3 January 2010 - Christmas 2 - Luke 2:40-52

Several years ago, my grandmother’s sister, who was living in a nursing home, passed away on a Sunday morning. My mother was the primary contact person, but it just so happened that she was away from home.

My name and phone number were second on the list of people to call, so the nursing home then tried to call me. But they got no answer at my number either. They didn’t try to call later in the day, but they just stopped trying to call anybody.

When my mother eventually returned from her trip, and communicated with the nursing home, she finally found out that her aunt had died. Almost two days had gone by, without anyone in the family knowing about it.

When my mother asked why the nursing home had not contacted me about the passing of this relative, they responded by noting, “Oh, your son who’s the minister, right?” And then they proceeded to report that they had tried to call me on the Sunday morning when she died, but that I had not answered the phone.

Incredulously, she then reminded them that when you call the home of a minister on Sunday morning, you should not expect to find anyone at home. They should have called later in the day, if they really wanted to talk to me.

On Sunday morning, wouldn’t they know that a minister would be in God’s house, and that he would be about God’s business in church?

When Joseph and Mary realized that they had left the twelve-year-old Jesus behind, in the city of Jerusalem, they were, to say the least, panic-stricken. And there were no cell-phones with family plans back then.

There was no way for Mary and Joseph to get in touch with Jesus to find out where he was. They were desperate to find him, but didn’t know where to begin looking.

But, as we all know, this story does have a happy ending. Joseph and Mary, after much searching, checked out the temple, to see if Jesus might be there. And there he was, unafraid, calmly discussing the Scriptures with the chief teachers of Israel.

In exasperation, Mary said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.”

It’s interesting that she seems to blame Jesus for her own parental negligence. “Why have you treated us so” - as if it was his fault that they - the adults in the family - had left him behind when they left the city, and hadn’t made sure he was in their traveling party.

That is human nature, though, isn’t it? We are always looking for a way to blame someone else for our blunders.

In our selfishness and pride, we so often try to protect ourselves from shame and humiliation by claiming to be a victim, when we are actually a perpetrator of wrong or irresponsible behavior.

And not only did Mary do wrong in this accusation against Jesus. She also said something about Jesus that was not theologically correct.

She told him, “your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” But Joseph was not his father.

She knew that, too. Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and was the Son of the Most High. He had no human father. But Mary almost seems to have forgotten that crucial fact.

And her forgetting of that fact probably explains why she was so fearful and distressed. It would also probably explain why she did not think to go to the temple first - where she should have expected Jesus to be, if she had been thinking clearly.

But she wasn’t thinking, or believing, clearly. And so, Jesus then said to her and Joseph, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

In asking that one question, Jesus accomplished quite a lot. First, he gave his mother some gentle but necessary religious instruction.

As a twelve-year-old boy, it was not Jesus’ place to be his mother’s teacher - her rabbi. That was not his calling - at least not yet.

So, he did not directly correct her statement that Joseph was his father. But in an indirect way, he did remind her of who his Father actually was, in the form of a well-crafted question. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

His step-father’s house was in Nazareth. And Jesus certainly was grateful to have that home. He loved and respected Joseph.

But Jesus’ Father’s house was not in Nazareth. It was in Jerusalem. Because Jesus’ Father was God almighty.

When Mary realized that her son was not with them, on the journey back to Nazareth, she should have thought: I am not the mother of a mere man. I am the mother of God, in human flesh.

Where, then, should I expect to find my son? Where would he who is God in the flesh go, in this city?

He will be where God is doing what God does - where God is really being God. He will be in God’s house. He will be in the temple.

Our translation has Jesus say to Mary and Joseph, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” There is some uncertainty, though, as to how this phrase should be rendered in English. That’s why some translations put it this way: “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?”

But it’s not necessarily a bad thing that there is a little bit of ambiguity here, because both of these interpretations have some validity. God’s house is where God conducts his business. God’s business - God’s chief and proper work - is what he does in the temple.

The Lord’s salvation of his people is, we might say, a divine “cottage industry.” He works out of his home. What goes on in the temple is at the heart an center of what God does: forgiving sin, justifying the ungodly, redeeming the lost.

It’s true, of course, that God is present and active throughout the universe. In a hidden way he sustains all things. He pulls the strings behind the affairs of human history.

But these actions are, we might say, not his actual “job,” in the deepest sense. We might even say that these other activities are, in a manner of speaking, God’s “hobbies.”

They are things that he does accomplish, and they are important and necessary things. But they are subservient to the chief work of God.

God’s chief or proper work is the work of salvation that he performs in the temple, where the sacrifices that he commanded are offered, and where the Holy Scriptures that he inspired are proclaimed. And that is where Jesus went. That is where Jesus had to be.

Because all of the saving activities that took place in the temple pointed ultimately to Jesus, and to what he would do. The animal sacrifices were a foreshadowing of the sacrifice that Jesus would offer on the cross.

Mary had blamed Jesus for her own shortcomings as a parent. She shouldn’t have done that - just as we shouldn’t blame others for our wrongdoings. But on the cross Jesus took the blame for it anyway.

He took the blame for every failing of every parent throughout history. He took the blame for every failing of every child throughout history. As the innocent one, sent by God to be the pure sacrifice for all sin, he took the blame for all sin, period.

And it was actually that future sacrifice - that final sacrifice for all of humanity’s failings, which God’s Son would offer - that retroactively gave power to the sacrifices of the temple, as those sacrifices pictured and anticipated the true sacrifice of Christ.

All the promises and prophecies that had been spoken by the Lord in the Sacred Scriptures were spoken also of Jesus. His life, his death, and his resurrection mark the fulfillment of everything that God had promised concerning the establishment of his kingdom - his eternal kingdom - among men.

This was the Father’s business. This was Jesus’ business. This was what God’s temple in Jerusalem represented.

Today, of course, the “temple” of God is not a particular building in Jerusalem. And therefore God is no longer conducting his business, and doing his chief work, within such a temple.

The temple, today, is Christ himself. And that living, personal temple of God is present wherever Christ is present: through his church, administering his means of grace; through his ministers, preaching his Gospel and administering his sacraments.

God does still govern and preserve the universe. He is still causing the rain to fall and the sun to shine. He is still directing, behind the scenes, the course of human history, for the benefit of his saints, and for the extension of his kingdom.

But this is not God’s chief and proper work - his real “business.” That’s what takes place when two or three are gathered together in Jesus’ name: so that sins can be forgiven, and so that the ungodly can be justified.

Where the Gospel of Christ is proclaimed, there his Spirit - the Spirit of adoption - is working faith in the hearts of men. Where the sacraments of Christ are administered, there the people whom God has redeemed with the blood of the Lamb are knit together into an eternal fellowship, with an eternal hope.

You, my friends, are a part of this fellowship. You are the adopted children of God, whose proper place is here, in your Father’s house.

Don’t waste time and effort in searching anywhere else to try to find God, or to figure out where you should be in regard to God. He has already told you where he can be found. And where he is found, conducting his business, is where you, too, should always be found.

A Sunday should never pass without your presence in a place where God’s people are gathered in the name of Jesus; in a place where his Word is preached and where his heavenly blessings are distributed; in a place where you can be instructed in his truth, for the correction of your mistakes, and for the clarification and strengthening of your faith.

And if the circumstances of your life genuinely prevent your physical presence in the Lord’s house on any given Lord’s day, then be present in spirit, by setting aside, as your are able, an undistracted time of reading God’s Word and reflecting on God’s Word, and of prayer.

But may it be so that you are never available to answer your telephone during that hour when the services of God’s house are taking place. May people who might be searching for you always know exactly where you can be found during the hour of worship.

And that’s because you, as God’s child, need to be where God is doing what God does: where your sins are forgiven, through the sacrifice of Christ; where you, as one who is by nature sinful and unclean, are justified through the resurrection of Christ.

The fellowship of Christ’s church is where we come together to repent together - taking responsibility for our own failings, instead of blaming others for our misdeeds. And the fellowship of Christ’s church is where we come together to believe the Gospel together - to receive the Lord’s absolution and restoration.

As God’s child, indwelled by God’s Spirit, it is your privilege to be here, where the rest of God’s people are: to receive what God’s people receive from their heavenly Father, and to be built up together in faith and love.

And so, when someone might be looking for you on a Sunday morning, and when such a person might finally find you here after long searching, in gratitude to God, and with faith in Christ, say to him, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Amen.

10 January 2010 - The Baptism of our Lord - Luke 3:15-22

You and I certainly like to be told by persons whose opinion we value - parents, spouses, teachers, bosses - that they are pleased with us. By the same token, you and I certainly do not like to be told by such persons that they are displeased with us.

We all enjoy it when people speak well of us and commend us, but we do not enjoy it when people reprove and rebuke us. And so, we have a tendency to do more of those things that earn the approval of others, while we also have a tendency to do less of those things that earn the disapproval of others.

But not always. While we do enjoy the praise that comes when others are pleased with us, we are sometimes unwilling or unable to do what would legitimately earn that praise. We pretend to be something better than we really are, in order to get adulation and credit that we don’t really deserve.

I think we all throw up pretenses of one kind or another, to one degree or another, to keep up appearances - so that people will not know what we are really like in every respect. We hide from outsiders the embarrassing things, the shameful things, the bad things.

We often take shortcuts to having a good reputation, and to having good things said about us, not by actually trying to be good people, but by figuring out ways to make people think we are good people - or at least that we are better than we really are.

But when these dishonest pretenses are torn away by one circumstance or another - so that people find out about the darker side of our life, and criticize us on account of it - even then we’re not necessarily going to be humbled into making the changes that we need to make, and addressing and correcting these now exposed problems.

We are just as likely to use various means to try to silence, or discredit, our critics. Instead of focusing on the causes of offense in us, and correcting them, we often focus on, and attack, the persons who have rightly rebuked us because of such offenses.

In today’s text from St. Luke’s Gospel, there are two examples of men who are told by God what he thinks of them. In the case of one - Herod the tetrarch - God’s message to him, spoken through his prophet John, was a message of disapproval and rebuke.

Herod was in an adulterous relationship. He had taken up with his own brother’s wife, in fact. And this God could not tolerate.

Among his pagan friends, Herod’s sin was probably not seen to be so bad. But God - and God’s spokesman John - saw it differently. And God - through John’s public ministry - was publicly critical of Herod’s sin.

Herod didn’t like hearing this criticism, and these expressions of disapproval from God. He had two options to choose from, by which he might silence these divine rebukes.

He could remove the reason for the criticism by repenting of his adultery and asking for God’s forgiveness, and bearing the fruits of repentance by sending his brother’s wife back to him - if he would have her. Or, he could try to silence the critic in some underhanded and corrupt way - without dealing with the underlying offense that elicited the criticism.

And the second option is, as we know, the one that he chose: “Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by [John] for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.”

Herod thought that he could silence God’s criticism against him, and against his sin, by throwing God’s spokesman in jail. But this was nothing more than a self-deception on Herod’s part. The sixth Commandment still announced, “You shall not commit adultery.”

It wouldn’t matter how many prophets and preachers Herod threw in jail. God’s Word would still be expressing God’s disapproval of Herod’s behavior.

And in his conscience, Herod would never be able to silence that testimony of divine judgment against him and his actions - unless, of course, he would repent of his wickedness, and sincerely trust in the mercy of God for forgiveness and peace, and for the grace to amend his sinful life.

But there is another person in today’s text, about whom God speaks very differently. Jesus of Nazareth presented himself at the Jordan River to be baptized by John, and to be officially inaugurated into his public ministry as humanity’s Redeemer and Savior.

And from heaven, as Jesus was baptized, God the Father spoke these words to him: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

Unlike Herod, Jesus had not violated the sixth commandment - or any commandment. His life was filled with righteousness.

He was untainted by any sin. He was faithful to all his duties, and did everything he was supposed to do.

Jesus didn’t just act like a good person, outwardly, in order to trick his Father into thinking that he was a good person. That would be impossible anyway.

God cannot be deceived, or misled, by such hypocrisies. He always looks at the heart, and not just at the outward appearance.

But Jesus really was, in every way and at every level, a truly good person. And so he deserved this declaration of divine approval and divine pleasure. He earned it, and he received it.

There’s quite a contrast here, between Herod, who is condemned and rebuked by God, and Jesus, who is praised and commended by God. I would hope that if we would be considering which one of these persons we should imitate, we would want to be like Jesus, and not to be like Herod.

We shouldn’t want God to condemn us, and express his judgment against us, as was the case with Herod. We should want God to be pleased with us, and to express his approval of us, as was the case with Jesus.

Yet we also know that God cannot be tricked into thinking that we are good and worthy of such praise, even when we’re not - as other people can perhaps be tricked. God’s law tells us that someone actually needs to be a good person - in heart, soul, and body; in thought, word, and deed - in order for God to declare that he considers him or her to be a good person.

There can be no games with God - no pretense of keeping up appearances, while harboring all forms of sin and wickedness on the inside. But that’s where a major problem arises - because the kind of life and the kind of behavior that earn God’s approval have never been attainted by us - not by any of us.

As sincerely as we would seek to follow the example of Christ, and to turn away from the example of Herod, our actual life still turns out to be more like Herod’s than like Christ’s in many respects. We never get rid of all our hypocrisies. We never live up to the standards to which God holds us, and to which we ideally hold ourselves.

We don’t deserve to hear God’s expression of approval, as was spoken to Jesus. In spite of our best human efforts - such as they are - what we still deserve is to hear God’s condemnation and rebuke, as was spoken to Herod.

And that’s why it is important for us also to take note of what St. Paul tells us in today’s Epistle - from the Letter to the Romans. We read:

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

This is not another declaration of the law of God, that tells us what God demands. In our baptism, as St. Paul describes it, we have a profound example of the Gospel of God - the good news - that announces what God gives, and that actually conveys the gift of God to those who hear and believe.

In his baptism, Jesus was united to us. He took our sins upon himself and carried those sins to the cross, where, by his death, he atoned for those sins, and where he won salvation for us from those sins.

Jesus’ baptism also propelled him forward to his resurrection, in which he established a new reality for us - a reality of spiritual life, to replace the spiritual death that otherwise darkens the fallen human heart. He established a new and eternal kingdom, into which we are invited to enter as citizens and fellow-heirs of God.

Now, in our baptism, we are united to Jesus - to his death and resurrection, and to everything that his death and resurrection accomplished. His righteousness is placed upon us, as our sins are forgiven.

And we are carried forth into the resurrection kingdom of Christ, as the Spirit of Christ comes to dwell within us, with his life-giving and faith-creating power.

Because Christ’s baptism unites him to us, and because our baptism unites us to him, what is said to Christ from heaven on the occasion of his baptism is, in effect, said also to us, on the occasion of our baptism.

You are in God’s Son, by adoption. And his Son is in you, as the hope of glory. Therefore God almighty declares to you: “You are my beloved son; you are my beloved daughter. With you I am well pleased.”

This divine proclamation hovers over you also on every other occasion when your baptism shows itself to be an enduring reality in your life: whenever your old sinful self is once again drowned in repentance, and whenever the new self that bears the image of Christ is raised up in faith.

That’s the divine approval you crave. That’s the declaration from God - that he is pleased with you - that you so desperately want to hear.

You don’t hear it because you have earned the right to hear it. You hear it because Jesus has earned the right to hear it - and because Jesus, in baptism, has brought you to himself in such a way that what he earns, you get.

When God looks upon you, then, through the watery lense of baptism - and through the grace of the Gospel in every other form in which it comes to you - what he sees is his Son, and all the goodness of his Son.

That goodness, which made Jesus to be a good person in his actual existence, is credited to you, so that in Christ you too become a good person in God’s eyes, by imputation.

In your baptism - as it marks you for life, and as it attaches you in faith to Christ - God expresses his delight in you, just as he expressed his delight in Jesus at the Jordan River. In baptism, he does not declare judgment upon you - as he did with Herod, and as he still does with all who remain defiantly attached to their sins.

God declares his pardon to you; he announces his great joy over you, and his acceptance of you; he exults in you as a child whom he dearly loves, and who will live with him in his heavenly mansions forever.

God’s own child, I gladly say it: I am baptized into Christ!
He, because I could not pay it, Gave my full redemption price.
Do I need earth’s treasures many? I have one worth more than any,
That brought me salvation free, Lasting to eternity.

There is nothing worth comparing To this lifelong comfort sure!
Open-eyed my grave is staring; Even there I’ll sleep secure.
Though my flesh awaits its raising, Still my soul continues praising:
I am baptized into Christ; I’m a child of Paradise. Amen.

17 January 2010 - Epiphany 2 - John 2:1-11

Without a doubt we have all followed the news over the past few years, concerning the push in many states, to gain legal recognition for same-sex marriages in those states. We have also followed news reports of the “push-back” that has arisen in those states, and in others, with efforts to amend the various state constitutions so as to define marriage officially and permanently as a lifelong union of a man and a woman.

In the midst of these battles, I have heard, more than once, a proposal that the government should simply no longer be involved at all in defining who is or is not married.

In their exasperation with the intensity and ferocity of the debates, those who are making this suggestion are saying that marriage should be seen now as a religious institution, as each church or religious body may want to define it for its own members. They think that the civil society should become neutral on the question of who is or is not married.

But marriage is not, in itself, a religious institution. It is in the category of those things that pertain to God’s creation of the world, and to all the temporal blessings of the world - which can, in principle, be enjoyed by all human beings, regardless of what their religious beliefs might be.

You don’t have to be a Christian to be able to recognize the personal and societal benefits that come from marriage. Human reason, under the influence of natural law, is able to see that the permanence of marriage is of great personal benefit to a man and woman who enter into the marital commitment.

Marriage is also of great personal benefit to the children who are born from such a union, and who are raised in the kind of stable home environment that a proper marriage brings about. And as far as the larger society is concerned, common sense and rational observation allow us to see that anything which contributes toward the stability of the family unit in a society, thereby contributes toward the stability of the society as a whole.

It is possible for unbelievers to have a fulfilling and happy marriage, within which they can experience the joy of human love, and the many other earthly benefits that heterosexual marriage provides and fosters.

It is, therefore, the legitimate business of the society, and of the civil authorities within the society, to regulate marriage, to encourage marriage, and to define marriage in a way that is in harmony with what marriage actually is, and with the purposes for which God instituted it.

Marriage is not unique to the Christian church, or to any other religious body. It is a trust, and a gift, that comes from God to all human beings who live on the face of the earth, to be enjoyed during the time while they are living on earth.

It is not necessary for every individual to be married, of course. But according to God’s general will, and according to how he created us, the state of marriage, as God established it in the Garden of Eden, is the ordinary and usual condition for most people.

The presence of Jesus and his disciples at the wedding of Cana shows us that marriage is indeed a good thing in God’s eyes. The Son of God is very glad to be associated with marriage in this way, and to give his endorsement to it.

The wine that was served and consumed at the wedding can also be seen as a symbol of the joy of marriage. Just as wine contributes toward the merriness and happiness of a wedding celebration, so too is there a lingering happiness and joy in the marriage that follows, as God’s temporal gifts are continually bestowed on the married couple.

But the wine at this particular wedding - in Cana - ran out. And this unfortunate occurrence can remind us, at a deeper level, that the joy and happiness of a marriage can also run out.

The commitment and love of marriage are supposed to be a conduit for the reception of many earthly benefits - material and emotional benefits.

But all too often, the commitment and love of marriage dry up - just as the supply of wine in Cana dried up - so that the temporal blessings that are supposed to come to people through marriage now stop coming.

The fall of Adam and Eve into sin brought disharmony to their relationship. Their harmonious union with God was severed by their sin, and their relationship with each other was strained and damaged as well.

And with us today, it is also often like this. Our marriages are also poisoned by selfishness and pride, when everyone wants to get his or her own way, and doesn’t want to back down in an argument.

We forget how to listen to each other, and thereby we forget how to care about each other. The unique commitment of marriage often falters when other things, and sometimes other people, become more important than the wife or husband to whom we are united.

It should be possible for anyone with common sense to be able to appreciate the value of marriage, and to be willing to make whatever adjustments are necessary, in order to preserve a marriage when it is threatened. But we often act as if we don’t have any common sense.

That’s what sin does to us. It gives us an insane impulse to destroy the things we cherish the most, and to act at cross-purposes with our own values and beliefs.

In the trials that beset so many marriages today, we all too often surrender to these destructive impulses, and give them free rein. And the joy and blessings of marriage are lost.

It is often the case that a husband and wife whose marriage is threatened in these ways simply do not have the human strength to push back against the destructive power of the selfishness and pride that well up within them.

In their human weakness, they lack the capacity to rekindle within themselves the commitment and the love that they owe to their spouse. Their supply of wine has run out, and it is now impossible for them, by their own ability, to replenish it.

Marriage is an institution for all people, and not just for Christian people. But there is a difference in how Christians understand their marriage, and in how they react when their own marriages are threatened.

When the wine runs out in our marriage, and when there are no human resources available to us, by which we can replenish the wine of our marital joy by our own natural abilities, we have recourse to a supernatural source of replenishment.

Jesus, who blessed the wedding at Cana with his presence, also blessed that wedding with a miraculous gift of wine, to restore and preserve the joy of that celebration. And with us, too, he bestows upon us the miraculous gift of his forgiveness, the miraculous gift of his protection, the miraculous gift of his guidance.

And when these gifts are received in repentance and faith, the joy of marriage is restored. The brokenness of a marriage damaged by sin is healed.

At Cana, after the Lord has made supernatural provision of a new supply of wine, the master of the feast - not knowing where the wine had come from - exclaimed: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.”

The wine that Jesus had provided was better than the wine that the host had originally provided. Likewise, the wine that Jesus provides for us - the joy that he gives us in marriage - is better than the wine, or the joy, that we provide for ourselves through our own reason and willpower.

People who have no faith are still able to find some measure of joy and happiness in marriage. But for those who in faith invite Christ to be a part of their marriage, and to bestow the specific blessings of the Christian Gospel upon them in marriage, the joy of marriage is deeper, the commitment of marriage is stronger, the love of marriage is purer.

Christians who are married to each other don’t have to be satisfied only with the imperfect love of their spouse. They are enriched in their relationship with their spouse by the perfect love of Christ, which fills-in every gap that is left by our shortcomings, and which covers over every flaw and inadequacy in us.

Even common sense would tell us that forgiveness is a positive force for healing, in any strained or broken relationship. And human beings, even without the influence of the Christian Gospel in their lives, are able to see the benefit of forgiving the faults and mistakes of other people, and of being at peace with them in this way.

But there are limitations to how much forgiveness human beings are capable of, in their own wisdom and strength. Some relationships - some marriages - are humanly unsalvageable.

Yet when those who have been deeply disappointed by a spouse know in their own hearts the forgiveness of Christ for their own sins, they become willing and able to forgive the spouse. If you have been embraced by Christ in forgiveness, that embrace supernaturally transforms you, and allows you, in Christ, to embrace others in forgiveness.

The power behind that kind of reconciliation is not merely the power of the human will, or the power of human reason. It is the power of God. And the joy that God brings to a relationship that has been healed by the grace of Jesus Christ, is better than the joy that comes only from human love and human effort.

Christians who are married to each other are more than husband and wife to each other. They are also brother and sister in Christ.

The marriage relationship as such will last only for as long as both parties are alive. Marriage is an institution for life in this world, not for eternity. But the deeper relationship that is shared by a Christian husband and wife, by virtue of their common baptism, is a relationship that will last forever.

In the next world, you as a Christian will no longer be married to your Christian spouse. But you will be with him or her, as a part of the innumerable company of saints from all nations and tribes, who will praise God, and bow down before the Lamb, forever and ever.

This is the relationship that is being cultivated when you forgive one another in the name of Christ, and by the power of Christ. This is the relationship - the eternal relationship - that is bolstering and undergirding the temporal relationship of marriage, to which God has called you in this life.

But of course, the healing power of Christ’s love - the healing power of the “better wine” that he produces for needy people - does not apply only to the marriage relationship.

Any human relationship in which you find yourself, whether you are married or single, can suffer from the same problems of alienation and estrangement that often afflict marriages. People in other kinds of relationships can go through the same kind of emotional agony that people in a troubled marriage go through.

And in those other relationships, natural human strength, and natural human effort, can go only so far in preserving the relationship, or in restoring it if it has been disrupted by some offense.

But the supernatural gift of Christ - the “better wine” that he gives with his forgiveness, and the wisdom which comes down from above - can accomplish what human effort and human reason cannot accomplish. With God all things are possible.

This is something that we need to remember, when we are tempted to give up on people who have hurt us, in our family, in our circle of friends, or even among the members of our congregation. When a relationship has been so damaged by human sin as to be seemingly irreparable, God can repair it.

When all of our emotional and rational resources have been used up - when our own supply of “wine” has been exhausted - Jesus can still solve the problem. As we call upon him together, in mutual humility, and in a common faith in his promises to supply what we lack, his grace will not disappoint us.

Together we hear and believe his word of pardon, as that word flows from his cross. Together we hear and believe his word of peace, as that word flows from his resurrection.

And as we hear and believe him; as we recognize him to be graciously present with us - just as he was present with the people in Cana - we know that he will make all things new.

We know that he will heal and restore us. We know that he will heal and restore our relationships. That’s something for us to think about today when we together listen to - and heed - the Lord’s sacramental invitation, and when we approach the Lord’s altar together.

In our mutual repentance and faith, we will, in this Supper, know and experience a dissolving of all bitterness and anger that may exist among us. We will know and experience a renewal of love and goodwill among us.

Just as at Cana, Jesus will give us the wine that we need, but that we can no longer supply for ourselves. And the wine that he gives is the “better wine” - the wine of divine love, and not merely of human love; the wine of divine strength and wisdom, and not merely of human strength and wisdom. Amen.

24 January 2010 - Epiphany 3 - Luke 4:16-30

Through the prophet Isaiah, the Son of God - many centuries before the incarnation - had spoken of his messianic mission in these words:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And so, that’s what the Jewish people, throughout history, were watching for. Whenever the people would begin to wonder if a certain charismatic preacher might be the actual Messiah, they would pay close attention, to see if his message would lead to these things happening.

There were lots of poor people in the land. Would those poor people now be given the resources they had lacked?

There were plenty of captives - people who were deprived of their liberty by the Romans and others oppressors. Would they now get sprung from jail, and regain their freedom?

And everyone was aware of those who were blind, or who were afflicted with other infirmities and handicaps. Would those pitiable people now be healed, and restored to bodily health?

When Jesus appeared on the scene, with his preaching and miracles, he, too, was noticed. Some of the Jews began to think that maybe he was the one whose wonder-working messianic ministry had been described, all those centuries ago, through Isaiah.

And so, people were watching him. Also in Nazareth - his hometown - they were intrigued by reports that in Capernaum, and perhaps in other places, Jesus was healing people. Material enrichment for the poor, and release for the captives, might be just around the corner!

They were waiting to see if such unfortunates - including the needy people who lived in their community - would receive such benefits from Jesus.

On the day described in today’s text, Jesus was in Nazareth. And he was indeed there to proclaim his help to those who were needy - liberty to the captives, sight to the blind, and good news to the poor.

But what he had in mind in this respect was different from what the townspeople had in mind, in two important ways. First, he had come to a different identification of who, in Nazareth, were actually in need of these blessings.

The other Nazarenes were no doubt thinking of a few disadvantaged people they had known over the years - the people they perhaps had stumbled over in the streets, as they were shuffling around with their canes, or begging for money or food. This minority of the population, in their noticeably humiliated condition, were the ones they thought Jesus might be there to deal with, and take care of.

But Jesus had a larger category of needy people in mind. He had the whole town in mind - the poor and the well-to-do, the lower classes and the prominent citizens.

All of them, as they were gathered together in the synagogue on the Sabbath, were addressed by Jesus as those who were the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed. In the presence of the entire community, he spoke or chanted these words from the prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And then he said these words - these controversial, and ultimately unacceptable words: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Not just in the hearing of the town beggar with his hand open for alms, but in your hearing. Not just in the hearing of the blind man, pitied by everyone else, but in your hearing.

What Jesus said impacted them at the point of their pride. The majority of the citizenry were not completely callous people. They felt sorry for the people in their town who were down on their luck, and who were the victims of hard times.

But they also enjoyed feeling themselves to be above these problems. Jesus, however, had just identified them - all of them - as being among the poor and the blind and the captives and the oppressed.

How dare he say that? Who does he think he is? He’s one of us! What gives him the right to say something like that to us?!

Oh, we wouldn’t mind if he wanted to show some charity to those poor and blind people who are here among us. That would be a good thing.

We would approve of that, and would tell Jesus how positively impressed we would be, if he would miraculously take care of the people who do need his help. But we don’t need his charity. We don’t want his charity!

And the second thing that Jesus had in mind in applying this text from Isaiah, which differed from what the townspeople would have expected, was this: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

The deliverance, and the enrichment, and the healing that Jesus had come to perform for people, was at a level of human existence much deeper than the level of people’s noticeable outward problems - their physical infirmities, their material poverty. He came to bring healing and deliverance through his Word, as that Word would be proclaimed to the human heart, and as it would hopefully be believed by the human heart.

That’s why this messianic prophecy was fulfilled in their hearing, and not in their material enrichment or bodily healing. In this message of hope and deliverance, Jesus was offering to the people something very different from what previous messianic pretenders had presumed to offer.

Of course, God is not indifferent to the plight of the poor in this world - although he actually expects us to take care of the poor in our mist, with the use of the resources that we have received from the hand of the Lord, and not just to sit back and wait for God to do it miraculously.

But the true poverty that God is concerned about relieving, on a universal scale, is the poverty of the human spirit. When the Holy Spirit is absent from the human heart, that heart is poor and lacking almost beyond description.

Humanity was created to be in fellowship with God, and to be indwelt by God. When human sin evicts God, and pushes him out of our lives, we are emptied of that which would make us fully human.

When the words of Jesus come to us, however, they offer to us the grace of his forgiveness, which washes away our sin. And the words of Jesus offer to us the renewed gift of the Holy Spirit.

By means of the pathway of the Gospel, God’s Spirit thereby returns to his proper home in our lives: to fill us, and to enrich us with his presence.

Also, when the human race is separated from God, and emptied of God, due to its sin, humanity is not thereby in a spiritually neutral state. The forces of sin, death, and the devil have never passed up an opportunity to take over any territory in the human heart from which God has been evicted.

They are squatters, of course. The powers of sin, death, and the devil are not supposed to be residing in humanity, and oppressing humanity. Humanity was not created for fellowship with these forces.

But an oppressive and captivating fellowship with these forces is what human beings do have - until God reclaims each soul through the good news of Christ. When that happens, a human heart is released from this captivity, and is set free in faith.

And, finally, a heart that has been emptied of God’s indwelling presence, and that has been brought into spiritual bondage to the forces of evil, is also a spiritually blind heart. Without the enlightenment of God’s truth, we don’t know how much we don’t know about God’s good and loving will for us.

Apart from faith in the Gospel, we don’t know what we are missing, and actually think that there is nothing better than the miserable existence without God that is fallen humanity’s fate. But again, all of that changes when Jesus speaks to us his life-giving words, which restore to us the ability to see God’s goodness, and to know God’s love.

All of this is what Jesus was offering to the people of Nazareth, in his chanting of that text from Isaiah, and in his declaration that these things were now fulfilled in their hearing. It was all offered to them - no strings attached - as a divine gift.

But it was not received by them - or at least not by most of them. They might have initially admired the rhetorical eloquence of Jesus. But when they realized what he was really saying to them about their deep and personal needs, and about his capacity to meet those needs, they turned on him.

“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.”

God does not coerce people to believe what he says, and to receive what he offers. The Nazarenes rejected their Messiah. And so, their Messiah “went away.”

I’ve known people who by any definition were clearly in need of the forgiveness of God, and the regenerating grace of God. Of course, all of us are in need of these gifts.

But for some people, their need for God in their life is dramatically obvious. Yet these are the same people who have so often proudly said to me, “Religion is okay for those who need it. But I don’t” - as if the term “religion” is an accurate description of what Jesus is actually offering.

But that, in essence, is what the people of Nazareth were saying to Jesus - with a vengeance! We don’t want what you are offering, Jesus.

We will not admit our need for it, and we will not acknowledge you as the person - appointed by God - who can give it to us. So, they didn’t receive it.

Today, as we are seated here in this “synagogue,” so to speak, Jesus is once again reading to us this text from Isaiah. And he is once again declaring to us, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

In your hearing - not someone else’s hearing. You need what is being offered. And it is being offered to you in your hearing.

Jesus, your Savior from sin, death and the devil, is not demanding anything from you. He is not trying to extract anything from you. He couldn’t do that anyway, because apart from him, and apart from what you receive from him, you would be spiritually empty and impoverished anyway.

But through his words, Jesus is giving you his salvation. In peaching and teaching, and in those special sacramental speakings of his Word in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, he gives himself to you as your Savior.

He is pledging his unconditional love and forgiveness to you. And he wants you to believe that what he is saying is true. In faith he wants you to receive what he gives.

In your spiritual poverty, Jesus proclaims to you the good news of his grace. And by the power of his Word, his grace fills you and enriches you, as the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within you.

In your spiritual captivity, Jesus proclaims to you a message of liberty. And by the power of his Word, he sets you free - free to be who and what you were created to be, in fellowship with God, and living for God.

In your spiritual blindness, Jesus announces to you a supernatural recovery of your sight. And by the power of his Word, he opens the eyes of your heart, that you may see the goodness and love of God that had always been there, all around you, but that you had never noticed before.

Jesus is doing all of this for you right now. His divine Word, and his messianic mission, are fulfilled for you right now.

And his Word and mission are fulfilled for you every time you hear his Gospel - every time you reflect on his promises, and ponder them, and meditate on them, and inwardly digest them.

Your salvation, as an accomplished fact, is enshrined in the proclamation of Christ. The salvation that his death and resurrection accomplished for you is there already, ready to be applied to you, in that message.

The preaching of Christ, and the preaching of the Gospel in the name of Christ today, carry your salvation to you, intact. And together with the promises that are preached, the God-given power to believe those promises is also offered and bestowed.

May our response to this offer, and to this gift, never be the reaction of foolish pride and hardened unbelief. May it always be the humble response of faith.

May our hearts always be opened by God’s Spirit to receive what Jesus offers. And may we always thereby be enriched, and healed, and liberated, according to our true inner need.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

“Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Amen.

31 January 2010 - Epiphany 4 - Luke 4:31-44

“And they were all amazed and said to one another, ‘What is this word? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out!’”

In this way the people of Capernaum described what had happened in their midst when Jesus of Nazareth was among them. They heard and saw things on that day that they had never before seen or heard.

Jesus had taught them marvelous things about God and his kingdom. And, when the situation presented itself, he had cast a demon out of a possessed person. He did these things simply by his word, and nothing else. But his word had extraordinary authority, and supernatural power.

The Greek word translated as “authority” is a term that is derived from another Greek word, which means “it is lawful.” So, when Jesus speaks of divine and spiritual things, he does so as one who knows that he has the lawful right to do so.

He speaks with confidence, because he understands the full depth and breadth of what he is describing to others. When he discourses about something, he speaks from the heart and center of the matter, and he brings his hearers to the heart and center of what he is talking about.

This is in marked contrast with much of the religious teaching that the people of Israel otherwise heard in the first century. The various rabbinic schools of thought within Judaism had developed their respective ideas about what was or was not in accordance with God’s will through a long sequence of deductions from deductions from deductions.

This process was a lot like the way in which our judicial system usually works. Court decisions in our time are based on earlier court decisions, which were based on even earlier court decisions, which were based on even earlier court decisions.

With all of these intervening layers of interpretation built upon interpretation, the more recent court rulings often seem to be very far removed from the simple principles articulated in the Constitution. The traditions of the rabbis, developed over time in a similar fashion, likewise often ended up bearing little resemblance to the simple yet profound message of the Hebrew Scriptures.

But the teaching of this new rabbi from Nazareth was different. There was a freshness and an authenticity to his explanations. As the true son of Abraham, he truly understood the faith of Abraham - a very real and personal faith, in a very real and personal God.

Christ’s teachings did not deal with speculative and uncertain deductions. They dealt with repentance and trust - matters of fundamental importance for those who are conscious of God’s holiness and goodness, and who are also conscious of their own sinfulness and helplessness.

His teachings were “radical” - that is, they went back to the root and source of things.

Jesus speaks with authority also over against the demon, who plays a prominent role in today’s account. At the beginning of his encounter with the Lord, this evil spirit, who was possessing a man, said to him, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”

In other words: “What business do you have here in this godless world? Satan is the prince of this place! Why don’t you go back to heaven where you belong, and leave us alone?!”

But Jesus wasn’t going to leave this demon - or the whole domain of demons - alone! As the divine-human Savior, he had re-staked his claim on the world he had made by becoming a part of that world, to redeem it.

And so, when he tells that particular spirit that he has to leave, he has to leave! Christ’s word has authority, and he can speak it anywhere in the entire universe that he wants to.

This also means, of course, that he has the authority to speak his word into your life. He has the right to tell you, by means of his law, what to do and what not to do.

What goes on in your life - in your behavior and in your relationships - is his business. He has something to say to you every day of the week, about the values and moral convictions that are to govern your thoughts and actions every day of the week - not just on Sunday for an hour or two.

He won’t be ignored, or shuffled off into a non-threatening “religious” corner of your life that has little bearing on your attitudes and actions in general. And even if you think you are getting away with ignoring him now, the time will come when you and all humanity will have to listen to Christ.

On judgment day he will speak, with an unquestionable and unignorable authority. And everyone will listen - some with joy, others with terror. Every human being who has ever lived will have to listen to what Jesus will say then:

“Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Or “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

He has the authority to speak these words. When the time comes he will speak them, whether we like it or not. And he has the authority to say to us now what he is currently saying to us, through the Scriptures. We’d better listen.

The crowd in Capernaum noticed this about Jesus’ teaching: they said, “What is this word? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out!” Not only does his word have authority; is also has power.

When we hear someone bragging or exaggerating about something he doesn’t understand very well, or making idle threats or empty promises, our response might be, “Oh, that’s just a bunch of talk. There’s nothing in those words.”

And we would probably be right. But no one can truthfully say this about the words of Christ, no matter how strange and unusual those words may sound, and no matter how unwelcome those words may be to a still-hardened and unbelieving heart.

When the Lord himself speaks, in person or through the sacred page of Scripture, there is power in his words. Always. Christ’s message is not a sterile recounting of vague theological opinions and tentative religious theories.

Rather, Jesus says things like this: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”

And because the word of Jesus is always powerful, and always true, the reply of faith will always be: “Amen. Without a doubt, what Christ decrees will always happen. Without a doubt, what Christ offers and gives can always be received.”

The powerful word of Jesus is, as it were, on the offensive. It is on the move, going out into the domain of darkness and evil, to reconquer that domain. In spite of all the opposition that the world, the flesh, and the devil throw up against that word, it will prevail.

And the word of Christ makes things happen. It breaks down walls, and it builds up again where human hands have not worked. It kills and makes alive.

And Christ’s word has the power to solve problems, whether these problems are of an “ordinary” variety, or are extraordinary and supernatural.

Through the power of Christ’s word, St. Peter’s mother-in-law was healed of her fever. And she was restored to her joyful work of providing hospitality to her son-in-law’s guests.

Through the power of Christ’s word, the possessed man was set free from the wicked entity that had been controlling him. And he was given a new beginning in life.

And the word of Christ has the power to accomplish what Christ wants it to accomplish in your life too. If Jesus were to speak a word of physical healing into your weakened and ailing frame, it would be healed. You would rise up from your sick bed, and your earthly life would be prolonged.

And on the day when the Lord returns, when he will call all of us to come forth bodily from the grave, in the general resurrection, it will happen. It doesn’t matter how “dead” you will be by then - how far and wide the molecules of your corpse have been cast abroad across the face of the earth.

When Christ calls you forth, your death will be undone. Your body will live, and will be inhabited once again by your soul. Nothing will stop this.

The power of Christ’s word to make this happen will not be suppressed or restrained. And while we all still await these momentous future events, the power of Christ’s word in our lives in this world, even now, will likewise not be suppressed or restrained.

His word already declares his perfect righteousness to be upon you, covering over your sins and restoring your fellowship with God. His word already speaks the enlightenment and cleansing of his Spirit into your mind and heart, causing you to be a new creature in Christ and a child of God.

Christ’s word has the power to make these things happen. And when he speaks to you in his faith-creating Gospel - in his Holy Absolution and in his Holy Supper - they do happen. This is truly amazing.

Everything that Jesus accomplished and won for you by his death and resurrection - by his divine authority, and in his saving power - is, as it were, packed into his word. When that word is spoken to you - and when, by his grace, you hear and believe that word - all of the blessings that God wants you to have are released into your life, and become yours.

The demons flee. Your soul is healed and restored. Jesus becomes your Lord - every day, for a lifetime.

The word of Christ has such power. His word is filled with the power of God himself, because Jesus is God himself, the eternal Son of the Father in human flesh - as even the demons knew.

And so, when he tells you that something is so, it is so. When he tells you that your sins are washed away, they are gone. He says, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven. ...the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.”

When he tells you that you are a child of God who has been again of water and the Spirit, then that is exactly what you are. He says, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

“And they were all amazed and said to one another, ‘What is this word? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out!’” Amen.