2 December 2007 - Advent 1 - Romans 13:8-14

With few exceptions, Roman soldiers, in the days of the old Roman Empire, were especially known for two things: an extreme laxity in discipline, and an extreme adherence to discipline. This is not a contradiction, because each of these traits characterized a different aspect of a Roman soldierís life.

In his off-duty hours, usually at night, a typical Roman soldier behaved like the pagan and idolater he was - without the fear of God. He would indulge in every imaginable form of dissipation: gluttony, drunkenness, fornication, and whatever other vice was available.

The false gods of Rome were not perceived as having any desire to put moral restraints on those who worshiped them. Instead, these gods existed to promote the superiority of Rome, and to justify the expansion of Rome over the weaker nations of the world.

The low moral character of these manufactured gods was simply a projection of the arrogance and love of power that characterized Rome in general, and the legions of Rome in particular. With little respect for their own human dignity, or for the dignity of others, the capacity of Roman soldiers for nighttime carousing and violence was pretty much unmatched by any of their contemporaries.

When morning came, however, and when it was time for these soldiers to return to duty, their capacity for preparedness and military order was also unmatched by any of their contemporaries.

The time in which Jesus and the apostles lived was called the time of Pax Romana - the Peace of Rome. Rome was at peace, externally and internally, because its highly disciplined legions were able to wipe out any armed resistence to the authority of the empire that might arise.

A Roman soldier obeyed his orders, instantly, without second-guessing the wisdom of his commanders. And he knew how to fight as part of a unit. Roman battle formations, in which a hundred men moved and fought as one, were very effective in defeating an enemy.

A Roman soldier could count on his comrade to the left, his comrade to the right, his comrade behind him, and his comrade in front of him, to stay in position, to keep his shield and weapon in place, and to keep in step with the rest of the unit.

When a typical Roman soldier awoke at the beginning of a new day, he wouldnít know what kind of action that day would bring. But he quickly made himself ready nevertheless - both mentally, and with the armor that he put on - for whatever might happen.

Soldiers on a campaign would not be likely to know exactly when the decisive battle would occur. But as they looked forward to that eventuality, they kept themselves always prepared and alert. They would not be caught by surprise, or off-guard.

In todayís lesson from his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul uses this analogy to describe the state of existence of humanityís old, fallen nature, in the nighttime of unbelief, and to describe the state of existence of the new and redeemed humanity in the daylight of faith. In the nighttime of sin and disobedience to God, the human race lives and thinks like an off-duty Roman soldier.

The people in the church of Rome to whom Paul was writing no doubt had a very low opinion of the brutal, uncivilized, and destructive behavior of imperial soldiers on leave. And they probably wouldnít appreciate any comparisons that might have been made between them and such men.

But St. Paul nevertheless points out to them that if their lives are still governed by the old sinful nature - with its selfish indifference to the holiness of God, and to the dignity of themselves and others - then this is exactly what they are. But this is not what they are to remain.

It was time for them to wake up. It was time for them to repent of their sins, and thereby to leave those sins behind them, in the past. And it was time for them to clothe themselves by faith in the protective armor of Christís righteousness, and to take their proper place in the body of Christ.

As members of Christ and of his body, we, too, like the Roman Christians of the first century, need to be ready for the approaching final struggle. The way for us to prepare is likewise to cast off the sins of the night, by a humble and sincere repentance, and in the daylight of Godís grace to put on Christ, by believing what God tells us about the life, death, and resurrection of his Son on our behalf.

There will be an ultimate struggle between Christ and Satan. It will usher in the end of this world as we know it. It will also bring about the ultimate salvation and victory of Godís people.

A Roman soldier does not prepare for battle with the careless mentality that he had during his nighttime revelries. If he did, he would be surprised and killed by his enemy. But he prepares for battle with a different mindset - a mindset for the daytime - a mindset that makes him watchful and ready for any attack, whenever it might come.

Now is the time for us to wake up from a nighttime of half-heartedness and hypocrisy; a nighttime of compromise and worldliness. If we donít, our diabolical enemy will catch us by surprise and kill us in our beds. If we donít wake up, we will be destroyed.

But this need not be our fate. Rather, we can be roused from our nighttime moral slumbers by the cool and invigorating Gospel that Jesus - our great Captain - splashes on us.

And he is splashing his Gospel upon you. He is renewing to you the call of your Baptism. And he is pouring his Spirit upon you, and into you.

The season of Advent - which begins today - is a season of new beginnings. The First Sunday in Advent is a good time to think about a new beginning in your life with God. And today, God is offering and giving to each of you exactly this kind of new beginning.

And so, my friends, itís time for us to get up. The Sun of Righteousness has risen upon us, and the daylight has come. Itís time to get ready for battle - and for victory - because the battle, and the victory, are coming. Listen again to the words of St. Paul:

ďyou know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.Ē

Our life of faith is in many respects a very personal thing, as we struggle with the temptations that assault our mind, and as our hearts rejoice in the daily mercies and forgiveness of the Lord. But our life of faith is not solitary and reclusive. We care about each other, and we need each other.

And in Christ we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. Like good Roman soldiers, when we prepare for battle with the devil, we prepare together. And when we fight him, we fight him in formation, moving and acting as one.

We do not each have our own private and exclusive relationship with God. We are instead all baptized into one body. And we, though many, are one bread and one body, for we all partake of the one bread.

When the pledge of your Baptism is renewed to you through divine forgiveness - in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit - and when you are nurtured with the body and blood of your Savior in his Holy Supper, you are, as it were, thereby also positioned by Christ into your proper place in his sacred army.

His Gospel fills you with a renewed zeal to follow the specific calling he has given you - in the family, in society, and in the church - and to season your vocation with godliness and the testimony of a clear conscience. His Word instructs you, and disciplines you, so that you will know what pleases him, and in his strength will endeavor to do it.

In this respect we cannot second-guess our divine commander. He always knows what is true, what is best, and what is necessary. He doesnít divulge to us all of his plans and strategies, for his great fight with the forces of evil. But as much as we need to know, he tells us in the Holy Scriptures.

We are, as it were, Christian soldiers, marching as to war. By his grace God has made us to be this. His forgiveness has allowed us to leave the sins of darkness in the past. His gift of faith has allowed us to look forward in the light, with confidence, to the victory that shall be ours in him.

Like a mighty army Moves the Church of God;
Brothers, we are treading Where the saints have trod.
We are not divided, All one body we,
One in hope and doctrine, One in charity.

Crowns and thrones may perish, Kingdoms rise and wane,
But the Church of Jesus Constant will remain.
Gates of hell can never ĎGainst that Church prevail;
We have Christís own promise, And that cannot fail. Amen.

16 December 2007 - Advent 3 - Matthew 11:2-15

ďAre you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?Ē 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 Johnís 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 intimate relationship with his brotherís wife.

Previously, of course, John had joyfully and confidently identified Jesus as the promised Messiah - as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and as the one who would baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit. But now, perhaps, he was losing his certainty.

It might have seemed to John that things were dragging out too long - that Jesus was not bringing to completion what the Messiah was supposed to accomplish. And so, as some interpreters see it, Johnís own faith in Christ was waning, and he needed encouragement from his Lord.

John was a prophet, of course, with the special mission and calling of a prophet. But the message of repentance and forgiveness that he proclaimed 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 Lordís sandals. John was therefore capable of becoming discouraged and disheartened.

His doctrine concerning Christ, and concerning Christís Messianic mission, was, of course, Godís doctrine. This doctrine did not arise from Johnís faith, and therefore this doctrine would not be discredited if Johnís faith might weaken.

It always remained true, regardless of who believed it, or how strongly anyone believed it. But maybe it had become difficult for John himself to believe his own preaching - at least for a time.

ďAre you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?Ē Maybe he needed to be assured, once again, that Jesus was indeed the Savior Godís Word had revealed him to be.

In contrast, others see in this account of Johnís sending of his disciples to Jesus an attempt on Johnís part to give his disciples a clearer exposure to the message and ministry of Christ. This interpretation sees the question that was posed as one that John directed his disciples to ask for their own benefit, and not because he himself doubted that Jesus was the Savior.

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 Lordís 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 didnít want their devotion 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 death, he certainly didnít want his disciples to become so discouraged, or so jaded by the injustice of it, that they would lose interest in the ultimate questions about God and the meaning of human existence about which both he and Jesus were preaching.

This 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: ďAre you the one who is to come, or shall I look for another?Ē Instead, he wanted them to include themselves in the query - ďAre you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?Ē

Johnís underlying motives for sending these men to Jesus, to ask him this question, cannot be clearly established. I have read respected commentators who are fairly certain that the first interpretation is the correct one. And I have read respected commentators who are fairly certain that the second interpretation is the correct one. But we really just donít know.

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 bit 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, an injustice, a disappointment, a betrayal, or a bodily or psychological infirmity. Or perhaps itís a temptation that rises 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 no longer there; or if he is still there, that he no longer cares. Emotionally, the answers from Godís 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 thatís the way John the Baptist was feeling. And maybe thatís the way you are feeling right now. Perhaps you sense an unspoken need to ask Jesus, in your own way, ďAre you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?Ē In your human weakness, you too might need to be assured today that Jesus really is who 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.

Itís 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, ďAre you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?Ē

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 thatís 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.

ďJesus answered them, ĎGo 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.Ē

The Lord here refers to some specific things that had been given in Scripture as prophetic descriptions of the ministry of the future Messiah. The prophet 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 - to the penitent; the humble; those who had been emptied of all pretension and boasting before God.

The account from his Gospel that Matthew shares with us today is not really about John the Baptist, or about his disciples. As important as these men are in the larger scheme of things, they are, relatively speaking, minor players in this story. 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, Christís sacred word - which draws attention to himself - restores faith and hope. For those who have spiritually lost their way, or who are uncertain what path they should follow, Christís sacred word - which drawn attention to himself - enlightens the pathway of faith and life.

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 Godís 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 fear - because he then has an opportunity to answer these questions with a testimony of his complete faithfulness. He is ever faithful - faithful to all that he is supposed to be, as the divine-human redeemer; 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 has done for the sake of the world. He carries the worldís sins to the cross. He rises again from the grave, to break the shackles of death that had bound the world in its 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 assurance, he doesnít send us deeper into ourselves - to our religious exercises, to our meditative introspections, or to our conscientious moral efforts. Instead, he draws us up and away from ourselves, and directs us to the Holy Scriptures, and to his own works and words.

Now, in the age of his kingdom - the age of his church - he points you to the preaching of his Gospel and the administration of his sacraments. He draws you to himself there: where he demonstrates that he is who he has always been; and where he kindles and strengthens the faith of those who might have been doubting and perplexed before.

If you have believed in the Lord Jesus alone for your salvation, and if you have believed that his word and will are supreme in truth, power, and wisdom, you have not believed wrongly. God by his grace will restore you to this faith, and to the comfort that this faith gives.

ďAre you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?Ē When you ask that question - for whatever reason, or with whatever motive - the answer you receive will be the same: ďthe 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.Ē Amen.

23 December 2007 - Advent 4 - Matthew 1:18-25

As Christians who believe that the testimony of Holy Scripture is always true, we accept the miracle of the virginal conception and birth of our Lord as a real event.

The story of the virgin birth is, of course, dismissed by unbelievers and liberals as a biological impossibility and a silly myth. And we have to admit that we, too, would reject any claim that something like a virgin birth had taken place, if such a claim were made for someone other than Jesus and his mother.

When the apostles went out and proclaimed the Gospel to an unbelieving world, the virgin birth of Jesus was not one of the first things that people were called upon to believe in order to become Christians. The book of Acts reports what the evangelistic sermons of the apostles were like.

They focused on the divine person and mission of Jesus, on his death and resurrection, and on the forgiveness of sins that is now available to those who repent and believe the Gospel. The specific point of the virgin birth was something they saved for later - for the more detailed instruction and catechesis that was subsequently given to new believers - as the Apostlesí Creed bears witness.

We shouldnít expect unbelievers to be willing to accept as true something as extraordinary as the virgin birth of Jesus. The only people who are willing to believe in this miracle are those whose minds have already been impacted and transformed by the essential gift of the Gospel.

The fundamental reality of Christ crucified for sinners must first do its work on the human heart. Only then are people able to understand why it was necessary - in Godís scheme of things - for his Son not to have a human father.

We need to remember this when listening to the story that St. Matthew tells us in todayís Gospel. Joseph, described as a just or righteous man, was betrothed to a young woman named Mary.

Jewish betrothal was more than an engagement as we would understand that term. A man and woman who were betrothed were legally bound to each other. But they were not supposed to begin living together as husband and wife, or to engage in marital intimacy with each other, until a prescribed period of time had elapsed.

In the case of Joseph and Mary, Mary was found to be already pregnant during this interim period between the betrothal ceremony and the beginning of their cohabitation.

Joseph knew that he was not the father. He could only conclude that Mary had been unfaithful to him. In Jewish society - according to the Law of Moses - this sort of thing was a capital crime.

Under the Roman occupation, the Jews were not allowed to execute anyone. But Nazareth was a small town, and probably didnít have any Roman soldiers stationed there on a permanent basis. Therefore a woman accused of adultery could easily have been stoned to death by a vigilante mob, without the Romans knowing anything about it.

In spite of the deep disappointment that he certainly felt, Joseph didnít want anything like this to happen to Mary. Understandably, he intended to break off the betrothal. But as the text tells us, he wanted to do this quietly, with as little publicity and fanfare as possible.

Under the circumstances, in view of what Joseph knew - or thought he knew - at the time, his desire to save Mary from the embarrassment and shame that she would seem to have deserved was quite extraordinary.

Joseph was not governed by anger, by pride, or by a desire to get even with a woman who had humiliated him. He was governed instead by his continuing love and compassion for Mary.

We can assume that Mary tried to explain to Joseph what had really happened. We are also not surprised that he could not bring himself to believe her.

But when God sent his angel to Joseph, to explain what had really happened, Joseph did then accept the truth of Maryís account. Godís Word, conveyed through the angel in a dream, had the power to change Josephís heart, and to cause him to be willing to believe what otherwise would seem to be impossible.

By the power of Godís Word Joseph accepted the truth of this miracle. But in so doing, he also accepted something else. In regard to his reputation in his community, he accepted the shame and embarrassment that accompanies the sin of fornication.

Joseph was not guilty of fornication. He knew that, and Mary knew that. But the sin of fornication was going to be imputed to him nevertheless. No one else in Nazareth was going to believe that Mary was pregnant through a miracle of the Holy Spirit.

So, if Joseph did not divorce her and repudiate her, this could mean only one thing: that Joseph himself was guilty of having intimate relations with Mary before the proper time; that Joseph himself had violated the moral standards of the community; that Joseph himself had behaved in a dishonorable and undisciplined way.

All of this was now going to be heaped on Josephís head, because of his willingness to stay with Mary, and to follow through on his betrothal with her.

I doubt very much that Joseph tried to tell very many people about the angelic visitations that he and Mary had received. That would have just made things worse.

In the minds of his neighbors, such explanations would no doubt have been interpreted as shameless lies and blasphemies - compounding his violation of the sixth commandment with violations of the second and eighth commandments.

So, the most likely scenario is that Joseph simply bore the accusations and judgment of his community in silence, without trying to defend or excuse himself. He protected Mary by taking upon himself the moral condemnation of the town - even though he wasnít guilty.

He simply had no choice. God had called him to take Mary as his wife. God had called him to provide a stable and godly home for her son.

St. Lukeís Gospel gives us a brief but telling description of Jesusí relationship with his mother and Joseph during the years of his childhood:

ďAnd he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. ... And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.Ē

According to his divine nature, Jesus was, of course, unchangeable and unchanging - eternal, all-knowing, and all-powerful. But according to his human nature, Jesus needed to grow up; and as he grew, he needed to learn the things that he had to know in life.

When we consider Josephís depth of character, his selfless love for his wife, and his willingness to do as God commanded regardless of the ramifications, we can only admire the marvelous choice that God made in calling this man to be our Lordís step-father, guardian, and teacher.

Later in his Gospel, St. Matthew notes that on one occasion the crowd referred to Jesus as ďthe carpenterís son.Ē And St. Mark observes that Jesus himself was once called ďthe carpenter.Ē

So, we can conclude that Joseph taught Jesus the skills of his own craft. Over the years he showed him what he needed to know to be a carpenter, so that Jesus was able to work as a carpenter himself, before the beginning of his public ministry.

And another thing that Jesus would have learned from Joseph was the importance of submitting to the will of God in all things.

Sometimes such submission to the divine will means that pleasant and enjoyable things will happen to us.

Joseph was no doubt grateful for the wife and family that God had given him. Jesus, at a later time, was grateful for the disciples that his heavenly Father brought into his life, and for the friendship of men like Peter, James, and John, which he valued so highly.

But sometimes this submission to the divine will means that troubling and difficult things will happen to us.

Joseph had to bear the reputation of a sinner in an area of his life where he had not actually sinned. Jesus, at a later time, had to bear the sins of his disciples - and of the whole world. As he went to the cross, he took upon himself the status and guilt of the worst of sinners, even though he himself was completely without sin.

In Godís providence, Josephís example may very well have helped Jesus, according to his human nature, to grow in his understanding of why it would be necessary for him to take the blame for sins that he had not actually committed - so that we, who have actually committed those sins, can stand before God without fear in the grace of his forgiveness.

We know about the Lordís agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. His human nature, with its natural desire to live, was working through the difficult process of accepting all aspects of the divine will for the salvation of the world.

On that occasion Jesus asked his heavenly Father that the cup of suffering he was about to endure on the cross be removed from him, if it were possible for it to be removed. ďNevertheless,Ē as he added, ďnot my will, but yours, be done.Ē

I wonder if the noble example of his beloved step-father Joseph was passing through his mind at that moment, as his human will was brought within and under the requirements of his, and his heavenly Fatherís, divine will.

God told Joseph to give his wifeís son the name Jesus, which means ďJehovah is salvation.Ē Jesus was and is our divine-human Savior from sin, death, and the devil.

He saves us by accepting onto himself the imputation of our sins, and then carrying those sins to the cross as if they were his own. He saves us by imputing to us his own righteousness and holiness, thereby bestowing on us - in Godís sight - the status of a perfect, sinless saint.

Like Joseph, Jesus allowed himself to be thought of and treated as a sinner, because of his overwhelming love for his bride. By going to the cross in shame and disgrace, Jesus was protecting his church from the shame and disgrace that she would otherwise have endured, if he had not intervened.

Because of his love for you, he silently bore your guilt and pain. When he was sentenced to death, he didnít complain or protest the injustice of what was happening to him. He accepted it, for your sake.

This heavenly salvation was prefigured in the willingness of Joseph to take the blame for a sin he had not committed. This heavenly love was prefigured in the willingness of Joseph to take Mary to himself, and to do what God wanted him to do regardless of the consequences.

ďWhen...Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.Ē

ďBut as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ĎJoseph, 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.í ...Ē

ďWhen Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.Ē Amen.

24 December 2007 - Christmas Eve - Luke 2:1

ďIn those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.Ē

Important people do important things for important reasons.

Two-thousand years ago it was generally perceived that the most important person in the world was Caesar Augustus. He ruled over an empire that stretched from Britain to Egypt, from Armenia to Gibralter.

The Roman Empire, like all governments, needed to collect taxes. It was important that there be enough money to keep the army in the field, to build and maintain the public infrastructure, and to pay the salaries of government workers.

In their planing, the officials of the Roman government needed to know how much money they could expect to come in from the various regions of the empire. Therefore, it was important that a census of the population be taken from time to time.

It was the duty of Caesar Augustus, as the supreme leader of the empire, to make sure these things happened. And when Caesar decided that it was time for a census, the grinding administrative machinery of the empire was thereby set irreversibly in motion.

Important people do important things for important reasons.

This is a true statement, as far as it goes - that is, in terms of the affairs of this world that we perceive to be taking place around us.

But tonight, as we once again hear the familiar Christmas Gospel, we are reminded that in the bigger picture, from Godís perspective, that thereís more to what is happening in this world than meets the eye.

God is more important that the most important of men - and that includes Caesar Augustus. The things that God wants to happen are more important than the events that man sets in motion - and that includes the taxation of a massive empire.

The reasons God has for the things he does are more important that the purposes and plans of man - and that includes paying the expenses of the largest government in the world.

God, in his sovereignty, always brings about the fulfillment of all his plans. But in the mystery of his gracious will, he usually hides his works and his purposes in and under the works and purposes of men.

When God acts in this way, the people through whom he accomplishes his will usually have no idea that a plan bigger and more glorious than their own is being unfolded through the things they are doing.

In his important decree concerning a census for taxation, Caesar Augustus had no idea that God was working out a much more important plan by means of his actions. God was using the census to accomplish something that Caesar never knew about, but which was of eternal significance.

Caesar, without knowing it, was simply an instrument in the hands of the Almighty. By means of his imperial decree, God brought the mother of Jesus to the place where he was supposed to be born - to be hailed by angels, and worshiped by shepherds.

By means of Caesarís plan to levy a tax on his subjects, God fulfilled the plan of the ages. For the salvation of the world, God became a part of the world, in the city of David the king.

For the redemption of the human race, and its deliverance from the power of sin and death, God in the person of his Son became a human being, born of the virgin Mary in a lowly stable.

Caesar had important reasons for what he did. God had much more important reasons for what Caesar did - reasons that were hidden from Caesar at the time, but that have made known to us. We read in the Prophet Isaiah, ďThe Lord of hosts has sworn: ďAs I have planned, so shall it be, and as I have purposed, so shall it stand...íĒ

Godís plans - hidden though they may be from the prying reason of man - always work toward one fundamental goal: the spreading of his kingdom to the hearts of men, and the salvation of human souls. Thatís why Jesus was born. Thatís why he was placed on a pathway in life that would lead him eventually to the cross.

The angel told the shepherds about the important thing that God had caused to happen, and he also told them the important reason why God had caused it to happen:

ďAnd the angel said to them, ĎFear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.íĒ

Their own Savior from sin had been born. The divine-human Redeemer had become a part of the human story. God had made his entrance into the world, so that the world could be saved through him.

Important people do important things for important reasons. Or so they think.

Why are you here tonight, in this place? What chain of events has resulted in the fact that you are sitting where you are right now, listening to this message? What are the reasons for the events that have caused you to be here?

I suppose each of us would answer these questions in a different way. If we are honest, some of us might admit that our reason for being here is to please a spouse, or out of force of habit, or maybe for the sake of curiosity. Maybe some of us are here because we want to hear the special music, and sing the familiar carols.

But regardless of what your reasons for being here may be, God is the one who actually brought you here. And he has his own very important reason for doing so.

He brought you here for the sake of your soul. He brought you here to forgive your sins. God caused you to be here so that he can fill you with his Spirit.

In the midst of our celebration of the beginning of Christís earthly life, God wants to give ~your~ life a fresh and new beginning. In our rejoicing over Jesusí human birth, God wants his Son, in a sense, to be born again in ~you~, and to live in you now and forever.

In the mystery of his love for you, your heavenly Father has caused a chain of events that reaches back for years - and maybe for a lifetime - to find its culmination in this moment, and in this place, where his Word is proclaimed in all its saving power.

And this is true every time you are brought into the presence of Godís Holy Word. God is the one who makes that happen, for the sake of your salvation.

And as St. Paul tells us, ďwe know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.Ē

Thatís why youíre here tonight. And thatís why Caesar issued his decree two-thousand years ago. Ultimately, itís not because important people do important things for important reasons.

Itís because ďGod so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten 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.Ē

ďIn those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.Ē Amen.

30 December 2007 - Christmas 1 - Matthew 2:13-23

The festival of Christmas is a day of joyous celebration. We remember Godís goodness and love in the sending of his Son to be our Savior, and as we do so we are happy.

The story of the birth of Jesus is a declaration that God cares about us. He has not forgotten about the human race in all its troubles, but has made a way for us to find happiness and peace through this Holy Child.

But just as the story of Jesusí birth in Bethlehem fills us with such joy and optimism, we are quickly brought low again - in depressing sadness - by the story of the deaths of many other babies in that same small Judean town. The good news about Christ is seemingly eclipsed and buried by the bad news about King Herodís cruelty that immediately follows it.

And Herod was indeed a brutal and inhuman tyrant. The Lutheran historian Paul Maier recounts just a few of his notorious deeds:

ďHerod was so jealous of his favorite wife that on two occasions he ordered that she be killed if he failed to return from a critical mission. And then he finally killed her anyway, as well as her grandfather, her mother, his brother-in-law, and three of his sons, not to mention numerous subjects. During a swimming party at Jericho, he also drowned the high priest, who happened to be another of his brothers-in-law.Ē

ďOld and very ill from arteriosclerosis, Herod worried that no one would mourn his death - a justified concern. So he issued orders from his deathbed that leaders from all parts of Judea were to be locked inside the great hippodrome at Jericho. When he died, archers were to massacre these thousands in cold blood, so there would indeed be universal mourning associated with his death.Ē

Fortunately, this last order of a dying despot was not carried out. But the fact that it was issued shows us something of the man.

And of course, within the past 2,000 years, there have been enough other tyrants in human history - matching and surpassing Herodís brutality - to illustrate the fact that the world is indeed a cruel and painful place. And even when tyrants on a smaller scale inflict misery on a smaller number of people, it still serves to remind us that in this life people often do experience much suffering and injustice.

The Christmas story might make us forget about this for a day. But when we read on just a little further, and come to the account of the massacre of the Holy Innocents, we are shocked back into a realization of what the world is really like.

And, of course, that realization may once again make us wonder what Christmas really accomplished. Where is the peace on earth that the angels promised?

The Christmas story is supposed to demonstrate Godís love for humanity. But how can this divine love be harmonized with the depredations and savagery that have continued to occur for the past 2,000 years?

If God loves the world, why does he allow these things to continue? Should we not rather conclude that God is either indifferent to these injustices, or too weak to do anything about them? And if that is so, then whatís the point of believing in him, or of trying to follow his ways?

One thing that can be said in response to these questions, is that our ability to discern the presence of injustice in human affairs is actually evidence for the existence of God. God is the supreme Good.

The human conscience has an intuitive sensitivity to the difference between right and wrong that our creator has instilled in us. Our inborn knowledge of this natural law points us to the existence of the God who established it, and who imprinted it on the human heart.

So, if there were no supreme being - who embodied Goodness in an absolute sense - then there would be no ultimate criterion by which to identify good things as good things, and bad things as bad things. Without God as the ultimate arbiter, the perceived difference between good and evil would be an illusion - completely subjective and arbitrary.

But even more can be said. We should not minimize the emotional and physical suffering and sadness that many people in this world do experience. But we can recognize that Godís will for the human race reaches down to issues that are at a deeper level than this pain and sadness.

It is easy to criticize God for not preventing things like the slaughter of the Innocents in Bethlehem. But before we conclude that God has been a failure in this world, we should make sure we know what God is actually trying to do in this world. And before we persuade ourselves that God has let us down, we should consider that the story may actually be that we have let him down.

In his relationship with humanity, God wishes to be more than a cosmic policeman, who prevents men from inflicting on others the bad things they want to do. God is certainly able to set himself up as the head of a supernatural police state, if thatís what he wanted to do, and to use extraordinary coercive methods to restrain people from doing bad things.

But Godís purposes are not merely to prevent people from doing the hurtful things they want to do. He wants people not to want to do hurtful things in the first place.

He doesnít intend to be the equivalent of a zoo-keeper, who keeps vicious animals in cages or chains, so that they cannot fulfill their desire to attack other animals - or people. Rather, he wants the animals to be tamed, as it were, so that they donít have a desire to attack.

It certainly was a problem that Herod ordered the children of Bethlehem to be killed. But at a deeper level, it was a more serious problem that he even wanted to issue such an order. God would have wished that Herodís inner depravity and hatefulness be replaced by compassion and kindheartedness.

And that goes for all of us. To whatever extent you harbor hurtful feelings and angry intentions toward others, you, too, have a problem in an area of your life that runs deeper than the arena of your outward actions.

If God were simply to restrain you in your outward behavior every time you were prepared to say or do something unkind and cruel to another person, this would not change your heart. This would not remove from you the selfishness, pride, and arrogance that motivate these actions.

But at the same time, God does not simply want to be humanityís therapist either. He is interested in the thoughts and intentions of the heart, but he is not interested only in those things.

It is possible for people to develop mechanisms for coping with problems that help them not to react to their stress in violent or destructive ways. It is possible for people to learn how to have an altruistic and generous attitude toward others, even if they are not governed by the Word of God.

It is possible for people to cultivate their inborn ethical sensitivity to Godís natural law, even if they do not have a living and personal faith in the God who established this law. But again, this is less than what God wants for us.

God does not simply want us to be morally reformed. He wants us to be spiritually regenerated.

Literal police officers perform a valuable function in maintaining order in the civil society. But if God had settled for being humanityís cosmic policeman, he would never have gotten down to the deeper issues that he really wants to address with us.

Literal therapists likewise perform a valuable function in helping people sort through their problems, and organize their thoughts and feelings. But if God would have been satisfied to be humanityís cosmic therapist, he would not have been able to address the deeper problems he really wants to solve in our lives.

Itís difficult to hear about atrocities like the massacre of the Innocents at the hand of Herod. Itís even more difficult to witness such atrocities, or to be personally and directly affected by them, as many people in the world, unfortunately, have been.

But when these things do happen, donít blame God for failing to do what we think he should have done for us. Ponder instead what it is, at a deeper level, that God actually wants to do for us.

In his epistle to Titus, St. Paul summarizes for us the reason for Christís entrance into this world. He writes: ďwhen 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. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ĎAbba! Father!íĒ

God is not a supernatural policeman, or a supernatural therapist. He is a supernatural redeemer.

Godís Son came into the world, not merely to restrain our outward evil behavior, or to help us get in touch with our inward confused feelings. He came to buy us back from the power of death and destruction, with the price of his own blood.

He came to atone for our sins, and to restore us to our fellowship with the God who created us. He came to bring us a heavenly adoption as children of a heavenly Father, and to fill us with his own living and life-giving Spirit.

You and I are indeed under the divine law. We are sinful rebels against Godís goodness, who are justly condemned by his law for our willfulness and arrogance. Whether we like it or not, Godís law does hover over us, and it does judge us.

And the law correctly identifies humanityís true and deepest problem - its disconnection from God, who is the source of all goodness and life.

Herod certainly needed to stop perpetrating his acts of human cruelty on others. But at a deeper level, he needed to repent of his sins before God.

Herod certainly needed to stop being so paranoid, fearful, and callous in his thoughts and feelings about others. But at a deeper level, he needed to be reconciled to God by faith, and to become a new creature in Christ.

It grieved God that Herod lived and died in sin, with his heart turned away from God and Godís grace. It grieved God that Herod hardened himself against the things that God really wants to accomplish among men.

And it grieves God when people who are alive today likewise shut themselves off from his power to heal, to restore, and to forgive. It grieves him when those who need the inner deliverance from sin and the redemption that he offers in his Son, choose instead to criticize him for failing to prevent outward evil actions in the affairs of the world.

The gift of Christmas is Godís gift of salvation to those who have grieved God, but whom God loves nevertheless. The gift that is offered to you, in the Holy Babe of Bethlehem, is the gift of reconciliation with a God whom your sins have offended, but who wants to pardon you and give you another chance.

The gift that is offered to you in Jesus, is the gift of adoption from a heavenly Father who wants to be alienated from you no more.

The peace of Christmas is not simply the outer ďpeaceĒ that would be imposed on the world, if the wicked actions of wicked people would be restrained against their will. Instead, the peace of Christmas is the inner peace that comes when wicked people are forgiven, and when they are given a new will - and a new heart and mind in Christ.

God has the power to do this. God wants to do this. God wants to do this for you.

May your life be ever filled with the goodness and grace of the Christchild. Even in the midst of suffering and injustice, may you still know, and rejoice in, the eternal peace that only God can give. Amen.