SERMONS - DECEMBER 2010
11 December 2010 - Funeral Service for Lucille L. Calvin - John 3:14-17
The obituary for Lucille Calvin that appeared in the Arizona Republic yesterday spoke of “Lucille’s legacy of unconditional love.” That’s a pretty accurate description of what I personally saw in her life, off and on, over the past couple decades.
Except for my own family members, I have known Jack and Lucille longer than any other members of the church. They were members of the congregation in Massachusetts that I served as pastor in the 1990s.
When I was called to come to Scottsdale five years ago, there were two familiar and cheerful faces waiting to greet me in this congregation too.
Lucille - and Jack too - did everything they could to make me and my family feel at home when we arrived. But that special kindness did not stop after I got settled in. Quite often, during the years I’ve been here, a “pastor’s tithe” of Cabernet Sauvignon has been generously, and lovingly, shared with me.
We all know, of course, that as far as Lucille was concerned, her unconditional love was very generously bestowed on Jack, her soul-mate. A few months ago I had occasion to see some unique evidence of this love, when Jack underwent serious surgery on his heart.
Lucille’s deep concern for him in this situation, and her ardent prayers for a successful operation and a full recovery, testified to the truth of what the obituary described as her “unconditional love.”
But Jack wasn’t the only recipient of this love. Lucille’s devoted pride in children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren has been recounted to me often, with plenty of photographic evidence to support and illustrate these sentiments.
And the words of St. Peter that we heard a few minutes ago accurately described yet another important aspect of Lucille’s life of love - indeed the most important - when the apostle writes in regard to our Savior Jesus Christ:
“Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”
A life from which love is always flowing, toward God and man, is a good life. In this respect Lucille’s life was a good life.
But as we gather here in the presence of God, on the occasion of Lucille’s departure from this world, it is not chiefly her life of love that we are celebrating. We are not even celebrating her love for God, with the idea that this love has somehow contributed toward the earning of a place in heaven for Lucille.
No. What we are celebrating here today, in regard to Lucille, is God’s love for her - and indeed for all of us. St. John tells us in his First Epistle that we love because he first loved us. Lucille loved, because God first loved her.
In today’s reading from St. John’s Gospel, which is quoting Jesus, we hear a marvelous summary of that divine love - for Lucille, and for you and me too:
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
When the Lord says, in regard to himself, that the Son of Man must be lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness, this shows that the love of God toward us is something substantial and serious. It does not flow out from some kind of shallow sentimentality or emotion - to the extent that God could even be capable of sentimentality or emotion.
Instead, God’s love toward us flows out from the cross of his Son, where God showed a very real love for the human race by addressing, and taking care of, a very real human problem. This is the problem - the universal human problem - of our inborn alienation from God because of sin.
The pathway that Christ traveled to his resurrection was a pathway that first took him to a place of suffering and death. On the cross, God’s love for all of us was most profoundly manifested when Jesus willingly died for our sins, and atoned for our transgressions.
So, too, the pathway that we travel to eternal life in Christ, if we are on that pathway, is a pathway that first takes us to a place of humility and repentance - a place of death to the sinful nature within. And that pathway takes us, repeatedly, also to a place of pardon and forgiveness - a place of a new beginning with God.
The proclamation of the Gospel, in the Word and sacraments of Christ, connects us to the cross and resurrection of our divine Savior. It connects us to God’s gracious solution to our deepest problem.
And it connects us to the love of God - a self-giving love that fills us, and that then spills over from us to others. This is the love - the divine love - that Lucille knew at the deepest level of her heart and soul.
It’s the love that she received in her baptism, when God’s name was placed upon her. It’s the love that she received often in the sacrament of her Savior’s body and blood, given and shed for her.
It’s the love in which she lived every day, as she was forgiven of her sins; as she was strengthened in her weaknesses; and as she was sustained in her trials. It’s the love in which she lived every day, as she rejoiced in all of God’s goodness toward her, and as she thanked him continuously for his many blessings.
Today, as we gather here with our thoughts of Lucille, we cannot help but to think of the love that she showed to others - to God, to Jack, to her family, and to all of us. But she would not want us to dwell on this in our memories of her.
Rather, she would want us to remember the love that God showed to her, and that animated her. And she would want all of us to know and experience that love for ourselves, on this day and every day.
God’s love toward us, in Christ, can and will comfort us in our grief. God’s love toward us, in Christ, can and will show us our need for humility before him, and our dependence on him.
God’s love toward us, in Christ, can and will fill us with his forgiving mercy, and with a heavenly hope that the grave, and all the powers of hell and darkness, cannot extinguish.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Amen.
12 December 2010 - Advent 3 - Matthew 11:2-15
“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” This was the question that John the Baptist sent several of his disciples to ask Jesus. There are varying interpretations of why he did this.
Some believe that John’s own faith had been weakening under the strain and discouragement of his imprisonment. He had been thrown into the dungeon of Herod Antipas for rebuking Herod regarding his illicit relationship with his brother’s wife.
Previously, of course, John had confidently identified Jesus as the promised Messiah. He declared him to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and to be the one who would baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit. But now, perhaps, he was losing that former certainty.
It might have seemed to John that things were dragging out too long - that Jesus was not “getting with the program” quickly enough as far as what the Messiah was supposed to be doing. And so, as some interpreters see it, John’s own faith in Christ was waning, so that he needed personal encouragement from his Lord.
John was a prophet, with the special mission and calling of a prophet. But the message of repentance and forgiveness that he was sent to proclaim to the crowds, was a message that he also needed.
John was a mortal man, like us. He was aware of his unworthiness in comparison with Christ.
Remember how he said that he was not worthy to stoop down and untie the Lord’s sandals? John was therefore capable of becoming discouraged and disheartened.
His doctrine concerning Christ, and concerning Christ’s Messianic mission, was, of course, God’s doctrine. This doctrine did not arise from John’s faith. And therefore this doctrine would not be discredited if John’s faith might weaken.
The content of his preaching, coming as it did from God, always remained true, regardless of who believed it, and regardless of how strongly anyone believed it. Perhaps in his human weakness it had become difficult for John himself to believe his own preaching - at least for a time.
“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Maybe he needed to be assured, once again, that Jesus was indeed the Savior God’s Word had revealed him to be.
In contrast to this explanation of the text, others see in this account an attempt on John’s part to give his disciples a clearer exposure to the message and ministry of Christ. This alternate interpretation sees the question that was posed to Jesus as something that John directed his disciples to ask for their own benefit, and not for the purpose of alleviating his doubts.
John may have anticipated that his death would occur before too long. He may therefore have wanted his disciples to know, when such a time came, that they should then become followers of Jesus.
He may have wanted them to hear with their own ears the Lord’s identification of himself as the one about whom John had preached.
The ministry of John the Baptist had always pointed to Jesus. It was therefore to Jesus that his followers must ultimately go.
John wanted that to happen. He didn’t want their devotion and loyalty to him to stand in the way of their developing relationship with their true Savior, who alone would die for their sins, and who would fill them with his own divine Spirit.
And once John was permanently removed from the earth by his execution, he certainly didn’t want his disciples to become so discouraged, or so jaded by the injustice of it, that they would lose interest in the important spiritual matters that both he and Jesus had been talking about in their preaching.
This second interpretation is bolstered by the fact that John directs the question to be asked on behalf of a group, and not only on behalf of an individual person.
John did not send his disciples to ask only on behalf of himself: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall I look for another?” Instead, he wanted them to include themselves in the query - “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
In the last analysis, John’s underlying motive for sending these men to Jesus, to ask him this question, cannot be clearly established. We really don’t know for sure why he did it.
Yet that may not be such a bad thing. Maybe St. Matthew, as he wrote this account by divine inspiration, intentionally wanted us to be a little uncertain about the reason why John sent his friends to make this inquiry of Jesus.
In that way, people like you and me can relate to John, and to the experience that he and his disciples had with Jesus, whether our circumstances involve doubts in our own faith, or whether our circumstances involve concerns about the faith and future spiritual growth of the people we care about. Or both.
There are many Christians who have been deeply committed to Christ as Lord and Savior for most of their lives. They have felt at home in church, just as much as in the embrace of their own family circle.
But then something unexpected might have come along in life, that challenged the certainties and assurances of the past: a tragedy, a disappointment, a betrayal, or a bodily or psychological infirmity. Or perhaps it’s a temptation that has risen up from within, where the sinful nature is always lurking and looking for opportunities to destroy faith.
In the darkness of human doubt and fear, it might then seem that Christ is not the loving Savior and friend whom he was previously thought to be. Emotionally, the answers from God’s Word that used to satisfy the mind and heart, may now ring hollow for those who are tired and worn out by their inner struggles.
Maybe that’s the way John the Baptist was feeling. And maybe that’s the way you are feeling right now.
Perhaps you sense a need to ask Jesus, in your own way, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” In your human weakness, you too might need to be assured today that Jesus really is whom you have believed him to be.
As Christians, we also care about the faith and spiritual life of others. This kind of concern most often manifests itself in regard to the spiritual well-being of children and grandchildren, brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents.
Perhaps at an earlier time in their lives, our loved ones had had what appeared to be a very deep and personal knowledge of the message of Christ. Perhaps they had gone to Sunday School, attended church, and felt close to their Savior.
But now, for one reason or another, they might seem to be drifting away from God - or at least not to be keeping their relationship with Christ front and center in their lives. It’s often the case that when children grow up and leave home, they leave the church as well.
At a time in their lives when the moral and spiritual guidance of the Christian faith is most necessary, that is often when our children or grandchildren are least interested in what God has to say. The consequences of this can be tragic in the extreme.
And so, with concern for the people we deeply care about, we might try to figure out some way to get them to approach Jesus once again, and to be open to what Jesus would say. Like John the Baptist with his beloved disciples, we try to figure out some way to send our loved ones to the Lord, and to get them to ask him with a sincere and open mind, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
And we want Jesus to assure them that he is indeed their Redeemer, their Savior, and their coming King. We want him to pull them back into his church - back into his loving embrace - and to rescue them from the folly of their indifference.
And that’s exactly what he does. For those who are weak and doubting in their own faith, and for those who are, as it were, sent to him by others, Jesus gives the same uplifting and satisfying response.
“Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”
The Lord here refers to some specific things that had been given in Scripture as prophetic descriptions of the ministry of the future Savior. Isaiah, and other Old Testament writers, had enumerated these miracles and activities as the God-given marks of the Messiah, so that someday the Messiah could be identified.
The ministry of Jesus bore these marks. He satisfied these expectations. And most important of all, he proclaimed the good news of forgiveness and salvation to all who were poor in spirit.
The account from his Gospel that Matthew shares with us today is not really about John the Baptist, or about John’s disciples. They are in the story, but the story is not about them. This is, rather, a story about Jesus: who he is, what he does, and what he will do.
For those who are weak, or doubting, or confused, Christ’s sacred word - which draws attention to himself - restores hope. For those who have spiritually lost their way, or who are uncertain what path they should follow, Christ’s sacred word - which drawn attention to himself - enlightens before them the pathway to heaven.
We are all prone to drift away from our Lord, or to ignore him when trials and distractions come. But Jesus is immovable.
Everything that God’s Word says about him - about his miracles, his preaching, and his atoning work for the salvation of the world - everything remains true no matter what. And our access to him by faith likewise remains, for as long as life remains.
Jesus does not mind honest and sincere questions - even if those questions arise from doubt or uncertainty - because he then has an opportunity to answer these questions with a testimony of his complete faithfulness.
He is ever faithful. He is faithful to all that he is supposed to be, as the divine-human Redeemer. He is faithful to all that he is supposed to do, as the true and loving friend of sinners like you and me.
He wants everyone to know who he is, and what he does for the world. He carries the world’s sins to the cross. He rises again from the grave, to break the shackles of death that bind the world in fear and misery.
Jesus wants John the Baptist and his disciples to know, and be assured of, these things. He wants you and me to know, and be assured of, these things.
For the obtaining of this knowledge and assurance, he doesn’t send us into ourselves - to our inner thoughts and reflections. That’s where our doubts and fears come from, not our confidence and certainty!
Instead, he draws us up and away from ourselves. He directs us to his works, and to the places where he is still doing things that the prophesied Messiah came to do.
Now, in the age of the church, the evidence that Jesus really is whom you have believed him to be is found in a different way. For this evidence today, he points you to the preaching of his Gospel and the administration of his sacraments.
That’s where the true, supernatural miracles of salvation from sin take place now. The spiritually blind receive the sight of faith. The spiritually lame walk in newness of life.
Spiritual lepers are cleansed by the washing of regeneration. The spiritually deaf hear the soothing voice of their Good Shepherd. The spiritually dead are converted to life and hope.
Jesus points you to the means of grace. And he draws you to the means of grace, as he comes to you in his absolution and in his Holy Supper; in the teaching of his Word and in the proclamation of his cross and resurrection.
These are the places today where Jesus demonstrates that he is who he has always been. These are the places where he rekindles the faith of the doubting, the confidence of the perplexed, and the conviction of the distracted.
If you have believed in Jesus Christ alone for your salvation, and if you have believed that his Word and will are supremely true and powerful, you have not believed wrongly.
But are you now passing through a time of doubt and discouragement, as John the Baptist may have been? Or does your commitment to God needs to be refocused and renewed, as may have been the case with John’s disciples?
If so, then be assured that God, by his grace, can and will restore to you the full blessings of faith. He can and will fill you with the comfort, and the confidence, that always accompany faith in the good news of Christ your Savior.
“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” When you ask that question - for whatever reason - the answer you receive will be the same: “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” Amen.
19 December 2010 - Advent 4 - Matthew 1:18-25
“Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife.” That’s the first thing the angel said to Joseph when he appeared to him in a dream - as described in today’s text from St. Matthew’s Gospel.
But why would Joseph have “feared” to take Mary as his wife? Joseph was contemplating a divorce, or an annulment of his betrothal with Mary.
She had been discovered to be with child, and Joseph certainly knew that he was not responsible. The only conceivable explanation - at least as far as Joseph could imagine at the time - was that Mary had cheated on him with another man.
Now, we can easily imagine the range of emotions that a person in Joseph’s situation would have experienced at a time like this. He would likely have felt anger and outrage, humiliation and embarrassment.
But fear would also be a part of this mix - especially if Joseph might have been contemplating the possibility of going through with his plan to get married to Mary anyway, in spite of the scandal of her pregnancy.
He might have been willing to forgive her for this one act of unfaithfulness - as he perceived it. But he would be afraid of the future pain and anguish that would come upon him, if she would betray him again.
When a man commits himself to loving a woman in marriage, and “lets down his guard” in that relationship - so that he allows himself to become emotionally vulnerable - he thereby opens himself up to the possibility of being hurt severely by his wife.
If, in Joseph’s perception, Mary had already violated that trust once, she could do it again.
And a man’s sense of pride, and his sense of his reputation in his community, is also important. This was especially so in Joseph’s case, living as he did in a small town, where everyone was interconnected and involved with each other.
When a man’s wife or fiancee cheats on him with another man, this is a humiliating experience.
The victim of such adultery could easily think that his friends and neighbors would now see him as weak - not in control of his family or his own life. The victim of such adultery could easily think that his friends and neighbors would now lose their respect for him.
It’s likely that Joseph, in his cultural setting, would fear the possibility of being looked down on in this way by the other men of his town, especially if anything like this would happen again. And so, such fears on Joseph’s part no doubt contributed toward his decision to divorce Mary.
Joseph was not vindictive, as many men would have been. He was, as Matthew tells us, a “just man,” who was even now willing to spare Mary the public humiliation of a very public divorce. But, quietly and discreetly, he was going to divorce her.
Joseph was afraid of what would happen to him - in his own emotions, and in his standing with other people - if he did not divorce her. In his decision to end the betrothal, he was - at least in part - governed by that fear.
He ultimately did not want to take the chance, of giving Mary another chance.
But now an angel of the Lord tells him: “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife.” In effect, the angel is saying: Do not be governed by your fear, in the way you deal with this problem, and with your perception of what you think Mary has done.
Do not be governed by a desire for emotional self-preservation, by fearfully insulating yourself from the possibility of future pain. Do not be governed by your pride, by fearfully guarding yourself from the possibility of future embarrassment.
Joseph, don’t let your decision of whether or not to marry this girl, be determined by fear. Instead, let it be determined by faith: faith in God’s word to you right now, that it is his will for you to go ahead and marry her, in spite of your fear.
Shifting forward now to our own lives: How often are our decisions governed by fear, rather than by faith?
None of us has ever been in exactly the same situation in which Joseph found himself. But there have been plenty of times when we, in our own lives, have not done what God would have wanted us to do; or have not said what God would have wanted us to say, because of our fear of the possible negative consequences.
So many of our decisions are made on the basis of our desire to avoid emotional distress, or to avoid threats to our physical safety. We are often governed by an aversion to anything that is new and unusual, or different from what we are used to.
What lies at the root of all these hesitancies is fear. But sometimes, God wants us to do scary things. Sometimes he calls us to do things that are different from what we have done before.
Sometimes he sends us into relationships, and into vocations, where we will not necessarily feel safe and secure at the level of our human emotions. There are times when it is God’s will for us to go to places in life where we will lose our sense of security and confidence; where we will become vulnerable, and uncertain of our future.
When our general Christian calling would send us in such scary directions, or when our specific vocation in life would place potentially frightening obligations on us, we are nevertheless to obey the Lord’s will. We are not to second-guess the Lord’s wisdom.
God calls us, in faith, to follow where he leads. And if we do suffer, humanly speaking, for our faithfulness to him, so be it.
If we are humiliated in the eyes of the world because of our fulfilment of the duties that God has placed on us, that will just have to be the way it is.
If Jesus was willing to suffer and die on the cross, and to be executed in the most humiliating of ways in a public crucifixion, who are we to complain if God permits emotional trials and physical dangers to come upon us?
God is God. We are not. He gets to decide such things, not us. As Job declares: “Though he slay me, I will hope in him.”
But let’s listen again to the angel’s encouragement to Joseph not to be fearful in his situation. And let’s listen also to the reason the angel gives, for why Joseph should not be afraid to do what God wants him to do:
“Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
When the angel indicates that the growing baby in Mary is actually divine - conceived by the Holy Spirit - we might think that this information would make Joseph even more afraid.
An encounter with the eternal and almighty God, in his righteousness and holiness, is more frightening than the problem Joseph thought he was dealing with. This information would be frightening to the extreme, if it were not contextualized in the way that the angel does contextualize it.
The situation, as the angel describes it, does not involve God’s coming to Mary and Joseph in his uncloaked heavenly glory. In Jesus, God was coming to them hidden under the humble form of a real, flesh-and-blood human baby.
And the situation here does not involve God’s coming in judgment, to pour out his wrath on the wickedness of fallen man - to pour out his wrath on Joseph, because of his doubts and unbelief.
In Jesus, God was coming in forgiveness, to save his people from their sins - to save Joseph from his sins. That’s what really took Joseph’s fear away.
Yes, he did now know what God had called him to do - to marry this girl Mary, to whom he was pledged. But Joseph’s assurance that God, in his mercy, was going to be right in the middle of all of it, every step of the way, gave him a peaceful confidence in the fulfilling of his vocation - a confidence that could not have come from any other source.
And so, Joseph did as God asked him to do - joyfully and eagerly - in faith, and not in fear. In faith, and not in fear, Joseph embraced his calling to be the husband of Mary, and the step-father and guardian of Jesus.
He embraced this calling, because he knew that in Christ God had lovingly embraced him, and would take away his fears. Joseph knew that God, in Christ, had - as it were - embedded himself into his life and vocation, to be his constant companion, protector, and guide.
Dear friends: The way in which God causes his Son Jesus to be a part of your life is, of course, different - in some significant ways - from the way in which God caused Jesus to be a part of Joseph’s life. But it is not different in every way.
What you and Joseph have in common is the pledge that God, in his mercy, is right there with you, in the middle of everything he has called you to be and to do. Jesus does not come to you in his uncloaked divine glory either. Jesus comes into your life hidden in his Gospel and sacraments.
And as you live in him by faith, he lives and abides in you. When Jesus speaks his words of hope and salvation to you, he embeds himself in your life, and in your Christian vocation: to forgive your sins; to energize you in your faith; and to be your companion, protector, and guide.
And by the gentle, sustaining power of his Spirit, he remains as your companion, protector, and guide - even in those areas of your life and calling that would otherwise frighten you.
According to the new nature that Christ gives you in your baptism - and that Christ nurtures in you by the sacrament of his body and blood - you now do not turn back from your divine calling, in fear. Instead, according to your new nature, you press forward into your divine calling, in faith.
That confident faith is in a God who miraculously sent his Son into the womb of the virgin Mary, to save his people from their sins. That courageous faith is in a God who lovingly caused his Son to become a part of our humanity, to save us from our sins.
As you continue to wrestle with your human fears, and with temptations toward pride and unbelief, God does not say to you exactly what he sent the angel to say to Joseph. But what he does say to you in his Word has the same effect.
In view of the unique struggles of your own situation, whatever it might be; and with Fatherly sensitivity to what it is that is particularly scary to you, God assures you that in Jesus he has come to save you from your sins.
He promises you that through Jesus he is with you, and will remain with you - as he overcomes your fears, and as he leads you forward in faith.
“Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Amen.
24 December 2010 - Christmas Eve
One of the overarching themes that colors the story of our Savior’s birth, as we are recalling that story tonight, is the theme of light shining in the darkness. The much-beloved Christmas carol “Silent Night,” which we will sing later this evening, picks up on this theme in the kind of “verbal picture” that it paints for us.
In this carol, we are reminded of the brilliant light that literally shone forth from heaven when the angels appeared to the shepherds:
“Shepherds quake at the sight. Glories stream from heaven afar. Heavenly hosts sing ‘Alleluia.’”
The shepherds did indeed quake at the sight of this supernatural light, as that light accompanied the extraordinary heavenly messenger who spoke to them. St. Luke reports: “there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.”
In the instances recorded in Scripture of ordinary people having direct encounters with God’s glory, it is always a frightening experience for them. The reason for this is the mortal and moral frailty of human nature.
In our weakness, we are easily overcome by the power of God. In our sinfulness, we are easily overcome by the holiness of God.
And so, when God wants to reveal something to people without thereby causing them to collapse in quivering fear, he comes to them in ways that cloak and hide his divine glory.
We sometimes think that what we would need, to be assured in our faith, or to be persuaded to believe in God in the first place, would be the kind of spectacular encounter with the divine that the shepherds had on the first Christmas.
But such an experience - with brilliant, heavenly light, and other overt manifestations of supernatural power - would not draw us to God, in a hopeful faith. It would repel us from God, in terror.
We severely underestimate our human frailty, if we think we could stand proudly and unaffected in the presence of the undiluted glory of God.
What happened to the shepherds, as they quaked at the sight of these heavenly glories, was a one-time occurrence. In all the many celebrations of the birth of Jesus that have taken place in Christendom since the first one, this has never happened again.
And it’s a good thing that it hasn’t, because the appearance of an overwhelmingly bright light from heaven, like this, would be more likely to scare people away from Jesus, than to attract them toward him.
But the carol “Silent Night” also picks up on another aspect of the “light in the darkness” imagery in the story of the original Christmas, which is not frightening to weak and sinful people like the shepherds - like us.
When this carol was translated from German into English, the translator did a few unusual things with the sentence structure, in order to make it all rhyme. If we untangle some of this stylistic awkwardness, and restate, in a more normal way, the section of the carol that I am now talking about, it would say this, in a prayer addressed to the baby Jesus:
“Son of God: Love’s pure, radiant light beams from Thy holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace.”
The pure, radiant light of love that beams from the face of the Christ-child is not the kind of literal, visible light that the shepherds saw when they were out in the fields. It is, rather, what St. John is talking about in his Gospel, when he says this about the eternal Son of God, who became flesh and dwelled among us in the person of Jesus:
“In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
This light is the light of God’s grace, shining forth from Christ in the midst of the darkness of human sin and misery. This is not just a matter of sentimentality, or of undefined warm feelings.
The carol gets it right when it speaks here of “the dawn of redeeming grace.” The light of Christ is the light of God’s redemption of fallen humanity - his purchasing and winning back of our rebellious race - by means of the saving work that this Babe of Bethlehem would accomplish on Calvary’s cross.
The eternal Son of the Father came into the world to provide a real solution to humanity’s real problem: our sinful antagonism toward God, and our resulting alienation from God and from each other.
He came, in this wonderful birth, to liberate us from our captivity to the devil’s lies. He came among us, as our brother according to the flesh, to enlighten our darkened hearts with the light of God’s forgiving and reconciling love, and to give us eternal life.
The divine glory of Christ was always there, wherever Christ was. But this glory was cloaked and hidden, beneath the humble humanity of this baby.
Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds were therefore not frightened by that glory. It was not a glory that they could see with their physical eyes, or feel with their physical senses.
But it was a glory - a saving, divine glory - that they were certain was truly there, because they believed what God had told them about this baby.
They knew by faith that the child who slept in the manger was the Son of the Most High. They knew by faith that it was Emmanuel - God with us - who nursed at the breast of his young mother.
In the stable they all see, with the eyes of faith, the pure, radiant light of God’s love, beaming from that baby’s face. That’s why, to quote the carol once again, “All is calm, all is bright, around yon Virgin Mother and Child.”
Unlike the frightening literal light that shone forth with the angels, the light of redeeming grace shining forth from the face of Jesus is not a one-time occurrence. Since our Lord’s resurrection, that light has never stopped shining.
Wherever Jesus is today - as he continues to come among us by the power of his Word, in preaching and sacrament - that divine and saving light shines forth from him: toward us, and into us.
That light is here with us right now, clearing away the darkness of our sin. That light is here, because Jesus is here, where he has promised to be - where two or three - or more - are gathered together in his name.
The light of Christ is not a frightening light, scattering us in fear away from the righteous holiness of God. It is a redeeming light, drawing us in peace into the forgiving love of God.
And as we sit here in reverent silence, thinking of these things, believing these things, all is calm, and all is bright around us. The darkness of our sin and misery, of our fear and weakness, gives way to this light. And we are filled with hope and life.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not ever overcome it. Amen.
25 December 2010 - Christmas Day
Quite often, people yearn to have a “new beginning” in some aspect of their life. A student who does poorly in his studies seeks a new beginning at a different school. A husband and wife who have separated and become estranged seek a new beginning for their marriage, in a reconciliation. A lonely widow or widower seeks a new beginning in a second marriage.
A family that has suffered economically from layoffs, and has lost its home, seeks a new beginning in a new home - with new jobs for the working members of the household. A prisoner who has served his time for his past crimes, and has been rehabilitated, seeks a new beginning in his release from incarceration, and in a return to freedom.
I’m sure that most if not all of us have at some point been in need of a new beginning of one kind or another.
Life in this world, with the many failures and disappointments that we experience in this world, is often marked by the need for such new beginnings. And when things go as we hope, and we get a “second chance” at those times when we really need one, we are very grateful.
If we want to grasp the full significance of the Christmas story, concerning the birth of Jesus, one of the things that we need to understand is that this miraculous birth happened because the whole human race was in need of a “new beginning.”
At a cosmic level - in regard to our fractured relationship with God, and in regard to the deep and painful flaws of our own internal character - all humanity was in need of a second chance, and a fresh start.
The situation in which humanity found itself, after our first parents’ fall into sin, was not very cheery. Beginning with Adam and Eve, and continuing with all of their descendants, things started out bad, and got worse.
The picture that Scripture paints of humanity’s natural, corrupted state is pretty bleak. St. Paul, quoting various passages of the Old Testament, gives us this very discouraging description in his Epistle to the Romans:
“all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written: None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
“Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
This is what humanity is really like, on the inside, in its natural state. If you don’t see it this way, or if you don’t think that this has been your experience, that subjective limitation on your part doesn’t change this fact.
And it doesn’t change the fact that almighty God, in his righteousness and perfect holiness, sees our human nature precisely in this way. As St. Paul also writes, all the children of Adam, who by nature share in his sinfulness, are “by nature children of wrath.”
The human race, after generation upon generation of this inherited rebellion, was definitely in need of a “new beginning” with God, when Jesus was born just a little over 2,000 years ago. And in the marvelous birth of that little baby, a “new beginning” is exactly what the human race got!
St. Paul writes in his First Epistle to the Corinthians: “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”
Jesus, the second Adam, became a part of the human race in order to give the human race a second chance - from the inside. He came to be the founder of a new humanity - a redeemed and forgiven humanity.
He came to be the head of a re-created humanity: with a new nature that would be at peace with God, and not hostile to him; with a new nature that would bear the life-filled image of the new Adam, Jesus Christ, and not the death-filled image of the Old Adam.
St. Paul again writes: “Thus it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.”
And of course, it’s not just the human race as a whole that needed a new beginning, and a second chance, with God. That can be kind of abstract.
It’s each individual human being who needed a new beginning. The eternal Son of God entered into the human race, because each individual member of the human race needs a new beginning.
Jesus was born, because you needed a fresh start with God. Your sins needed to be forgiven, through the atonement for sin that Jesus would accomplish on his cross.
Your inborn hostility toward God needed to be supplanted with reconciliation through the resurrection of Christ - by which God would demonstrate that his Son’s sacrifice for you was fully accepted.
You needed to be born again, so that your inner conflict and turmoil would be soothed and calmed into inner peace and tranquility. You needed to be born again, so that you would be not only a child of the first Adam, contaminated with his sin; but also be a member of God’s family, adopted in Christ, and filled with the Spirit of Christ.
Charles Wesley, in the carol we sang a few minutes ago, aptly describes this need - this need, on the part of all of us, for a “new beginning” with God. And in this carol, he aptly describes also the Lord’s fulfillment of this need through the Holy Child of Bethlehem:
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 leaves His throne on high, Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth; Born to give them second birth.
Today we had the privilege of witnessing two baptisms. By the power of God’s Word - connected to the earthly water - Baptism, miraculously, is a washing of regeneration.
In Baptism, God offers and bestows the second birth. He offers and bestows a new beginning to the children of Eden, who so desperately need a new beginning.
That’s what God graciously gave to the little ones who were baptized today. And that’s what God graciously gives to you in your baptism too.
Baptism is a one-time act. There is one Lord, one faith, and one baptism.
But that one Baptism that you have received is a living power that reverberates throughout life. It reaches forward to where you are today, in your walk of faith, so that whenever you need yet another new beginning with God - in the wake of some failure or transgression - God, in your Baptism, gives it to you.
That’s the amazing thing about “new beginnings” in the life of a Christian. Yes, we do have a great big “new beginning” of salvation, when we are decisively transported from the kingdom of Satan into the kingdom of Christ; and when we are converted from spiritual death to spiritual life.
But our lives as God’s people are filled with smaller-scale new beginnings every day. Whenever we sin, God gives us yet another new beginning in his forgiveness.
Whenever we are frightened, God gives us a new beginning in his comfort and protection. Whenever we are confused and uncertain of the pathway we should follow, God gives us a new beginning in the wise guidance of his Word, and in the calling that he lovingly places upon us.
All of these new beginnings come through the newborn Babe of Bethlehem.
Today, therefore, can be a day for a new beginning, and a fresh start with God, not just for the children who were baptized, but for each and every one of us.
Whatever in us has become old and stale, God makes new and vibrant. Whatever had become crooked and weak, God makes straight and strong.
Jesus was born, as a part of the human race, to give the human race the new beginning with God that it needed. We rejoice and are thankful beyond measure for this greatest of blessings, because this was something that only he, as God in the flesh, could give to us.
Jesus was born of the virgin Mary to give you a new beginning with God. You personally rejoice and are thankful beyond measure for this greatest of blessings, because this was something that only he, as God in the flesh, could give to you.
Mild He leaves His throne on high, Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth; Born to give them second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the new-born King!” Amen.
26 December 2010 - Christmas 1 - Matthew 2:13-23 J
Jesus died for us. That is one of the most fundamental points of our confession of faith as Christians.
Even in the Christmas season, when we think about the birth of Jesus, the death of Jesus is not far from our minds either. The well-known Christmas carol, “What Child Is This?”, pulls us forward to a consideration of the reason why God’s Son became a man in the womb of the virgin:
Why lies He in such mean estate, Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear: for sinners here, The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce him through, The Cross be borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word Made Flesh, The babe, the son of Mary!
Now, if Jesus came into the world to die for us, we might wonder why God went to such extraordinary lengths to prevent the death of Jesus, when King Herod wanted to kill him. St. Matthew tells us in today’s Gospel that an angel was sent to give Joseph a warning about this mortal danger:
“an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’”
Why would death at the hands of Herod’s henchmen at this time in Jesus’ life, have been any different from death on a cross, at the hands of the Romans, at a later time? Wouldn’t it have accomplished the same purpose - if the reason for Jesus’ birth, was for Jesus to die?
Another example of an occasion when Jesus could have been killed early - before the events of Calvary - was during his temptation in the wilderness, when Satan tried to trick him into throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the temple. St. Matthew reports that
“the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you,” and “On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.”’ Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”’”
And yet another time when people tried to kill Jesus prematurely, was when he preached - shall we say - a controversial sermon, in his hometown of Nazareth. St. Luke reports:
“When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. But passing through their midst, he went away.”
In all of these instances, Jesus was preserved from being killed before the time when he was supposed to be killed. But why? What difference would it have made?
This is the difference: while it is true that God’s Son came into the world so that he could die for us, it is also true that he came into the world so that he could first live for us.
The mission of Christ was not only to die, as a perfect sacrifice under the condemnation of the law. It was also to live, as a perfectly obedient man under the directives of the law.
As St. Paul notes in his Epistle to the Galatians: “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law...” Jesus was born under the law, so that he could live under the law, and be the kind of righteous person that none of us has ever been.
And he was that kind of righteous person - not just according to his divine nature, but also according to his human nature - the nature that he shares with us. One of the effects of this is to show that it is, in principle, possible for a human being to live according to God’s expectations.
Whenever you have been tempted to sin, and there was a choice of actions laid out before you, you could have chosen the right path, and not the wrong path. There has never been a time when you have sinned in such a way, because you were forced to sin, against your will.
Rather, at those times when you have deliberately done what was wrong, it was because you made a choice to do what was wrong. In the case of Jesus, however, he always chose to do what was right.
According to his human nature, as he lived under the law of God, he never sinned. You therefore cannot throw up to God the excuse that he has no right to judge your sins, since everybody has sinned.
Everybody has not sinned. Jesus has not sinned.
We do, of course, still believe in the doctrine of the general corruption of fallen human nature. The Bible teaches this. But this cannot be used as an excuse for our specific and deliberate decisions to sin - when we knew better; and when we could have said “no” to that sin.
Jesus lived a full human life, in obedience to God’s law every step of the way. When this is impressed upon our conscience, it convicts us of our failure to obey God’s law.
And it silences our protest that God’s threatened punishment of rebellious humanity is unjust, supposedly because he demands the impossible. The life of Jesus proves that God does not demand the impossible.
It is possible for humanity to do as God tells it to do. Jesus, the very human son of Mary, always did as God told him to do.
But this life of obedience, which functions as such a testimony against us, is also a life of obedience that was lived out for us.
According to the demands of the law, and according to Jesus’ example of submitting to those demands, the obedience of Christ contributes toward our condemnation. But from the perspective of the Gospel, the obedience of Christ contributes toward our justification, and our acceptance by God into his kingdom, and into his family.
Listen to the rest of that verse from the Epistle to the Galatians: “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”
Jesus did not come only to show us how we should live. He didn’t really need to do that anyway, since the Ten Commandments - and our own conscience - already made this known to us.
But the life that Jesus lived under the law, was a life that he lived for us, as our substitute.
God, in his eternal plan for human salvation, wanted to save humanity from the judgment it deserves.
But he needed to do this in a way that would not negate the requirements of his own justice and honesty: that a pronouncement of innocence to humanity, has to have a basis in actual human innocence.
At the very least, God would need to be able to look at one human life that really was lived righteously, and then declare a “not guilty” verdict for the human race, based on the actual “not guilty” status of that representative of the human race.
This is what Jesus was, and is, for us. Contrary to the wishes of Herod, he needed to live through childhood, so that his sinless thoughts, words, and deeds as a child, could be credited to all other children, who do sin.
He needed to live through his teen years, so that his sinless thoughts, words, and deeds as a teenager could be credited to all other teenagers, who do sin.
He needed to live to full adulthood, and to complete all the tasks that God had assigned to him for his public ministry - his preaching, his works of love, and his miracles - so that his sinless thoughts, words, and deeds as an adult could be credited to all other adults, who do sin, and who do not live up to what God expects of them.
Before Jesus could die on the cross, for the forgiveness of our lack of being righteous, he needed to do a lot of living - a lot of righteous living - so that we could also be justified, by having his righteousness placed upon us.
Forgiveness from God is important. As a concept, our “forgiveness” means that God will not treat us as we deserve. In a sense, it brings us up from a place of shame and degradation, to a point of neutrality with God.
But justification from God is also important. As a concept, our “justification” means that God will treat us as Jesus deserves. In a sense, it brings us up from a position of neutrality, into the full embrace of God’s acceptance, and into the certain hope of everlasting life with God.
These are “conceptual” distinctions. But in actual fact, the forgiveness of our sins, and the bestowal of the righteousness of Christ, are always together. For all practical purposes, they are the same thing.
They are really just two sides of the same coin. And each side of that coin requires what is on the other side, so that the whole salvation that God wants for us, can and will be received by us.
Through the life and death of Jesus, our sins are forgiven. Through the death and life of Jesus, we are pronounced to be righteous, and are treated by God as righteous.
The fullness of Jesus’ life was permeated with all of the holiness that God demands. The fulness of Jesus’ life had no trace of the sin that God condemns.
The efforts of the devil to cut that short did not succeed. God made sure that those efforts would not succeed.
As we heard in today’s Gospel, God made sure that the child Jesus was delivered from Herod’s diabolical plot to kill him, before he had had a chance to live fully for us.
He also made sure that Jesus, with his knowledge of Scripture, would not fall for the devil’s trap in his temptation. And he made sure that Jesus would not become a victim of the murderous anger of an enraged mob in Nazareth.
In this holy Christmas season, we celebrate the beginning of the earthly life of God’s Son.
Starting at Bethlehem, God’s Son became a part of our human story. And the babe born in Bethlehem went on to live a genuine flesh-and-blood human life on earth, under the law, for more than 30 years.
At the end of his earthly life, of course, Jesus did die for us. He became our sacrifice, and suffered on the cross in our place.
The blessings of that sacrifice are received personally, when we sincerely repent of our sins, and when we believe the Lord’s message of forgiveness.
But throughout his earthly life, in all of its stages - and also in his death and in his resurrection - Jesus became our righteousness as well. When we in faith receive God’s forgiveness, we also receive this righteousness.
The righteousness of Jesus’ life is draped over the sinfulness of your life. In the presence of God, the righteousness of Jesus’ thoughts, words, and deeds, completely covers over the flaws and failures of your thoughts, words, and deeds.
Because Christ lived for us, we now live, in Christ, in the joy and peace that God’s justification brings. Because Christ lived for us, we, with God’s help, now live for Christ, and not for ourselves: serving our neighbor, and praising our Savior.
So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh; Come, peasant, king, to own Him!
The King of Kings salvation brings; Let loving hearts enthrone Him!
Raise, raise the song on high! The virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy! joy! for Christ is born, The babe, the son of Mary! Amen.