13 December 2009 - Advent 3 - Luke 3:1-14

Please listen with me to selected portions of last week’s Gospel, from the third chapter of St. Luke, concerning the ministry of John the Baptist:

“...the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. ... He the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. ... Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’”

“And the crowds asked him, ‘What then shall we do?’ And he answered them, ‘Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.’ Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Collect no more than you are authorized to do.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.’”

So far the text.

John the Baptist was called by God to the work that he was doing, in preaching and in baptizing, and in calling the nation of Israel to repentance, in preparation for the appearance of Messiah. We heard in today’s Gospel that John was very clear in his understanding of what role God had called him to play.

John knew that he was not the Messiah, or the Christ. He was not the literal prophet Elijah, returned to earth from heaven. He was also not the greatest and ultimate Prophet predicted by Moses - another description of the Messiah. He was instead - as God had called him to be - the voice of one crying in the wilderness.

John’s ministry was unique - to say the least. What he did, how he did it, and where he did it, was determined by the Lord. He was God’s man, working under God’s direction, accountable to God and submissive to God in his calling or vocation.

When he started out as a preacher, John didn’t take an opinion survey, to try to determine how the people of Israel might have wanted him to act, and then conform himself to that expectation. He also didn’t take a poll to find out what kind of doctrine the population was interested in hearing, and then mold and shape his sermons on that basis.

John’s ministry was molded and shaped by the Lord. The content of his teaching was likewise molded and shaped by the Lord, and by the Word of the Lord.

As he fulfilled the mission that God had entrusted to him, he could therefore do so with confidence and courage, and with a clear conscience. He wasn’t trying to fit in, or to please men. In fact, he said some things that were very displeasing to the civil authorities and religious leaders of the time.

The desire of John’s heart was to please God. And in his faithfulness to his divine vocation, through his own trusting in the Lord’s Word, John did please God.

John also expected everyone who had been impacted by his ministry to have a heartfelt desire to please God in their lives too. All people who sincerely love God would be expected to reflect that love, and to express it in very concrete ways, in how they treat their neighbor in need.

“And the crowds asked him, ‘What then shall we do?’ And he answered them, ‘Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.’” Helping to cloth the naked and feed the hungry are two examples of the “fruits in keeping with repentance” that John said must be present in the lives of those whose faith in genuine.

The word translated in our English Bibles as “repentance” means literally a change of mind, or a transformation in thinking. To “repent,” therefore, does not mean only to be remorseful over past failures - although the concept of “repentance” does certainly include sorrow over sin.

More fully, to be a repentant person means to be a person who now thinks in a new way, with new values and priorities, new goals, new standards of conduct. If God has called you to repentance, and if through his Spirit he has worked repentance in you, that means that he has given you a new mind and a new heart.

You now have a mind that seeks to know and follow the Lord’s will, and a heart that seeks to please the Lord. The fruits worthy of repentance are, therefore, the outward manifestation of this inward change.

People always do what they think, deep down, is the right thing to do. If they didn’t think it was the right thing to do, they wouldn’t do it.

We’re not talking now about whether their thoughts are correct, but simply that there is a natural and inevitable connection between thoughts and actions. What true repentance means, is that now your thoughts about what is right will be different, and therefore that your actions will now be different.

John had this general expectation of everyone who had “repented,” in the true sense of the term. God has this general expectation of everyone who has “repented,” in the true sense of the term.

But John also knew that the specific calling in life that God had given him was his own unique vocation. Other people, who were called by God to do other things, were not expected to live and act exactly in the way John was living and acting.

Other people were not called to be eccentric prophets dwelling out in the desert, preaching and baptizing. But those who had been impacted by John’s ministry were expected to show forth the fruits of their repentance in other ways, and in other places, according to their callings from God.

Our text gives us two examples of such vocations, and it tells us what John said to the people who came to him from within those vocations:

“Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Collect no more than you are authorized to do.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.’”

It’s interesting that the examples that are given are two professions that were highly prone to corruption - especially at that time in history. There were many people in John’s day who no doubt thought that a godly person would never be able to serve as a tax collector or a soldier, in view of the degree to which these professions were associated with moral corruption and abuse of power.

But in spite of the constant temptations that would have surrounded any tax collector or soldier in first-century Palestine, John taught that these callings, in themselves, were still divine vocations, in which a godly person can and should serve his neighbor honorably and ethically.

We should, however, not underestimate how hard it would have been to do that. The peer pressure coming at them from their fellow tax collectors and soldiers would have been immense.

And when one person in an otherwise corrupt system tries to rise above the corruption, and be honest and ethical, that person thereby places himself in the cross-hairs of the corrupt system that he is trying to reform.

For example, if every police officer in a certain precinct is “on the take,” none of them has to worry about being turned in by one of their peers. But if one officer wants to be a “Serpico,” and not take any bribes from underworld figures, he becomes a threat to everyone else. And they then become a threat, and a danger, to him.

There are temptations to moral corruption and godlessness in almost any life circumstance in which you, my friends, may find yourselves, according to your calling. To varying degrees - depending on what your particular job or station in life is - there are temptations to profanity and blasphemy, fornication and adultery, cheating and lying, laziness and neglect of duty, abuse of power and exploitation of others.

If you speak and act in a way that is noticeably different from how others around you are speaking and acting, you will stand out. You will not “fit in.” And you will be seen as a threat to those who are still stuck in the muck and mire of their corruption.

But if you are a baptized Christian who truly believes in the Lord, you have no choice. It is God who has called you to serve him and your neighbor through your station in life, whether you are a tax collector, or a soldier, or anything else.

He certainly does promise to help you as you seek to be faithful to him in your vocation - even in the midst of many temptations. And you can be sustained by his help in times of uncertainty and weakness.

But as you fulfill your duties, God also expects you to adhere to his standards of holiness and righteousness. You are to look to him for guidance, when you are faced by an ethical challenge in your calling.

In all matters pertaining to how you conduct yourself morally in your station in life, you need to take your cues from God’s Word, and not from your peers. What they think doesn’t matter, if what they think goes against the moral code to which God holds you accountable.

If you are a “repentant” person, whose mind and heart have been changed by God, then the fruits of your repentance - of your new way of thinking - will necessarily be made manifest in a new way of living.

There will be a noticeable commitment on your part to try, with the Lord’s help, to be godly and honorable in how you do what God has called you to do.

But if there is no such commitment; if there is no inner desire to be outwardly different - to carry out your assigned work in a uniquely noble and virtuous manner - then that would indicate that there is actually no inner repentance either.

If your words and actions haven’t changed, then the only conclusion there can be, is that your mind and heart haven’t changed.

If that is the case - or if that might be the case - now is the time to remember once again what John the Baptist was sent by God to offer to the people of Israel: a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Now is the time to remember, and to receive by faith, the forgiveness that was offered to you, and that is still offered to you, in your own baptism.

The baptism of repentance that John administered to the people of his day, and the baptism of repentance that was administered also to you, is not simply a baptism that demands and requires repentance. In the fullest sense of what the word “repentance” means, it is a baptism that also gives and bestows repentance.

In his Gospel, by the power of the forgiveness that comes through his Gospel, God doesn’t simply demand that you change. He changes you, into the image of his Son Jesus Christ.

He regenerates you by the Spirit of his Son Jesus Christ. By his grace he causes you to be a new creature in Christ, and a living member of the body of Christ.

And so, if you need to be changed on the inside, so that you can and will bear the fruits of repentance in your life, ask God to change you. If you need to be filled with heavenly strength and courage, so that you can be the kind of person in your calling that you know God wants you to be, ask God to give you that strength and courage.

In faith, return to your baptism, and ask God to forgive you. His forgiveness is there for you already, through the death and resurrection of Christ.

In faith, listen to the words of pardon through which God renews that forgiveness to you even now. In and through those words - those baptismal words - those life-giving and life-changing words - you will be changed.

You will be transformed, from the inside out. You will become, in the full sense of the word, a truly repentant person.

Lift up your hearts! By the authority of God and of my holy office, I declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins: in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

20 December 2009 - Advent 4 - Luke 1:39-56

Today’s text from St. Luke focuses a lot of attention on the Virgin Mary: What she did, where she went, what her relative Elizabeth said to her, and what she said back to Elizabeth. Mary, the Lord’s mother, is often held up as an example, for us to follow and imitate.

She believed God’s Word, even when what God told her - through the angel Gabriel - seemed impossible. She submitted to God’s will, even when she couldn’t even begin to understand why God wanted to use her for the things he was going to do through her.

The Apology of the Augsburg Confession states that “blessed worthy of the highest honor,” and that she “wants us to consider and follow her example.”

In accordance with this belief, the members of the Ukrainian Lutheran Church sing these words in their Byzantine Liturgy: “Following the example of the Virgin Mary and of all the righteous, let us commend ourselves and all our life to Christ our God.”

We, too, in a hymn that we usually sing on All Saints Sunday, poetically address these words to Mary, as the gracious mother of the divine Savior:

O higher than the cherubim, More glorious than the seraphim,
Lead their praises, Alleluia!
Thou Bearer of the eternal Word, Most gracious, magnify the Lord,
Alleluia! Alleluia!

In today’s text, Elizabeth shows the kind of honor to Mary that we, too, should show: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

Also in today’s text, Mary, as it were, leads our praises. Through the words of the song that she chanted in response to Elizabeth’s greeting to her, Mary teaches us how to worship God, and how to be thankful to him for all the wonderful things that he has done for us:

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”

Mary does indeed set the pace for the church, and set an example for the church, in terms of her faith and faithfulness, and in terms of her trust and trustworthiness.

She had an unswerving faith in the goodness and certainty of God’s plan for human salvation, and was herself a faithful and obedient servant of God. She trusted in God and in his superior wisdom, and was herself a trustworthy and reliable person among her relatives and friends.

But how well have we actually imitated her example? In your own life, do you come even close to Mary’s total reliance on God and on God’s Word? Or do you question God - especially when his Word runs contrary to what you would expect - and chose to believe and do what makes better sense to you?

In our Vespers service, we often sing the actual words that Mary herself sang in today’s text. This is the canticle we call the Magnificat.

But do you sing this song with anything close to the devotion and commitment with which Mary originally sang it? Are you truly magnifying the Lord from the depth of your soul, and rejoicing in your spirit in God your Savior, when you sing this little hymn - and other hymns like it?

Or is it something that you endure in a Vespers service, and that you’re just trying to get through as quickly as you can? Are you simply going through the motions of singing, without paying much attention to the words of the text?

As Lutherans we confess that blessed Mary wants us to consider and follow her example. That’s what we say in the Book of Concord.

But do we do what she, according to God’s will, would want us to do? Do we consider carefully and respectfully the kind of faith and service to God that filled her life? Do we follow the example that she sets for us?

God certainly doesn’t want to use us for exactly the same purposes for which he used the life of the Virgin Mary. He called upon her to carry the divine-human Savior in her own womb, and to bring him forth to the world in giving birth to him. That’s not our calling today.

But how faithful are we in believing what God has told us, concerning what he does want to do through us? How well have we fulfilled the tasks that God has entrusted to us?

It’s a good thing, I suppose, that God has provided Mary to us as an example, so that we will know what to strive for with his help, and so that we will realize what he does in fact expect from his people.

But when we measure ourselves according to her faithful example, we have to admit that we have fallen far short of what God expects of us. We have fallen far short of what we should expect of ourselves.

But in today’s text, we are reminded not only of how we should follow Mary’s example in the way we serve God. We are also reminded of how God follows his own example in how he blesses and saves us, for the sake of his and Mary’s Son.

When Elizabeth spoke to Mary, she said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” When Mary then sang her song, she said, “For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me.”

The one English word “blessed” appears in both of these verses. But actually, in the original Greek, a different word is used in each of these verses.

There are two different ways in which Mary was blessed by the Lord. And in his dealings with us, God follows his own example - the example of how he dealt with Mary - in blessing us also in these two different ways.

When Elizabeth said that Mary was “blessed” among women, the original Greek uses a word that means literally that “good words” had been spoken over her, or in regard to her. The English word “eulogy” is actually based on this Greek word.

The specific things that God spoke to and about Mary are, of course, different from the things he speaks to and about us. God does not tell you that he is sending his Son into your womb so that he can take a human nature from you and be physically born of you.

But God does tell you that he is sending his Son upon you, to clothe you with the covering of his righteousness. God does declare you to be righteous and holy and acceptable to him, because of the righteousness and holiness of Jesus your Savior.

These are marvelously “good words” that God speaks over you, and in regard to you. These are the “blessings” that God pronounces upon you, which cause you to become a truly “blessed” person - even as Mary was also profoundly blessed by the Words that were spoken to her.

And God continues to speak good words like this to you, for your salvation. These are words of pardon, by which God tells you that he will not hold your sins and failures against you, but will count them as having been already paid for by the blood of his Son. He - Jesus - is the truly righteous one, who lived and died in your place.

But God does not only bless you in this way - by speaking “good words” upon you. He also blesses you in the way that Mary describes in her song, when she says that “all generations will call me blessed.”

Here, in the original Greek, the word that stands behind the English word “blessed” is a word that means “favored” or “fortunate.” Now, a “fortunate” person is a person who has been enriched by a “fortune” of some kind. He is in a good and happy situation, because something good has been given to him.

Mary is called “blessed” by all generations - or at least by all generations of believers - because they know that the greatest of all blessings was given to her. The eternal Son of God was placed inside her body.

For nine months he grew physically under her heart, even as the divine message of who he was, and of what he would do, grew within her heart, into a robust and confident faith.

There is a close connection between the blessed words that God pronounces upon us, and the blessed things that he places within us. God’s words of life and love do change your standing with him, and establish peace between him and you.

That’s certainly a good thing - a wonderfully good thing - in itself. But these words also change you. When you hear those words, and believe those words, you will never be the same again.

Your heart becomes something that it didn’t used to be. It becomes the dwelling place of Christ himself, because Christ himself now abides with you.

You therefore do not struggle against the power of sin and death in your own strength. You strive for that which is good and righteous in the strength of Christ. Christ himself, within you, strives for that which is good and righteous, for you, and through you.

And so, even though you do not follow the example of the Virgin Mary as well as you should, God has not given up on you. He blesses you anyway.

He blesses you with his word of forgiveness, which establishes and preserves peace between him and you. He blesses you with the gift of his Son, who lives and works within you, and through you.

You are, therefore, truly blessed. You are blessed as you stand, with a clear conscience, before a holy God who pronounces the righteousness of his Son upon you. You are blessed as God fills you with his love and his life.

In a certain sense, therefore, we can all say to each other: Blessed are you among women - and among men - in Christ! In Christ, all generations will call you blessed! Amen.

24 December 2009 - Christmas Eve - Luke 2:8-14

Christ is born! Let us praise him!

A human mind is filled with many thoughts. Your mind is filled with many thoughts right now.

We don’t each think about the same things. But we all do think about something - according to the circumstances of our individual lives.

This is one of the things that separates us from other creatures. As most of you know, my family has two cats, of which we are quite fond. But a cat’s mind doesn’t work in the way a human being’s mind works.

I don’t see in our cats any evidence of remorse over past mistakes, or aspirations to future greatness. Instead, cats act on impulse.

They follow their instincts. They don’t think things through, but they just do what they feel like doing at any given moment.

But that’s not the way human beings are - or at least that’s not the way we’re supposed to be. We have the ability to think.

We are able to reflect on the past, and to plan for the future. With the mind that God gave you, you are able to seek out meaning and purpose in things: in your memories, and in your dreams.

This is a great blessing, built into humanity according to the unique way in which we were originally created, in the image and likeness of God. But sometimes - especially since the fall of humanity into sin - this use of our minds can also seem like a curse.

Sometimes our thoughts overwhelm us. There have been many times when I have awakened in the wee hours of the morning, with so many thoughts running through my mind, that I could not get back to sleep.

Stressful thoughts about my unfulfilled responsibilities: the things I need to do, but have not yet accomplished. Fearful thoughts about the future, and its uncertainties.

Worried thoughts about my family members, and others whose well-being is of concern to me. Remorseful thoughts about my own failures and mistakes: words and actions of the past that I now regret.

Sometimes I think about all these different kinds of things all together - in a big, confusing jumble.

And I don’t think that my experience is unusual. I’m quite sure that each of you, in your own way, is sometimes burdened by thoughts like these.

With all the things we have to think about in this life, calmness of mind - without fears, without worries, without guilt and remorse - is a much desired thing. But it is also a very elusive thing.

In the holiday season, unsettling thoughts that are unique to this time of year also sometimes weigh us down, and distract us.

We are thinking about all the shopping we must do for people; all the special preparations we must make for feeding and entertaining people; all the travel plans we must make so that we can see people.

Christmas is supposed to be a time of joy and peace. But it is often a time of stress and worry. And it is also often a time of sadness.

For those who have lost a loved one at some point in the preceding year, Christmas has a tendency to accentuate and rekindle thoughts of grief and longing for those who are now gone from this world.

At Christmastime we deeply miss those who are no longer with us, in view of the memories we have of past Christmases that were celebrated with those who are now gone. Or maybe we regret, in hindsight, that we didn’t spend as much time with our deceased loved one, at the holidays, as we now think we should have.

In our small congregation, there are several families and individuals for whom this is the first Christmas since the passing of a loved one - a few months ago, a few weeks ago, and even in one case a few days ago.

Tonight, their thoughts - our thoughts - are racing. And some of those thoughts are weighing us down in grief and sadness.

King David speaks for all of us when he prays, in Psalm 139:

“O Lord, you have searched me, and known me! You know when I sit down, and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.”

“Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”

All of us, as we have come here tonight, have brought our thoughts with us. And that includes our stressful thoughts, our penitent thoughts, our fearful thoughts, and our lonely thoughts.

But we are not going to depart as we came. And that’s because God heard David’s prayer. And he has heard our prayer.

He has tried us, and does know our thoughts. He has seen that there are indeed grievous ways within us.

But he is not going to leave us as he finds us. In the message of Christ, the newborn Savior and King - proclaimed among us on this holy night - God is going to lead us in the way everlasting.

Dear friends, at this moment, stop! Stop thinking about anything other than what I am about to tell you.

In your mind, press the “pause button” on all your worries, all your regrets, all your fears. And listen! Listen to what the angel tells you:

“Fear 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.”

“Fear not.” God replaces your fear with peace, because his Word of pardon heals your conscience, and brings forgiveness of all your sins.

“Fear not.” God replaces your fear also with hope, because his Word of promise is never broken. In Christ he will fulfill for you everything that he has pledged to do and to give in his Gospel.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem, just as the Lord has promised. By the working of God’s Spirit, Jesus is now born again in you - in your heart and mind - just as the Lord promised.

“I bring you good news of a great joy.” Not bad news, of judgment and catastrophe, but good news.

News of a miraculous birth that changes everything. God, in his love for fallen humanity, has become a man, in order to save our race - from the inside!

God’s Son came to be with us, and to become a part of our story. In our human loneliness, he is our divine-human companion and friend.

He came to live with us, and in his righteousness to live for us. He came to die among us, and as the Lamb of God to die for us. And he came to rise again: breaking the bonds of sin and death; opening for us a portal to eternal life.

This is “good news of a great joy that will be for all the people.” Not just some of the people, but all the people.

Jesus was born among the children of Abraham - as a part of the nation of Israel, to which the oracles of God had been entrusted. The message of Christ was brought to them first, and it is still a message that is for them: a message that the Savior - their Savior - has come.

But this message is not only for our Jewish friends. It is a message for every tribe and nation, for people of every language and ethnicity.

And this message, filled as it is with the power of God himself, recreates the heart and mind of all who are impacted by it. Everyone who has heard the story of Christ is therefore invited to pray, with faith and confidence:

“Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, by whom all desires are known, and from whom no secrets are hidden: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.”

And in answer to such a prayer, God does cleanse your thoughts, and strengthen you in your weaknesses, and sooth you in your fears, in Jesus.

“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” If this gift is offered unto all, then that means that it is offered unto you. The shepherds were not left out. You are not left out.

God in his love is reaching out to you this evening. He is reaching out to you right now, to heal your mind, and to restore your heart.

He is giving you new thoughts - thoughts about his grace and forgiveness; thoughts about the new life he has bestowed on you through the Holy Babe of Bethlehem. Thoughts about his promise never to leave you or forsake you.

These are the thoughts that you will carry with you when you leave here this evening. These are the thoughts - thoughts that God himself has placed within you - that will carry you, and guide you: for the rest of your life, and into eternity.

Christ is born! Let us praise him! Amen.

27 December 2009 - Christmas 1 - Luke 2:22-40

I remember a day several years ago when I watched a certain episode of the Phil Donahue show. The host of that show would usually try to have provocative guests on his program, to discuss controversial topics.

The particular episode I’m thinking of now was broadcast from New York City. It was on the subject of the evangelical Christian movement in America.

One of the guests was Cal Thomas, the well-known commentator and columnist who is himself an evangelical Christian. As he was talking about his faith in Christ as humanity’s Savior from sin, an angry person in the audience, who identified herself as Jewish, responded to his comments in a tone of shocked outrage.

She asked if he was really saying that she had to convert to his religion in order to be able to go to heaven. Thomas responded that this was not something that was simply his opinion, but that the Bible itself teaches that Jesus is the only Savior, and that salvation is available only through faith in him.

As I listened to this exchange, I did not disagree with the essence of what Thomas was saying. But I thought about how I would have answered this woman’s question differently - in a way that perhaps would have provoked some deeper reflection on her part, and not just in a way that would have gotten her back up in even more anger and outrage.

When she asked, “Are you saying that I have to believe in your religion in order to be saved?,” I thought to myself that I would have said, “That’s what the Jewish apostles told my pagan ancestors, when they brought the message of Jesus to them, and when they told them that they needed to forsake their idolatry, and believe in the way of salvation that is provided by the only God who really exists: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

That kind of response to this woman’s misunderstanding and misperception of the Christian faith, would have been completely in accord with the words of Simeon the prophet - words that we heard in today’s Gospel, and that we actually sing for ourselves, in a slightly different translation, in our Communion Liturgy:

“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.

For those of us who are Gentile believers in Jesus Christ, every time we hear or sing these words, we are reminded of how much we owe, humanly speaking, to the people of Israel. What would the world have been like, and what would it be like now, if God had not chosen this nation, many centuries ago, to be the repository of his Messianic promise?

To be the custodian of the inspired Hebrew Scriptures? To be the nation into which humanity’s Savior would be born, and through which his salvation would go forth into the world?

The setting in which Simeon originally spoke or chanted these words is significant. Jesus, as the firstborn son of Mary his mother, had been brought to the temple to be formally presented to the Lord.

This was in keeping with God’s command as recorded in the Book of Exodus: “Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine.”

The firstborn from among the offspring of the livestock were to be consecrated to the Lord through sacrifice. But God made it clear that the firstborn from among the children of his people were absolutely not to be sacrificed, but were to be redeemed through the offering of an animal substitute.

Moses conveyed this divine command to the Israelites in preparation for their entrance into the land of the Cannaanites. This was a land that was to become their land.

This was a land that was to be purged of the idolatry and wickedness of the Canaanites. This was a land in which the Hebrew people were then to live to the glory of God, according to the moral code that he had made known to them in the Ten Commandments.

Now the Canaanites actually had a religious idea that was in some ways similar to what God commanded to the people of Israel. They, too, believed that the firstborn was to be seen as belonging to their god Molech.

But in regard to their own firstborn children, they did not make a substitution from the animal kingdom for the sacrifice. The firstborn sons and daughters of the Canaanites were themselves burned on the altar of Molech.

This practice was, of course, an abomination to the Lord. Most obviously, it resulted in the death of a child. But it also resulted in the destruction of the natural affections of parents for their children, and of children for their parents.

According to the way God created human beings, parents are supposed to love and take care of their children. They are not supposed to kill them.

When a perverse culture and a demonic religion attack this most basic human impulse in such a direct and systematic way, the people who live in such a society become hardened in their conscience, and lose touch with some fundamental aspects of what it means to be human. The devil, who inspires such an evil mockery of God’s ways, is able thereby to accomplish much harm and damage, at so many levels.

And the Canaanites were not the only pagan society that practiced child sacrifice, or other forms of human sacrifice, in the darkness and deception of their idolatry and false religion. Not by a longshot.

It’s much easier to count the number of pagan societies that did not practice such abominations. Almost all of them did, in one way or another.

The Aztecs in Mexico. The Druids in Ireland. The Huns in Asia and Europe. The list could go on. And it would not be a short list.

Just about every one of you sitting here today, if you are not descended from the people of Israel, are likely descended from remote ancestors who participated in human sacrifice - or who believed in it, and falsely believed that they benefitted from it.

And along with the human sacrifices in these societies, came a general lowering of the value of human life. It would have been very unpleasant to live among such people, shrouded in such darkness, spiritually deceived by such lies.

But all of that changed when Jesus came, as a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to God’s people Israel. As Simeon was able to see by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Jesus was, in his person, the fulfillment of all that Israel was and was intended to be.

In his person, he was, most decisively, the ultimate seed of Abraham, and the heir of the promise of Abraham. In his person, he was, most decisively, the ultimate heir of David’s royal throne, and the eternal king over God’s people.

He was the glory of God’s people Israel. Everything they were ever supposed to be, he was - and then some. Everything they were ever called to do, he did - and then some.

Simeon was no doubt very familiar with what the Lord had spoken through the Prophet Isaiah many generations earlier, in regard to his chosen people, and in regard to the chosen Messiah, who would arise among and from his people: “I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Simeon knew that the baby he was holding in his arms on that day was the one who would bear our griefs and carry our sorrows; who would be esteemed as stricken, smitten by God and afflicted, because of our sins.

He know that this child would someday be wounded for our transgressions, and crushed for our iniquities, so that we could be forgiven. And he knew that, in the Gospel and Sacraments that would go forth from Israel, this child would sprinkle many nations: cleansing them from their sins.

Over the years and centuries that followed the coming of the Christ, his apostles, and their missionary successors, brought the message of Jesus to the world. In so doing, they brought the light of God to people who had been languishing in the deepest darkness.

In their preaching, filled with the saving power of God himself, they brought the life of God to people whose hearts had become completely disconnected from their creator, and who were trapped in a state of hopeless, spiritual death.

But as they believed in Christ, their souls were saved from sin and death. Their humanity was restored. The institution of the human family, and the love of parents and children within the family, became, in Christ, what it was always supposed to be.

As descendants of those in various lands who received the Gospel from the apostles and early missionaries, we are grateful beyond words for these ministers of the Lord, and for their faithfulness to the calling God had given them to preach the good news to all creatures.

And we are grateful to the pastors and teachers of our own time, who passed that Gospel on to us, personally, in our own baptism, and in the instruction in God’s Word that we have personally received.

But the salvation from sin that has been proclaimed to us in Christ - so that we can believe this proclamation and be forgiven - cannot be taken for granted. We have the Gospel, and the blessings of the Gospel, because of God’s redeeming love for all nations, and not because this is just the way things would naturally be.

This is not the way things would naturally be, if the light of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had not shone forth for us, across all national and ethnic boundaries, from Israel. This is not the way things would naturally be, if Jesus, the Son of God in human flesh, had not been supernaturally revealed to us - and our pagan forbears - through the preaching of his Jewish apostles.

It makes it all the more poignant, therefore, when we consider the sad fact that a majority of the Jewish people did not embrace their Messiah when he appeared among them. But we do know that God, in his love, wants all men to be saved from their sins, and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

We can therefore be certain that he also wants those in our day, who trace their heritage to the Hebrew patriarchs, to be saved from their sins, and to know in their own lives the fulfillment of the hope of their ancestors. And so, together with Cal Thomas, and all others who have been filled with the peace of God’s grace through faith in Christ, we do not refrain from telling our Jewish neighbors and friends of this love.

We are also saddened when we look around us, and see what amounts to the re-paganization of our country. This process began in Europe several decades ago. And now it is happening here.

Of course, it has never been the case historically, that everybody in a mostly-Christianized society actually believed the Christian faith. There have always been hypocrites and heretics; those who were stubborn unbelievers, and those who were chronically indifferent.

But what’s happening now, is that the beliefs and values of the Christian faith are being explicitly repudiated to an ever increasing extent. And a new set of pagan-like beliefs and values is taking their place.

It’s truly heart-breaking to ponder how many of the firstborn of our land are sacrificed on the altar of the new American “Molech” - the god of self-indulgence and convenience - in the abortion mills of our cities.

It’s truly heart-breaking to ponder how the natural affections that people should have for each other in families, are now often betrayed and obliterated by all sorts of bodily and psychological abuse; by the physical and emotional abandonment of children, and by the despising and belittling of parents.

And we here - even here - are not unaffected by this. It’s all around us.

Through the new “pagan” ideas that surround us, and attack us, the devil is attempting to draw us away from Christ, and away from the life-giving love of the God of Israel that has been made known to us in Christ.

Our society in general - and we, too, in particular - need a renewal of what Simeon was talking about in today’s text. We again need what the Gospel of Jesus brings to people.

As the shadows of unbelief are hovering over us once again, we need the light of Christ, to break through the darkness. And in Christ, as we believe the promises of Christ, God will enlighten us.

As the new idolatries of our time are once again threatening our faith, we need the revelation of Christ, to break through the deception. And in Christ, as we believe the truth of Christ, God will transform our hearts and minds, and draw us back to himself.

The God who sent his Son into the world, and who sent the message of his Son to all nations of the world, will not abandon us. The God who has redeemed us, and who has claimed us as his own, will make good on that claim.

“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” Amen.

Funeral Message - 28 December 2009

TEXT: 2 Corinthians 12:7-10
[St. Paul writes:] keep me from being too elated by the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. [8] Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. [9] But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. [10] For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Yesterday morning, I saw an interview on the news with a man who has recently authored a book about the relatively new phenomenon of prominent displays of religious faith in the world of sports.

When an athlete hits a home run, or scores a touchdown, or when the winning quarterback is interviewed after a game, we often see and hear a testimony to religious faith: an acknowledgment that God is to be given the credit and the glory for this athletic achievement, or a gesture of thanksgiving to God for giving the athlete or the team the ability that allowed this victory to take place.

But the author also made what was to me a very interesting observation. He said that when an athlete tries, but fails, to hit a home run, or get a touchdown; or when the losing quarterback is interviewed after the game, there is no statement about God and his gifts. There is just silence as far as God and God’s grace are concerned.

And then the author who was being interviewed said something of profound importance - and something that was absolutely correct from the perspective of Christian theology: “But God is also with the losers.”

The world of sports is, in many ways, a metaphor and microcosm of real life. A football game or a baseball game accentuate the importance of team work - working together with others for a common goal. That’s an important life skill.

In a football or baseball game we also see important images of competition and struggle, which are likewise a part of life in the real world. An athlete struggles against an external opponent, and he struggles against himself - against his own limitations and shortcomings - as he seeks to do better than he has done before, and to accomplish on the field more than he has accomplished before.

And in sports, just as in real life, there are winners and losers. Sometimes an athlete succeeds in these external and internal struggles, and wins a victory. But sometimes he does not get that touchdown, or hit that home run. Sometimes he fails.

Life is like that. There are successes, and achievements, of which we are proud. We’ve done well in our job. We’ve raised a fine family. We’ve lived a long and productive life.

But in this life there are also failures, and disappointments, of which we are not proud. We have tried to do as well as we could, at work, or at home, but have not been clever enough, or wise enough, or strong enough to accomplish what we wanted to accomplish. We’ve let down others, who expected more of us, and perhaps we have brought embarrassment upon ourselves.

To one extent or another, to one degree or another, that is the story of the whole human race. That is your story, and my story. Nobody fails all the time, in everything. But nobody succeeds all the time either.

And where is God in all of this? Well, as is indicated by the popular kind of religious expressions that we see and hear in the world of sports, it is easy to believe that God is at hand, blessing us, guiding us, and taking care of us, at those times when we succeed. That kind of belief in God, and in his association with the winners, comes naturally to us.

But for us who believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and for whom the image of the cross is our chief symbol, we know that God is also with the losers. And that means that he is with us when we lose, and fail, and disappoint.

In the person of Jesus Christ, God himself became a man: to live and walk among us, to experience the ups and downs of the human experience, and to feel the pain also of human disappointment and sadness.

And finally, as the ultimate fulfillment of his saving purpose, he carried all of our human failures, all of our human defeats, all of our human sins, to the cross; and suffered there for them, in order to redeem us from them.

The message of the cross, and of what Jesus did there, is not simply a stepping stone to greater and more important things in Christian theology and worship. The humiliation and suffering of the cross remain instead at the center of what we believe as Christians. That’s why St. Paul, in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, says this:

“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness, and in fear and much trembling.”

“In weakness, and in fear and much trembling.” That just about sizes up what we feel like at those times in life when we have not succeeded but have failed, and when we might be tempted to think that God is not now with us. But he is.

Because the God in whom we believe is a God whose only-begotten Son died on the cross for our sins. The God in whom we believe is a loving heavenly Father who is at hand, not only to receive our thanks and adulation when we succeed, but also to receive our pleas for mercy and help and forgiveness when we fail.

He is a God who, in his Gospel, continually holds the cross before our eyes; and who, in the preaching of the cross, does indeed forgive, and heal, and comfort. And he says - as he said to St. Paul - “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

This God is the true God: the God who has redeemed us, and who shows his love for us in the cross of his Son. He is not only with the winners. He is also with the losers.

Those of us who knew Bob knew him as a man whose life was indeed characterized by notable successes. In many ways he was a winner. He was for many years successful in his business. He was successful in helping to raise two fine sons.

And Bob gave thanks to God for these achievements. At those times when he was doing well, he was not ashamed to let people know that he was a man of faith, who acknowledged God and God’s gifts.

But those of us who knew Bob also knew him to be a man whose life was not characterized only by successes. He didn’t always hit the home run, or get the touchdown. He was not always the winning quarterback.

But in those times, too, even in much weakness, he knew that the Lord had not abandoned him, or given up on him. The Scriptures - with their message of Christ’s forgiveness, and of eternal life in Christ - were always open before him. And prayer to his Lord was always on his lips.

Would we wish that his faith could have been stronger, that his reading of Scripture would have been more fruitful, and that his prayers would have been more fervent? Most certainly. Who doesn’t wish this for himself, or for others, in any circumstance?

But it’s not the strength of our faith that makes the cross of Christ available to us. It’s the grace and love of God himself, that prompts God to save us.

And faith, even if it is a weak faith, is still a saving faith, when it clings to the cross. A true faith, even if it is weak faith, knows that God is not there only when we win. It knows that he is also there when we lose.

Dear friends, please remember this. Please remember this always, and be comforted and guided by this fundamental truth.

When you experience successes in your life, don’t forget to thank the Lord. His gifts made your achievements possible. Always acknowledge that.

But when you fail, and disappoint yourself and others with your lack of success, know that the Lord is with you then too.

His cross is still before your eyes even then - especially then - when you need his forgiveness. God’s grace is sufficient for you even then - especially then - when you need his strength.

And when your life in this world draws to an end - in whatever circumstances you may be in when your mortality does eventually catch up with you - may you be found with the Scriptures open before you, with prayer to the Lord on your lips, and with faith - in Christ crucified - in your heart. Amen.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.