Sunday, December 27, 2015

Christmas 1
Exodus 13:1-3a, 11-15
Psalm 111
Colossians 3:12-17
Luke 2:22-40

Praise ye Jehovah. I will give thanks unto Jehovah with my whole heart...

It is no wonder that many look back onto the Old Testament texts with questions and doubts. We prefer to believe in a God who is loving and kind; any stories of death and destruction is difficult for us to juxtapose with our understanding. We can't believe the God who sent us the baby in the manger could possibly allow the death of all the first born of Egypt. That's what happened at the Passover, when the angel of death passed over the homes covered in the blood of the lamb and took the sons of Egypt as the final plague to convince Pharaoh to set the Hebrews free. There must have been a better way.

The Old Testament passage comes in the midst of the story of this final plague. The Exodus was the first of many great works and a foreshadowing of the greatest work that He performed in and through Jesus Christ. The deliverance was not easy; Pharaoh’s heart was hardened against the Hebrews and he refused to let them leave despite his promises. So God made the ultimate demand, the demand that the other gods had no right to make. He gives life to all, include humankind, so only He has the right to take that life away. As a last resort, God took the first born of Egypt, man and beast. But as proof that He is God, He saved the firstborn of the Hebrews. He saved His sons.

After Pharaoh ordered the Hebrews to leave, God gave the people instructions about the journey. He told them to remember the Passover regularly, to remember how God delivered them out of Egypt. Then He called His people to consecrate all their first born males, human and animal. This consecration is to happen not only in this night, but in all time after they enter into the Promised Land. The animals were sacrificed; it was not a command to sacrifice to death for the first born human sons, but to life. This was a command to dedicate their first fruits to God's service. The first born belonged to God.

According to Numbers 18:16 there was a redemption price of five shekels that could be paid to a priest when the first born son of a mother was thirty days old. This redemption price would have 'bought' or 'redeemed' or 'paid the ransom' for the child so that they could be restored to their family. If a father could not pay the redemption price, the child had to do so when he became a man. It is expected that Joseph paid, although we do not hear about it in the scriptures. Perhaps in the case of Jesus, the ransom was never paid by humankind because Jesus was sent to pay the price Himself, not with shekels but with His own blood.

In other words, the very command we hear in today's Old Testament lesson was truly fulfilled in the life, ministry and death of our Lord Jesus Christ. Mary and Joseph dedicated Jesus to God's service, and Jesus served in a way that only He could serve. Ultimately we know that Jesus was the final sacrifice and it is His blood that is now painted on our doors so that the angel of death will pass us by.

Jesus was circumcised at eight days according to the Law and when the forty days of purification was over, Mary, Joseph and Jesus went to Jerusalem so that He might be presented at the Temple. They gave a pair of doves or two young pigeons. A wealthy family would have given a lamb and dove or pigeon; this offering is a reminder of the humble state of Jesus' family and perhaps further reason to believe that Joseph didn't pay the redemption price for Jesus.

In the Gospel lesson we meet two people, a man and a woman, both were waiting expectantly for the coming of the Messiah. The first person was a man named Simeon who was righteous and devout. This description of Simeon as both righteous and devout is interesting. Matthew Henry suggests that righteousness is lived for the sake of other people and one who is devout is devout toward God. "...these must always go together, and each will befriend the other, but neither will atone for the defect of the other." In other words, we love God and neighbor, not one or the other. If we hate our neighbor we cannot love God. And if we love God, we will always love our neighbor. Simeon was a man who gave his life to God's service; he loved God and his neighbor.

Simeon had the Holy Spirit was upon him. There are not many examples of the Holy Spirit on men before Christ finished His work, and yet we see the Spirit clearly in the Luke's Gospel. Luke, being a man of science and medicine was focused on the miraculous works of God, as we see in the telling of Jesus’ birth and in His presentation at the Temple. Simeon apparently lived in Jerusalem; he prayed often. He lived in thanksgiving of God’s works. He was an example to us of the life that glorifies God. Simeon had been given a promise; he would not die until he saw the Messiah.

The second person is an elderly woman named Anna. We know that she was old. She was at least eighty-four, but she could have been more than a hundred, depending on the translation. She had been living in the Temple for many decades, living a life of pious prayer and fasting. Her life was indeed one of glorifying God. She worshipped day and night.

Simeon and Anna both recognized that Jesus was the one for whom they were waiting. They knew He was the Messiah and they praised God for His faithfulness. Simeon boldly proclaims what Jesus came to do, that He would be the salvation of Israel and a light to the Gentiles. This was an amazing thing to say. Simeon knew by the power of the Holy Spirit that the boy Jesus would die, and that his death would pierce the very soul of His mother. These are powerful words. Anna came upon the scene as Simeon told Mary and Joseph about their son's future and she began praising God loudly and telling everyone about Jesus. "He's the one we've been waiting for! He's the promised King!" Simeon may have quietly shared the story of Jesus, but Anna was not going to be silent. She was ready to tell the world.

Simeon and Anna committed their lives to the promises of God. They waited patiently to see the God's faithfulness. Their sacrifice was not blood and death, but their whole lives of hope and faith. When they received the fulfillment of God's promise, they spent their rest of their lives praising God with thanksgiving. I think my favorite part of this story, however, is the response of Mary and Joseph. They marveled at the words spoken about their son. They knew because they too experienced the Holy Spirit and the messengers of God. And yet they marveled at everything that happened to them after Jesus was born.

Do you ever feel that way? Do you ever feel that you know what God is doing in your life, and yet continue to marvel when it gets done? I know I do.

Sunday falls between two of the most significant festivals of the church year. December 26th is the day we remember St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. On December 28th we remember the Holy Innocents, the children massacred in Bethlehem at the hands. We find ourselves this Sunday between these two horrific moments. Yet, in the midst of it we are called to praise.

We all suffer our own let downs after Christmas is over. Our families return to their homes. We realize how much we spent when the credit cards come due. We feel stuffed and know we've gained that ten pounds we were determined to avoid. We know that we have to go back to work and get back to the normal of our everyday lives. We've been praising God for a month or so as we prepared for the coming of our King in Bethlehem. We are tired, not of praising God, but just tired and we are ready to focus on our lives again.

Our little troubles are really insignificant when we consider the difficulties of those who truly suffer around the world. The past year has been filled with stories of terrorism, and there has been so much more than we have seen reported. We can only bear so much at a time, and so the reporters have moved on from telling us about the Christian children in Nigeria and other persecution. Despite knowing all that is wrong in the world, including our own little sufferings, we are called to live a life of daily praise to the God who sent Jesus into the world. Jesus's birth obviously didn't stop bad things from happening, but in seeing the fulfillment of God's promises we have the hope that one day God will finish His work and we'll dwell with Him in eternity.

Our God has done amazing things. He created the entire world and everything in it. He redeemed all of mankind by the blood of Christ. He brought salvation to our lives, ordained His people to service and promised to do even greater things through His Church. We might suffer for a moment. We might have difficult work to do in this world. But no matter what we face, we believe in the God of the heavens and the earth. By our rebirth through our baptism we are dedicated to a life of service for our God. It is a sacrifice of living, not death. Such a life begins with a daily sacrifice of praise to God, singing songs of adoration and admiration. As we live this life of thanksgiving, we will realize how inconsequential our troubles really are because we will be looking for the fulfillment of God's promises and His faithfulness.

Our God is great and He does great things. The most incredible part is that He does so much of it through us. He calls us to live that holy life, to live faithfully in thanksgiving, doing everything in His name. Whether it is with quiet voice or loud proclamation, His name will change the world. The peace we have in Christ does not guarantee a world without suffering. We'll see horrific moments. We'll panic in the face of danger. We'll cry when we are afraid. We will have to let go, let others take their place in the work of God, give up the things we hold most dear. But as we dwell in Christ and sing His praise together, we can live like Simeon and Anna in hopeful expectation that God will be faithful.

When Paul says, "And whatsoever ye do, in word or in deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him," he is not telling us how to live our calling in the world. We might be like Simeon, led by the Spirit to be at the right place at the right moment to see or hear or do something that seems rather insignificant in the scheme of things. But our quiet life of faithful living will impact others in some way. Or, we might be like Anna, loudly proclaiming the truth we know so that others will hear and believe in the good works of our God. But whatever you do in word or deed, do it in Jesus' name with thanks to God, and He will be glorified.

Paul's message to the Colossians sounds like a message filled with 'to dos' and yet this is not a message of law, but of Gospel. You have heard God's word and believe. Being of God means a life of peace and joy even though it is not a life without conflict. As a matter of fact, the peace of God for many Christians comes with the risk of violence and even martyrdom. Perhaps Stephen should have given the Sanhedrin what they wanted: fearful trembling before their power and their authority. He might have been freed, but he would lose the peace that dwelled within. Instead of cowering before them and giving in to their demands, Stephen spoke the Word of God into their lives. The Word of God brought death to his body, but turning from that which God was calling him to do would have brought death to his spirit. He followed his Lord in complete submission to God's service, giving fully of himself even unto death.

You are God's holy and beloved, dedicated by faith to service in His Kingdom. The life you are called to live is not necessarily like those of Simeon or Anna. You will probably not be martyred like Stephen. It is unlikely that you will experience personally a horror like that of the slaughter of the innocents. The sacrifice God seeks from is thankfulness with your whole heart. Even though Christmas is past, will you continue to seek Him, to watch for Him, to wait for His coming with your whole being, serving Him with your entire life? It might sound like too much, but when we consider what God has done for us we know that it will never be enough. Thankfully, Jesus accomplished more than enough. That babe that was laid in the manger became the man who died for our sake. By His grace we live in word and deed in His name, sharing the peace of God with one another and the world.

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