your sin, the ancient ruins are built up, and the former devastations are raised up.
When Jesus sends his life-giving Spirit into your mind and heart, the ruined cities are repaired. And, the devastations of many generations are addressed by the Gospel too.
It’s true, of course, that the power of sin is not greater than the power of God. But the power of sin is great enough to bring much destruction and pain to our lives, and to our relationships.
All families, to one degree or another, have been harmed by sin. And sometimes, over a span of time that goes beyond one generation, a family is utterly devastated by sin.
Your family, and your relationships, have been harmed by sin. That’s for sure.
And what’s also sure is that your family and your relationships have been harmed by your sin. To one extent or another, this is true for all of us.
And maybe your family and your relationships have suffered more than most. Maybe they have been devastated by sin and betrayals - your sin and your betrayals.
Think of the damage that has been done in the lives of people you care about, or are supposed to care about. Maybe some of these old and valuable relationships have been severely strained or even broken because of sin - because of your sin. Can anything be done now to undo that damage?
Remember what Jesus said on another occasion: “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”
Remember this, too, from St. Paul: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
There are no guarantees in any of these matters, because God does not coerce people to believe in him. In his love for people, he still permits people to hate him.
But when the love of God is poured into your heart, and when the love of God is likewise poured into the hearts of those whom you have hurt and offended, then, well, as Jesus says, “all things are possible!” It is possible for the old wounds to be healed.
It is possible for God’s Word and Spirit to work themselves down to the deepest levels of your own pain and confusion, and to heal you. It is possible for God’s Word and Spirit to heal the injured or severed relationships in your family, and to rebuild the old bridges of trust between your life and the lives of other people.
In the power of God, we can pray the Lord’s Prayer together - and I mean really together: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
In Christ, old things are not simply replaced, or forgotten. Old things - old, good things - are restored, and rebuilt.
Christmas, which is soon approaching, is a good time to remember what God is able to do. Christmas is a good time to pray that God would show his goodness and mercy, in a special way, to you and to those whom you love.
It’s a good time to remember what God is able to do for the world: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
It’s a good time to remember what God is able to do for his church: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people.”
And, it’s a good time to remember what God is able to do for your soul, and for the circumstances of your life: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
Because of the Babe of Bethlehem, and by the strength of the Babe of Bethlehem, “They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.” Amen.
21 December 2008 - Advent 4 - Luke 1:26-38
In today’s Gospel we once again hear the familiar story of the annunciation by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary, concerning the miraculous conception and birth of Jesus. There are so many things that can be said about this text. It really summarizes the whole story of who Jesus is and what Jesus came to do for our salvation.
Today, though, I’d like to focus on just one small portion of this text, where St. Luke describes Mary’s initial reaction to what Gabriel said to her. Some of the details of this portion of the story might almost go unnoticed.
But we can learn something important from it, not only in regard to Mary, and her relationship with God, but also in regard to us, and our relationship with God.
“And [Gabriel] came to her and said, ‘Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!’ But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.”
It’s interesting to see, first off, that Mary was not particularly troubled by the actual appearance of the angel. We might expect that this would be the scary thing.
But that’s not what Luke tells us was startling and troubling to Mary. What troubled her was what the angel said. “Greetings, O favored one.”
A different translation of this greeting that is as well-known as it is inaccurate goes like this: “Hail, full of grace.” But in the original Greek of the New Testament, the word for “grace” or “favor” that is used here does not refer to something that is in Mary.
She is not full of grace. Rather, God is full of grace. When he thinks of Mary, God’s own heart is full of grace and favor and acceptance and mercy.
God sends his angel to Mary because God has a favorable attitude toward Mary. He thinks well of her.
But she is troubled by this. “Why does God think well of me?”, we can imagine her asking.
She would have known that in and of herself, she would not have deserved God’s favor. As a pious Jewish girl, Mary would have been familiar with Psalm 14:
“The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.”
Mary knew that she was indeed among the “children of man” - that she, too, just like everyone else, would have a reason to fear God’s judgment and punishment, and not automatically to expect God’s favor - at least not based on anything inside of herself.
There is no Biblical warrant for the belief that Mary was without sin. Rather, the Bible teaches that “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.”
I hope that no one is scandalized by this, but “all” means “all.” “All” includes Mary. We should not speculate about what kind of selfish or prideful or judgmental thoughts Mary may have ever had in her life.
But we know that such thoughts, of one kind or another, were there, because Mary was a child of man. And therefore, in her thoughts and perhaps also in her actions, she did from time to time turn aside from God and his ways.
Mary would have admitted that. And so, as the angel makes this unexpected declaration to her, “Greetings, O favored one,” she is troubled and perplexed. What could this mean?
And what is even more frightening is the phrase that follows: “The Lord is with you.” Those with a troubled conscience, who are aware of their weaknesses and shortcomings before God, sometimes like to comfort themselves with the thought that God is not close-by.
“Maybe God is not noticing my sin,” they imagine. But of course this is just an illusion.
God knows all, and sees all. You cannot escape from the Lord’s awareness of you and of everything that is going on in your life.
You cannot hide from God, as Adam thought he could in the Garden of Eden. God will call out to you, as he did to Adam: “Where are you?” And God will find you.
So, when someone like Gabriel would tell a person, “the Lord is with you,” that can be a scary thought. He is not far away, preoccupied with other things.
He is right here, up-close. Whatever is going on in your life right now, in thought, word, or deed, he knows about it.
And Mary was afraid. We know that, from the words that the angel then said to her:
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 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.”
The angel emphasizes that she should not be afraid. He assures her that the Lord really is favorable toward her. He is not approaching her in order to judge her or to punish her for her sins, but to reveal his grace to her in a very special way.
And these words of assurance are not just empty talk. There is a reason why these things are true.
There is a reason why Mary should not be afraid. There is a reason why Mary should believe that God truly is gracious and favorable toward her.
It’s because God is giving to Mary - and to the human race through Mary - the greatest of gifts: his own Son. God’s Son, begotten from eternity, will now become Mary’s son, conceived in her by the Holy Spirit.
The Second Person of the Holy Trinity will take to himself a true human nature, in order to become the Savior of humanity. And he will take that human nature from Mary.
Mary was not encouraged to “wish away” her fear through “positive thinking.” She was encouraged instead to believe the joyful Good News about Jesus her Lord.
Mary was not told that she is actually without sin, and that she therefore should never be fearful at the thought of being in the presence of a holy God. She was told instead that her Savior from sin was now coming into the world, to accomplish his work of redemption and forgiveness.
That’s why Mary ceased to be afraid. That’s why the words of the angel, “the Lord is with you,” became a message of comfort and joy, and ceased to be a troubling and frightening message.
Angels don’t appear to you with personal messages from God - at least not very often. But a messenger sent to you by God does perform some of the functions that Gabriel performed in today’s Gospel.
Your pastor, called to his office by the Lord of the church, says these words to you two or three times in the course of each Sunday’s worship service: “The Lord be with you.” This is essentially the same thing that the angel told Mary when he said, “the Lord is with you.”
And what reaction do you have to these words? My guess is that you have heard these words so often that you probably don’t have much of any reaction.
But you should have a reaction. These words speak of something very important in your life - just as they spoke of something very important in Mary’s life.
If you think about it, perhaps your initial reaction will be the same as Mary’s initial reaction. She was frightened. And you too, might be frightened - understandably so - when you begin to think about the Lord’s imminent presence: here and now, up-close.
The pastor’s statement, “the Lord be with you,” can be an alarming statement, to the extent that you would then think of the sin that still permeates your life. What is actually going on in your thoughts, at each of those points in the Liturgy when the pastor speaks that phrase?
Do you want God to measure you and evaluate you on the basis of everything that is in your mind and heart at that exact moment? Probably not! And it doesn’t even have to be some overtly evil thought that might be running through your mind.
Maybe, instead of paying attention to what is going on in the service, you’re thinking about what you plan to do after church.
Or maybe you’re daydreaming about something else - something other than God’s Word, and what God wants you to learn from his Word that day.
“The Lord be with you” can be a scary idea, when you’d rather that the Lord not be close enough to notice your failures, your hypocrisies, your half-heartedness, your confused priorities. But the Lord is with you. He knows all.
And therefore he invites you - he implores you - to stop trying to avoid him, to stop justifying yourself, and to stop making excuses. The Lord causes himself to be with you - accessible to you, and ready to hear what you have to say - so that you can repent of your sins, and seek his pardon.
From that perspective, therefore, it’s a good thing that the Lord is with you, here and now, so that you can tell him what you need to tell him:
“O almighty God, merciful Father, I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess to You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You... But I am heartily sorry for them, and sincerely repent of them, and I pray You of Your boundless mercy... to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor, sinful being.”
And it’s also a good thing that the Lord is with you, so that you can then receive from him what he wants to give you. In the case of Mary, he gave her the gift of a Savior, who would rule among his people in love and righteousness. And that’s also what he gives to us.
Now, Jesus certainly doesn’t come to us in the same way as he did with Mary. God’s Son doesn’t enter into our bodies in the way that he entered into the womb of his mother.
But he does enter into our hearts in an equally miraculous and wonderful manner.
The hymn writer Phillips Brooks expresses the thought so beautifully in his well-known Christmas carol:
O holy Child of Bethlehem, Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in, Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels The great glad tidings tell:
Oh, come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Immanuel!
That’s what happens to you when Christ absolves you of all our sins - when he says to you, “I forgive you all your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Jesus thereby casts out your sin, and once again “enters in” - as he did in your baptism, and as he continues to do whenever the grace of your baptism is recalled in this way.
He renews to you the gift of his Spirit. He strengthens within you the mystical bonds of faith that unite him to you. He lives within you with his regenerating, life-changing power.
And so, when “the Lord is with you” in this way, and for this purpose, it is a wonderful thing! Do not be afraid! The son who was born to Mary is here, once again, to save you, and to take away all your fear.
In a few minutes you are going to hear that familiar phrase, “the Lord be with you,” yet again. At the beginning of the rite of Holy Communion, when the pastor and the congregation begin their solemn “dialogue” concerning the great and mighty wonder that is about to break into our midst, you will once again hear these words.
As your sins have been washed away, and as your faith in Christ’s Word and institution has been renewed and strengthened, it is not going to be a frightful thing to be told this. But it will be a marvelous blessing to be assured that the Son of God - and the son of Mary - is once again present among his people.
The Lord is with us in the bread and wine of his Holy Supper, in order to unite himself to us in our human need, precisely at the point of his own glorified humanity. He bestows upon us the very body and blood with which he purchased our salvation.
“The Lord is with you.” And as he is with you - as he is with us in his sacrament - we respond, not in fear, but with a joyful confession of faith in the Gospel.
Our shared participation in the sacrament is an enacted “declaration” of our common faith, as we proclaim to each other and to the world our conviction that what we have been taught from God’s Word concerning these mysteries is true.
Our shared participation in the sacrament is a united testimony of humble gratitude for God’s grace toward us. In Christ, and for the sake of Christ, God does not come to us in order to judge us or punish us.
With Mary, and for the sake of Mary’s son, we, too, are “favored” by the Lord. When God thinks of us in Christ, his heart is once again full of grace, and favor and acceptance and mercy.
Through the “messenger” whom he has sent to us - a messenger who speaks by the command of Christ and in the stead of Christ - the Lord also greets us, and announces to us the great gift that is given to us: “Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you.” “Drink of it all of you; this cup in the New Testament in My blood, which is shed for you and for many, for the remission of sins.”
“Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 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.” Amen.
24 December 2008 - Christmas Eve - Titus 2:11-14
An historic presidential campaign has recently concluded in our nation. The candidate who ended up winning the election, and who will therefore be our next president, ran on a platform of “change.”
He correctly sensed that most people in America were interested in change - a change in the political and cultural life of the nation. Most people, it would seem, were not satisfied with the way things are now, and they wanted things to be different.
As a general principle, people who are not satisfied with the circumstances in which they currently find themselves are drawn to someone who promises change. And if the person who makes such promises delivers on those promises, and institutes the kind of changes people want, they will remember him, and honor him.
This evening we remember, and honor, someone much greater than any presidential candidate of any country. Jesus, the holy Babe of Bethlehem, came into a world that was languishing under much grief and unhappiness.
Violence and injustice reigned in many corners of the world. And in the particular corner of the world into which Jesus was born, his own nation - the Jewish people - were suffering under the cruel occupation of a brutal pagan empire.
The people of Israel, and the people of many other nations, wanted change. And, the people who wanted change expected that when the Messiah came, he would bring about change.
This evening’s Old Testament lesson from the prophet Isaiah speaks of the good things that were expected when the world’s Savior would come. We read:
“Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.”
That’s the kind of change the people wanted. But is that the kind of change they got? When we look at the world in which we live, 2,000 years after the birth of Christ, in many ways it seems as if nothing did really change.
Have people stopped hurting and killing each other? Have they stopped robbing and exploiting each other? Have families grown stronger and more stable?
Have the virtues of loyalty, self-discipline, and honesty become universal norms by which individuals and societies govern themselves? You know, a persuasive case could be made that things in this world have actually changed for the worse since the events of the first Christmas.
Has Jesus really delivered on the promises that were made concerning him and what he would do? Could it be that maybe he should not be remembered and honored in the way he is? Might it not be necessary for us to conclude that Jesus failed in what he was supposed to do?
There are certainly plenty of people in our time who think this. Atheist activists, to an unprecedented degree, are attempting to promote their message of disbelief and skepticism to the people of a new generation, many of whom see no reason to believe in God, or in the Son of God.
The fact that church attendance in our society is dwindling, and that even a service on Christmas Eve no longer fills the pews, is another indicator that there are many people who have given up on the Christian faith.
Jesus hasn’t brought about the kind of change people wanted. Things are, it would seem, just as bad as they have always been - maybe worse.
Have some of you thought this? You’re here this evening, perhaps with the idea that you are still willing to give Jesus a chance. But you might be almost ready to throw in the religious towel.
You might be wondering what your faith, such as it is, is able to cling to these days. With all the evil and suffering that still exist in the world, what’s the point? Jesus didn’t really bring about change 2,000 years ago, did he?
Well, according to St. Paul, in this evening’s lesson from his epistle to Titus, Jesus did indeed bring about change - important and enduring change.
Maybe he didn’t eradicate all the external forces of evil on this earth, or outwardly compel the nations to be at peace with one another. But he did bring about a different kind of change - a change that touches you and me at a level deeper than any politician can even reach.
The Babe of Bethlehem came into this world to change hearts. He came into this world to change your heart.
The human race, in its natural state, is in a sinful state. We are by nature sinful and unclean.
Fallen humanity is captive to the forces of death and destruction. It dwells in a land of deep darkness. But Jesus came to change that.
On his cross, he “gave himself for us, to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession.” Remember that our congregation is explicitly named after Christ, the Redeemer.
With the price of his own blood he redeemed us. He purchased us. He ransomed us from this captivity. He delivered us from the spiritual darkness in which we were trapped, and brought us into the light - the light of his love and grace.
The prophet Isaiah describes it in this way: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.”
Don’t just think about the ways in which you have been a victim of injustice, or human cruelty, in this wicked world. Think, too, about the ways in which you have perpetrated injustice and cruelty on others - and the ways in which you have failed to protect others from injustice and cruelty.
You have helped to make this world a less pleasant place for other people, by your own misdeeds. Think about that. And think about how that effects your standing before God, and places you under his displeasure and judgment.
And then, think about the fact that Jesus has rescued you from all this. He has forgiven you all your sins. He has reconciled you to God by his death and resurrection.
That, my friends, is a change. Jesus came into the world to change your standing with God. He came to set your hearts free from the power of sin and death, and to put you on a new pathway of life and faith.
And as you now walk that pathway, as a person who has been supernaturally changed in this way by the Spirit of Christ, Jesus also changes the kind of input that comes into your life - the way you are influenced and guided in your thoughts, words, and deeds.
To be sure, the influences of the old sinful world, and of the old sinful nature, are also still there. But now there is another voice - another calm but powerful voice - teaching you a new way to think and to be.
St. Paul describes it this way: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”
That, too, is a change. As God’s Word comes into you and impacts you, God himself, for the sake of Christ, engages in a life-long process of gently reshaping your attitudes, your expectations, your priorities.
You become a more content person, not necessarily because you have more, but because you become thankful for what you do have.
You become a less anxious person, not because the threatening perils of this life all go away, but because you are brought to the knowledge of another life beyond this one - a life and a hope that will never fade away.
You become a less mean person, not because the sinful nature within you is totally blocked out, but because the stronger power of God’s love is shed abroad in your heart, and because you are growing in your ability to see others as Christ sees them, and to think of others with compassion and respect.
All of this involves deep and meaningful change. Maybe the world around you hasn’t changed all that much. There is still much sadness and evil.
But the Babe of Bethlehem has changed you. Your heart has been washed in the cleansing laver of divine forgiveness. Your soul has been fed with the bread of life himself, Jesus Christ.
And someday, as God has promised, the world around you will also, finally, change. In the Lord’s timing, when his Gospel has made its way to all corners of the earth and been preached to all nations, Christ will come again.
And the world in which we live will be totally transformed. There will be new heavens and a new earth, as Scripture says.
Jesus will not come then as a baby in his mother’s arms, but as a judge. He will not be laid in a manger, but will be seated on a throne. That will be a time of great change.
As you in faith are changed in heart and mind today, you are made ready for the changes to come. If God’s Word has changed you here and now, this will not be a fearful time but a time of vindication and rejoicing.
That’s why we are “waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” Everything will be different then.
All tears will be wiped from our eyes. Neither will we know death any more. The Lord will make all things new.
Jesus has indeed brought about the changes we need - changes in us, and in our relationship with God. And Jesus will someday bring about many more changes - changes in the heavens and the earth.
If Jesus had not come, none of these changes - these wonderful and profound changes - would have been possible. But he has come. These changes therefore are possible.
These changes are real, and they are happening now. We therefore remember and honor the Babe of Bethlehem this night - and on all nights and days of our lives.
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession.” Amen.
28 December 2008 - Christmas 1 - Luke 2:22-40
“And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, [Mary and Joseph] brought [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord’) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.’”
What we have here is a description of the Holy Family’s fulfilment of two distinct requirements of the Old Testament ritual law, as this law would apply to people in their circumstances. The first is the requirement for purification, which a new mother - accompanied by her husband - would have to undergo after a certain prescribed period of time following the birth of any child.
The book of Leviticus explains that a woman was to be considered “unclean” for one week following the birth of a son, and for two weeks following the birth of a daughter. In addition to that, in the case of a son, she was to be confined for an additional 33 days, and in the case of a daughter, for an additional 66 days.
Following that, a woman was to bring to the entrance of the tent - or, in later times, the entrance of the temple - a lamb for a burnt offering, and a turtledove or a pigeon for a sin offering.
There is also the following provision: “And if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean.” This shows, then, that Mary and Joseph were not very well off at this point in their lives.
Contrary to much popular thinking, the wise men from the east, with their valuable gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, had not yet visited Jesus. If they had, then Mary would no doubt have been able to afford a lamb for the required sacrifice. The visit of the wise men likely didn’t happen for about two more years.
These regulations certainly did have a practical, hygienic purpose. They also gave a new mother the time she would need to take care of her newborn baby.
A husband would not be allowed to pressure her into a resumption of her regular activities before the prescribed period of time. Among the Jews, therefore, we would not hear the kind of stories that are often told of Mongolian women of the past, who were said to give birth while on horseback, and never to have dismounted during the whole process.
We would also not have instances of women giving birth while out in the field at work, and resuming their work as soon as the child had been delivered - as reported in historical accounts from other times and places. Among God’s Old Testament people, there would have been a greater level of concern for the welfare of both mother and child at this important time in their lives.
But at a deeper level, this time of being ceremonially unclean, and this time of purification, was a reminder of the moral imperfection of humanity at all times of life. These particular instances would serve as a reminder of the deeper, continuing reality of our need for God’s forgiving mercy all the time.
King David’s confession in Psalm 51 of his specific sins, and of his lifelong sinfulness, comes readily to mind:
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”
“Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”
Today, in the age of the New Testament, we can still benefit from the practical lessons that are taught through these Old Testament directives.
Not that we would necessarily be tempted to be this way, but husbands in our day should not do the equivalent of making their wives give birth on horseback, or the equivalent of expecting them to keep working out in the fields after having a baby. New mothers and their newborn children need time to rest, and they should be given that time.
But we should also recognize why it is that purification rituals and temple sacrifices are no longer binding on us. It is because the ultimate sacrifice for sin has now been offered.
Not a turtledove, and not a literal lamb either, but the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, has been offered up for us. His righteousness covers over our imperfections. His blood washes away the stain of our guilt.
And it is not through the ritual of an external purification, but through faith in the heart, that the purity and righteousness of Jesus are credited to each of us. “Therefore,” in the words of St. Paul, “since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The ceremonies that God enjoined on the people of Israel pointed forward to Christ. We know that now, of course. But the people who lived before Christ were also expected to know that.
They, too, were called by the Lord to lift up the eyes of their faith, and to look beyond the external performance of the ritual to see it’s true, spiritual meaning. A penitent King David, also in Psalm 51, recognized this, as he prayed to the Lord for forgiveness:
“For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
The second requirement of the Old Testament ritual law that the Holy Family is fulfilling in today’s text is the command for the presentation to God of every firstborn son. We read in the Book of Exodus:
“When the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, as he swore to you and your fathers, and shall give it to you, you shall set apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your animals that are males shall be the Lord’s. ... Every firstborn of man among your sons you shall redeem.”
This command was given in the context of the Israelites’ departure from Egypt, and in the context of the last plague that the Lord brought upon the people of Egypt: the death of all their firstborn. The Lord claimed these firstborn in judgment.
This limited act of divine justice represented God’s wrath against human sin and rebellion in general. To those who would object that it was not fair for the Lord to kill so many people, we would respond that it was actually a sign of God’s mercy and patience that he did not kill all the people of Egypt, on account of their sins.
Remember that Egypt, in its cruelty and injustice, has enslaved God’s chosen people, and in its idolatry and arrogance had defied God’s Word. But instead of killing all of the Egyptians, he poured out this severe judgment only on the firstborn of the land - as a vivid token and testimony of his displeasure with the wickedness of this society as a whole.
The firstborn of Israel were spared - not because the Hebrews were inherently more righteous than the Egyptians, and less deserving of God’s judgment, but because the blood of the Passover lamb had been smeared on their doorposts.
This evidence of the death of a substitute creature on their behalf provided a covering of atonement, which protected them from the hand of the Lord’s angel of death.
But the Lord did make a special claim on the firstborn sons of Israel nevertheless - among both men and beasts. All firstborn males belonged to him. This symbolized the fact that actually all things belong to the Lord.
He is the creator and the true Master of all the living. And the lives of all creatures, human and otherwise, are properly to be dedicated to the Lord, and to the fulfillment of his purposes.
And so, to illustrate this fact, all firstborn male animals were to be sacrificed as an offering to the Lord, in death. All firstborn male children, in comparison, were to be sacrificed as an offering to the Lord in life.
They were to be redeemed, meaning that an animal sacrifice was to be offered in their place, by which their fathers would, as it were, “buy them back” from God.
Firstborn sons were not to be killed. This would be an abomination to the Lord. But even after their redemption, they still, in a unique sense, belonged to the Lord in a special way.
Practically speaking, the way in which their special service to God was set up involved yet another kind of substitution. We read in the book of Numbers that the tribe of Levites was designated to stand in the place of the firstborn of Israel as a whole.
As the representatives of the firstborn of all the other tribes, the Levites were to provide special service to the Lord in the tabernacle, and, later, in the temple. In other words, the firstborn of Israel, who owed special service to the Lord, performed that service by proxy, through the Levites.
But now we come to Jesus, the firstborn son of Mary. There is no compelling evidence in the New Testament that Mary had any other children after the birth of Jesus.
Those who are referred to in the New Testament as the “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus could just as well have been his step-brothers and step-sisters - children of Joseph by a previous marriage. That interpretation is more likely, in fact - although the details of that debate are perhaps best left for another sermon.
But getting back to the point at hand: Even if Mary never did have other sons or daughters, Jesus was still designated deliberately as the “firstborn,” in order to make a connection between him and these Old Testament references. In fact, all the things that were said in various places of the Old Testament about the special status of the “firstborn” ultimately pointed to Jesus.
Jesus - the Son of God and the son of Mary - was and is the true and ultimate firstborn of the Lord. The epistle to the Colossians says that “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”
The firstborn of Egypt had been killed by God, and had received into themselves the judgment that all the people of Egypt actually deserved. Jesus, as the Firstborn of the Lord, and as the substitute for all of sinful humanity, was, as the Book of Acts says, “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.”
In his death on the cross, Jesus received into himself the judgment of his own divine law against the sins of all the world. He received into himself the judgment of God’s law against your sins.
That’s why God forgives you now. It’s not because your sins haven’t offended him, and it’s not because you don’t deserve his punishment.
It’s because God’s Son - his Firstborn - has died in your place. God sent the Firstborn to your cross.
Jesus belonged to God in the most profound way. And he served God, and fulfilled God’s will for the salvation of the world, in the most profound way. The salvation from sin and judgment that he willingly accomplished for the whole world, is offered to the whole world.
It is offered to you, whether you are the equivalent of a Hebrew or an Egyptian. Jesus is, as Simeon declares in today’s text, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to God’s people Israel.
And as the resurrected Savior, Jesus continues to show that he is the firstborn of the Lord. He takes care of God’s church - God’s living temple - every moment of every day. And he will continue to show his redeeming love for this living temple into eternity.
The Book of Revelation describes Jesus as “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth...who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood.”
In the Epistle to the Colossians he is described as “the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.”
As a member of God’s church, united to Christ the Head by faith, your true needs will never go unmet. You will be comforted in every trial.
When you are lacking in the knowledge of God, you will be instructed. When you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you will be protected from evil.
You will be sustained, and carried through, in every weakness. You will be forgiven for every failure.
All of these things are so, because the Firstborn is still serving God, on your behalf and for your benefit. He is serving God by serving you in all your needs.
As he himself said on another occasion: “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Today’s text is about a specific historical application of the Old Testament passages that speak of the purification of new mothers, and that speak of the dedication of the firstborn sons of Israel to the Lord.
But at a deeper level, the Old Testament passages that speak of the purification of new mothers, and that speak of the dedication of the firstborn sons of Israel to the Lord, are about the events in today’s text.
These Old Testament passages are about Jesus. They find their meaning ultimately in Jesus, and in everything that he has done and continues to do, to purify us from sin, and to serve us as the Firstborn of the Lord. Amen.