2 January 2011 - Christmas 2 - Luke 2:40-52

“Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

With these words, the boy Jesus explained to his mother why she and Joseph should have known where he would be, when they were looking for him - throughout the city of Jerusalem - for three days.

As the Son of God, he knew that he was just as much at home in the Temple of Jehovah, as in the carpenter’s house in Nazareth. He wondered why they didn’t know that too.

And the text does not say simply that it was likely or probable that Jesus would be in the Temple. It says that he “must” be there - that it was “necessary” for him to be there.

From the first moment of Jesus’ conception in the womb of his mother, he was fully and completely divine. Jesus, as a man, did not evolve into the Son of God, or at some point in his earthly life receive an adoption as the Son of God.

Rather, he was always the Son of God. The eternal Word, through whom all things were made, descended into the womb of the Virgin Mary, and there took to himself a human nature.

From the very beginning, therefore, the house of God in Jerusalem was the house of Jesus’ Father - since Jesus’ Father was God the Father. The Temple was not simply Jesus’ “home away from home.” According to his divine nature, it was his home, plain and simple.

He belonged there. And so, even as a boy, if he would find himself in Jerusalem, he would be drawn to this specific place.

Of course, what made the Temple to be the Temple was not the structure or building itself. During the history of the people of Israel, going back to the time of King Solomon, there had been three different buildings in Jerusalem which had functioned as the house of God.

Before the time of Solomon, the house of God was a tabernacle - a temporary structure that could be moved from place to place, according to circumstances.

The Temple was the Temple, because the sacrifices and other prescribed rituals - which the Lord had specifically commanded for his people - were performed there. And where the sacrifices of God were taking place, there too would be the teaching and preaching of the Word of God.

Priests and teachers would station themselves at the Temple: to give people the instruction they needed as they prepared for their participation in the Temple rituals; and to instruct them also in the benefits and blessings - attached to these rituals - that God had promised to them.

These sacrifices and rituals, of course, pointed forward, at the deepest level, to the final and ultimate sacrifice that would be offered for the sins of the world by the coming Messiah - the Suffering Servant of the Lord - the Lamb of God. The teachers in the Temple therefore explained and proclaimed these things too - according to the light they had - when the people who came to the Temple sat at their feet for instruction from the Scriptures.

In the era of the Old Testament, the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, could be in only one place at a time. God set things up in such a way that there would be only one Holy of Holies; only one sacred altar; only one location where the priests and Levites would perform their designated sacrificial duties.

Ever since the days of Solomon, that place was in Jerusalem. And so, Jesus would need to go to Jerusalem in order to be in this place. And whenever he did go to Jerusalem, this was a place where he was sure to be found.

During the events described in today’s text, Jesus was only twelve years old. He had not yet been publicly inaugurated into his Messianic ministry.

So, on this occasion, he was not there as a teacher, but as a student. St. Luke is very careful to tell us that when Mary and Joseph found him, he was “in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.”

To be sure, his questions were filled with wisdom and insight, and anyone who heard the questions, no doubt learned a lot from them. But the form and manner of Jesus’ dialogue with the rabbis was the form and manner of one who was showing respect to the teaching office of these men, and of one was not presuming to place himself over them as their rabbi.

That time would come, of course - after Jesus had been publicly installed as the ultimate prophet and teacher of Israel, in his baptism. Following his baptism, during his public ministry, Jesus did often preach and teach at the Temple, on those occasions when he was in Jerusalem.

But before his official “inauguration” as the Messiah, he did not do this. Whenever Jesus was in the Temple - depending on the stage of life he was in - he acted in accord with the vocation that was in effect at that particular time of his life.

In light of the coming of Jesus, and in light of his fulfillment of all the Old Testament promises concerning the Seed of Abraham, and the Son of David, there is no longer a physical Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. But this does not mean that there is no Temple at all.

Dr. Luther summarizes what the New Testament teaches concerning such matters when he states that

“The temple is now as wide as the world. For the Word is preached and the sacraments administered everywhere; and wherever these are properly observed, whether it be in a ship on the sea, or in a house on land, there is God’s house, or the Church, and there God should be sought and found.”

Elsewhere Luther expresses this truth in these words: “Throughout the world, the house of God and the gate of heaven is wherever there is the pure teaching of the Word, together with the sacraments.”

“...the church is the house of God, which leads from earth into heaven. The place of the church is in the temple, in the school, in the house, and in the bedchamber. Wherever two or three gather in the name of Christ, there God dwells.”

The house of God among us is not limited to one physical place, as it was in the Old Testament era. The one sacrifice of Christ for the sins of the world has been offered.

Jesus died on the cross for all of us, once and for all time. Much of what the one Temple in Jerusalem symbolized has therefore found its fulfillment in the death of Christ - and in the resurrection of Christ, which testifies to the complete acceptance of this sacrifice by God the Father in heaven.

And so, there are no more sacrifices for sin. And there is no longer a need for a physical Temple for such sacrifices.

But there is a continual distribution of the blessings and benefits of the sacrifice of Christ: in the sacrament of the Lord’s body and blood, and in the preaching of the Gospel. This preaching prepares us for the sacrament; it brings the Lord’s pardon and absolution to us; and it instructs us in how God’s grace and forgiveness in our lives make all the difference in the world - and beyond the world!

Today, the spiritual house of God is in the place - any place - where these blessings and benefits are disbursed and shared with believers from all nations. This special dwelling place of the Lord can be found wherever two or three are gathered together in the name of Christ, around the Gospel and sacraments of Christ.

And today, just as in the days of his earthly life, Jesus “must be” in his Father’s house. It is not optional for him to be present where this spiritual Temple is present. He is always there: in his ascended glory, and in his sacramental love.

Today, just as in the days of his earthly life, those who would seek after him - like Mary and Joseph - will always find him in the house of God. As with Mary and Joseph, they should not waste any time or effort looking anywhere else - because they will not find him anywhere else.

Jesus has promised to be available to us - to forgive us, to comfort us, to strengthen us, and to instruct us for life - in the gatherings of his saints around his Name and Word. But so many of us don’t pay attention to this.

Like Mary and Joseph, we often spend days and years looking for God, or for a feeling of spirituality or meaning in life, but without finding it. And that’s because, in this quest, we bypass or ignore the church - either by not going to church, or by not taking church seriously when we do go.

We try to find peace and joy in human relationships, in material objects, or in pagan-style mysticism - anywhere but in that place - that divine Temple - where true peace and joy can actually be found.

The Prince of Peace himself - the Joy of man’s desiring - will never be found in those other places, and in those other things. But he will always be found in his Father’s house.

That is where he must be, because of his unbreakable promise that he will always be where two or three are gathered together in his name. And today, those gatherings - gatherings like this one, in our little church - are the special dwelling place of God among men.

Those of us who are called by the Lord to be pastors and teachers in the church are accountable to God for our service in his house. Since the “Temple” today is a gathering around the Gospel and sacraments of Christ, we preachers are obligated to proclaim only the Gospel that God has revealed in Scripture, and to administer the sacraments only in the way that Jesus has commanded.

But those who do not hold a public religious office do still have a proper place, and a proper role to fill, in God’s house. The church is not just a place for professional clergy. We all belong here.

When Jesus was just a boy of twelve years, before he had entered upon his public ministry, he still knew that the Temple of the Lord was where he should be: to ask questions; and to put himself in the place of those who listen to God’s Word, who learn from God’s Word, and who grow in God’s Word.

If the Son of God was not ashamed to do this, neither should we be ashamed to do this. The Second Person of the Holy Trinity in human flesh knew that being in his Father’s house was important. How could it be any less important to us - sinners in need of God’s grace?

Psalm 26 enshrines what should be the prayer of all of our hearts: “O Lord, I love the habitation of your house, and the place where your glory dwells.” If this is not where our priorities are focused - as they should be - the Christmas season is one of the best times for this to change.

Today is a good day for us to ask the Lord to forgive our past negligence and half-heartedness in this respect. Today is a good day for us to implore the Lord to transform our hearts, and reorient our commitments.

In the Liturgy, the Preface is a special prayer that the pastor chants, on behalf of the congregation, in the opening portion of the Rite of Holy Communion. As the communicants silently join their hearts and minds to this prayer, they are thereby preparing themselves for their participation in the sacrament.

In a few minutes, we will pray the Preface for the Christmas season. In this prayer, we will humbly say to our heavenly Father:

“in the mystery of the Word made flesh, you have given us a new revelation of your glory, that, seeing you in the person of your Son, we may be drawn to the love of those things which are not seen.”

By the Lord’s guidance and grace, may it be so that a renewed love for God’s spiritual Temple, and a renewed love of the salvation that is distributed to us in that Temple, would be the chief blessings we have in mind, when we speak these words.

May we be always drawn by God, through the Holy Supper of his Son, to an ever deeper love for his Son - as his Son waits for us, and eagerly receives us, in this Temple.

The temple of God today is not the kind of building that is seen with our physical eyes. It is not a literal building at all, but is a mystical reality, seen only with the eyes of faith.

May God give us the faith to see this spiritual “Temple” - even if we have been wandering to and fro in fear and confusion, and not seeing it, for many days or many years. May God instill in us a devout desire to enter that “Temple” in faith, by being personally present - and attentive - where and when the Gospel and sacraments of Christ are in use.

And when we do in these ways finally “see” and “enter” the Temple of his church, we may very well also hear these loving and welcoming words from the Holy One whom we find there: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Amen.

9 January 2011 - Baptism of Our Lord - Romans 6:1-11

Earlier in today’s service, we offered this prayer to the Lord: “Father in heaven, at the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River You proclaimed Him Your beloved Son, and anointed Him with the Holy Spirit. Make all who are baptized in His name faithful in their calling as Your children, and inheritors with Him of everlasting life.”

What does it mean for us to be faithful in the calling of our Baptism?

An overtly religious person, who is motivated by his religious faith to dissociate himself from the ordinary activities of life, is often described as someone who is so heavenly-minded that he is no earthly good.

The alternative that is implied in this criticism is that religious people should not be too religious, and that their lives should not be governed too rigidly by their religious convictions.

What are we to make of these viewpoints? Which one accurately describes a life that is faithful in the calling of Baptism?

Should we seek to be so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly good? Or should we temper our spiritual ideals with heavy doses of practicality and common-sense realism, so that we can still function in this world?

Well, neither of these options is actually the way in which we should understand the nature of our life of faith. In today’s lesson from the Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul paints a different kind of picture of what it means to be a baptized Christian in this world. He asks,

“Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”

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

We who have been united to Christ in baptism are called no longer to live in sin. But we are called to live - to be a part of things in this world, and to be involved in the lives of other people in this world.

When we live in the grace of baptism, and in the love of Christ, we will live in such a way that we will not harm, or cheat, or lie to our neighbors.

Instead, as we “walk in newness of life,” we will help our neighbors in their bodily and material need; we will be concerned about the well-being of our neighbors; and we will cultivate relationships of mutual honesty and mutual respect with our neighbors.

Today, we remember the baptism of our Lord. His baptism shows us - among other things - that humanity’s Savior was willing to descend all the way down to where humanity actually lives, in this world, and to cover himself with the suffering and hardship that humanity endures in this world.

Without himself being sinful, he immersed himself in a world that has been corrupted by sin. He was willing to experience for himself the disappointments, the injustices, and the sadnesses that we all experience.

Jesus did not insulate himself from the difficulties of living on earth. In his incarnation, God’s Son did not “walk among the clouds,” as it were - above the fray of real life.

Instead, he embedded himself right into the middle of our human predicament. His willingness to receive a baptism that was intended for sinners - like us - shows this.

As you know, my wife and I have two long-haired Persian cats. Even with our efforts to keep our house vacuumed, those who have entered our home will probably notice, after they leave, that at least a few strands of cat hair have attached themselves to their clothing somewhere. It’s virtually inevitable for anyone who spends some time in our house.

During the time when Jesus was in the world - a world that he came to redeem - he allowed all human sin to attach itself to him, even though none of that sin had proceeded from him personally.

And he also allowed the divine judgment that all human sin deserves, likewise to become attached to him. That’s what was happening in his trial, and in his death by crucifixion.

It was all a part of his willingness to become a part of this world - for us - and to endure everything that would eventually come him way in this world. During his earthly life, Jesus walked the pathway that had been laid out before him, to its bitter end.

He heeded the calling of his baptism, and followed that calling all the way to the cross. And in so doing he saved us from sin and death.

And now, as we are baptized into Christ, and are united to Christ, we - like Christ - are also called by God to follow the pathway that is laid out before us in this world. The baptismal life of God’s children is not a life that is lived above the fray, or apart from the challenges of this sinful world.

We, too - like Christ - are embedded in this world. We are a part of it, like everyone else. We share in all the ups and down of life in this world.

The way in which we live on earth does not accomplish our redemption from sin, or even contribute toward our redemption. Jesus alone was our Redeemer, and the only salvation that can be had, is the salvation he gives.

Through faith in him, and in his Word of pardon, we receive the blessings of his saving work for us. We do not, and cannot, atone for our own sins. And we don’t need to anyway, because Christ has already atoned for them.

But, in the way in which we do live in this world, our baptism does call us to imitate Christ, and to do as Christ did, in this respect: our life in Christ - insofar as it is in Christ - will not be a life of sin. It will not be a life of shameful exploitation of others, or of gratification of our own selfish and proud ambitions.

Such an old pathway - a pathway of death - is not the pathway we are any longer to take. Rather, in Christ, and by the power of our baptism into Christ, we will “walk in newness of life.”

The manner in which we conduct ourselves in our relationships; the manner in which we fulfill our obligations and duties; and the manner in which we meet challenges and face trials, will be radically different from those who live and walk only in their original birth from Adam, and who have not been born anew in the Spirit of the Lord.

This does not mean that there will not be external parallels between the lives of Christians, and the lives of those who do not know Christ. There will be - spanning many human institutions, and many human experiences, in which Christians and non-Christians alike participate.

But even where there are numerous outward similarities, there are also significant inner differences. In their baptism, God’s people have become the light of the world, and the salt of the earth.

We love all other people, because we know that God has made them - and because we know that Jesus has redeemed them, and offers his grace to them. And that will show, not only in the unique kind of things that we say to others, but also in how we act toward others.

For example, both believers and unbelievers get married. But those who look at marriage from within their baptism, see marriage in a different way.

It is not simply an institution of society that satisfies certain emotional and practical human needs - to be entered into by a man and a woman casually, after a “trial period” of fornication, cohabitation, and mutual sexual exploitation.

Rather, in the divine calling of marriage, God bestows on his sons and daughters the profoundly sacred privilege of participating - reverently - in his own wonderful work of creation, and procreation.

Those who reflect on the meaning of their marital union from within their baptism, and as a part of their life in Christ, are also able to see something else that unbelievers cannot see.

As St. Paul instructs us in his Epistle to the Ephesians, marriage is a sacred symbol of the gracious and forgiving union of Christ and his church. It is a living testimony to the unswerving sacrificial devotion that Christ, the heavenly bridegroom, bears toward his chosen bride.

Again, both believers and unbelievers are happy when they are able to have a lucrative job, and the ability to make a good living by their work. But when Christians look at their job or profession from within their baptism, they remember that the cattle on a thousand hills, and all things in this world, actually belong to the God who created these things.

We are but stewards, who are grateful to the Lord for the daily bread he gives us through our work. We are temporary custodians of what God has entrusted to us.

And we know that we are accountable to him for how we use the material resources we have - according to his will, for his glory, and in service to others in his name.

On the day when each of us was first united to Christ in our baptism, and when we were thereby - in faith - united to everything that Christ did and continues to do for us, this was the beginning of a whole new life.

In many ways we are, of course, still the same as we were before. We still live in this world, and we still do many of the things that others do.

But in many other ways, everything is now different for us, because of our baptism. By the transforming power of God’s forgiveness, and with the resurrected Christ now living within us - and living his life through us - we do what we do with a different motive, and with a different understanding of what it all means.

And we do what we do in this world with a different hope. We know that in the end, when our pilgrimage on earth has ended, we will be welcomed into our heavenly homeland - through the doorway that is Christ, and his righteousness.

As Saint Paul also says in today’s text:“For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

Now, I imagine that you are probably thinking to yourself right now, that in so many sad ways your life has not in fact matched the description that I have been giving. I know that this is what I am thinking.

I have to admit that I often approach my relationships in a prideful way, and that I often use my possessions in a selfish way. I don’t have the kind of respect for my marriage and for my wife that I should have.

My motivations in my work often do not flow from the ideal of fulfilling my divine vocation in the service of others, with a concern only for them and their needs.

These are my sins. And these are your sins, too. These are the sins of us all. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”

As those who have been baptized into Christ, we have been called no longer to walk in the way of sin and death. But we have - far too often. We must repent of these departures from our baptism, and from our baptismal pathway.

But then let’s also remember what it is, in the life and ministry of Jesus, that we are commemorating today. Jesus was baptized, with a baptism that was intended for sinners - as if he were a sinner.

And on the flip side of that, we, through our baptism into him, receive his righteousness - as if we were not sinners. We receive his forgiveness.

And so, as we penitently recall our baptism - every day - and as our baptism once again raises us up with Christ - every day - we are renewed in that baptism, and in everything that it promises and gives.

And we are restored to the pathway of Christ, on which we are called to “walk in newness of life” by faith: faith in a Savior who rose from the grave for us; who died for us; who was baptized for us.

“Father in heaven, at the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River You proclaimed Him Your beloved Son, and anointed Him with the Holy Spirit. Make all who are baptized in His name faithful in their calling as Your children, and inheritors with Him of everlasting life.” Amen.

16 January 2011 - Epiphany 2 - John 1:29-42

Envision this scenario. Three men have been lost in a hot desert for several days, with nothing to drink. But there is an oasis out there, where a spring of water can be found.

One of the lost men then sees the oasis, and points it out to his companions. ”Look,” he says, “there is the oasis we needed to find; there is the place where we can find a spring of water.”

What response do you think he would get to this? Will the thirsty companions with whom he has shared this information just stand there, and do nothing? Or will his thirsty companions at this point actually start running away from the oasis, in the other direction, to try to get as far away from it as they can?

Would you expect either of these reactions on the part of thirsty people in a desert who has just been told by their friend where water is to be found? My guess is that you would not expect either of these reactions, unless the men had lost their sanity, and no longer realized how thirsty they were, or how desperately they needed the water that could be found at the oasis.

John the Baptist “saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ ... The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’”

What do you think happened next, in this account from St. John’s Gospel? What usually happens today, when people are told that Jesus of Nazareth is humanity’s divine Savior from sin?

What happens today, when Christ is pointed out to someone as the very Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world? This is what usually happens: Either that person, in the darkness of his spiritual indifference, just stands there, and does nothing; or in his hostility to Christ he runs as fast and as far as he can in the opposite direction.

Why is this? Why do people usually have an indifferent or even hostile reaction to what should be seen as a wonderful announcement?

It’s because most people do not think that they have a sin problem. And therefore they have no interest in a solution to such a problem. They are blinded and deceived - by their sin - regarding what their spiritual condition really is.

But what was the reaction of the two disciples of John the Baptist when their teacher pointed them to Christ, and when he told them that he was the Lamb of God? Our text tells us: “The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.”

There was no need for John to have to talk them into going to be with the Lord. As soon as they heard who he was, and what he offered to them and to all people in the world, they went - without any hesitation or delay - to join themselves to him.

The reason why their reaction was different than what the reaction of most people would have been, is because the law of God - as their master John had been preaching it - has prepared their hearts for this announcement concerning Christ.

John’s preaching of a baptism of repentance, and his warnings of divine judgment for those who are not ready for the Lord’s coming, had impressed upon these disciples a deep awareness of their sin problem, and an awareness of the fact that their sin problem was the most fundamental problem of their existence.

And so, when John told them that Jesus of Nazareth was the solution to this problem - indeed that he was God’s own unique and exclusive solution - this message reached into their heart, and grabbed hold of their conscience, and pulled them, in an instant, to Jesus’ side.

They were sinners: whose sin had separated them from God and from his holiness; and whose sin had caused them to turn in on themselves, and to turn on others.

Jesus was going to take that sin away. As the Lamb slain in their place, he was going to lift it off of them, and cleanse it out of them.

This is what John the Baptist was telling them. They didn’t need to be told twice.

And they didn’t even need to be told once to go to Christ, to be united to him by faith, and to receive from him what only he could give: the forgiveness of their sins; and a restored relationship with God.

But again, this is not the usual response among human beings, when Jesus is pointed out as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. There are many segments of the society in which we live that seem to be doing everything that can be done, to diminish among us a sense of our sinfulness, and a sense of need for what Jesus offers.

People who are honest about their personal sin problem would admit that they have perpetrated harm and pain on others, and that they need forgiveness for these failures and missteps. But these segments of the society want us to see ourselves instead as victims, and not as perpetrators.

Even criminals are really victims - victims of a poor upbringing, or victims of the influence of cable news, talk radio, or political blogs on the Internet.

When we have done wrong, or when we have not done what was right, the proper moral reaction to this is to feel guilty. And that’s because at such times we are guilty, and need to be pardoned for our offenses.

But again, these segments of society don’t want us to feel guilty. A lack of self-esteem is our real problem.

And people are not to be told that their words and actions are in error. That would be intolerant.

The long and short of it, is that many people in our country have been, in effect, “brainwashed” by all of this, in such a way that they are no longer willing to listen to God’s law. They are no longer willing to listen to the warnings of John the Baptist.

They are no longer willing to listen to the convicting voice of their own conscience. Sin is redefined, excused, and explained away.

It is not taken seriously, and it is not dealt with. And so, unabated, sin runs its course in the lives of many, and ruins the lives of many.

This is not only a problem among those who have stopped going to church. It is also often a problem among those who still want to be religious - but in a new and different way.

There is a movement underfoot to redefine American Christianity as a religion in which sin is never mentioned, guilt is never felt, and forgiveness of sin - for the alleviation of guilt - is never offered. This new kind of church is to be a church where nothing negative or critical is ever heard, but only positive guidance for happiness and success.

Sermons, hymns, and everything that takes place in worship, are to be brought into conformity with the demands of this new agenda. And the last thing that people want to hear in such a church, is that Jesus is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

But a church in which Jesus is the Lord, is also a church in which people will continually be told that Jesus is the Lamb. The cross of Christ will remain on the wall, in the hymns, and in the sermons, as the command of Christ - that repentance and remission of sins be proclaimed in his name to all nations - is fulfilled.

And the law of God will also be proclaimed, not for its own sake, but for the sake of the Gospel, which heals the disease that the law diagnoses. Guilt will be felt, not for its own sake, but for the sake of the joy that then comes when God’s very real forgiveness is proclaimed to those who admit that they have done wrong, and that they need God’s help.

And in a church where Jesus is the Lord, the Supper of the Lord will be celebrated in reverence and solemnity, and received in penitence and humility.

The Communion Liturgy serves as a “stand-in,” so to speak, for John the Baptist, when it points us to Christ - miraculously present in the blessed bread and wine - and when it teaches us to sing to him: “O Christ, thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world: have mercy on us; grant us thy peace.”

Dear friends, your deepest and most fundamental problem is your sin. And God’s solution to that problem in his Son Jesus Christ, who was sacrificed on the altar of his cross for your sin.

This is something that only he could do for you. And therefore this is why God’s Word draws you to him, to cling to him - in his Word and Sacrament, which is where he can be found among us today.

And, this is the only legitimate reason to go to Christ.

He came into the world, not to be its therapist, or its self-help guru; and certainly not to be its entertainer. He came into the world, to take away the sin of the world. He comes to you, as the Lamb of God, to take away your sin.

In Christ, God does indeed bless you in many practical ways. He does not only forgive your sins. But he forgives your sins first. All his other blessings flow out from that forgiveness.

Therefore, if someone has not come to him in faith, first and foremost to be forgiven, that person has not come to him in a true faith - as God’s Spirit would want to instill faith in the human heart - but rather in a manufactured and idolatrous faith.

And in such a false faith - which does not seek forgiveness of sins from the Lamb of God - someone is not really going to receive any other blessing from him either.

For those of you who are communicants in our church, that’s something to think about today, as you prepare to commune. That’s something to think about as you listen to the Words of Jesus himself, as he tells you that his blood is shed for you “for the remission of sins.”

That’s something to think about as you join in the congregation’s prayer to the Lamb of God, asking him to have mercy on you in the sacrament, and to grant you his peace through the sacrament.

If that’s not what is really on your mind and heart, as you approach the body and blood of Christ, then please don’t approach. If you’re not coming to the Lord’s Table in repentance, for the purpose of being renewed in the Lord’s forgiveness of your sins - which you admit and which you confess - then please don’t come at all.

There is great supernatural potency in this sacrament, to forgive those who humbly seek forgiveness. But this supernatural potency will have a different effect on those who presume to partake of this sacred meal for a purpose other than the Lord’s purpose - out of habit or superstition; or to please religious relatives; or for whatever other reason.

Remember St. Paul’s warning to those who participate in the Supper in a way that is not in harmony with its true saving purpose. He writes to the Corinthians:

“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.”

Judgment. That’s what you will receive, if you don’t take this as seriously as God does.

But judging you is not the reason why Jesus came into the world. And it’s not the reason why he comes to you now. As we read later in John’s Gospel:

“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. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

Dear friends, believe in the name of Jesus Christ. Believe in the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

Believe in him, and - like the disciples of John the Baptist in today’s text - follow him, and cling to him. This is the wisdom that comes from God.

Don’t let your deepest need - the need for God’s forgiveness - go unmet, even as you would strive, in human wisdom, for the meeting of other less important needs in your life.

“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Seek first the forgiveness of your sins, which the Lamb of God gives to you freely by grace, and all these things will be added to you.

John the Baptist “saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ ... The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.” Amen.

23 January 2011 - Epiphany 3 - Matthew 4:12-25

The imagery of “light in the darkness” is an common metaphor in Scripture, to illustrate the effect that God and his Word have on those who believe in him. Examples of this are in today’s Old Testament lesson from Isaiah, and in today’s Gospel from Matthew - which quotes from the Isaiah text.

St. Matthew writes that Jesus “went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: ‘The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles - the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.’ From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”

The Messianic prediction from Isaiah makes use of the imagery of “light in the darkness” twice. But the second time this metaphor is used, is is not just a repetition of that imagery. There is also an intensification of this symbolism.

We read that “the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.”

In your own experience, the thought of being “in the dark” might call forth two different sets of memories.

There have been plenty of times when I have been in a darkened room, at night, when there was hardly any light. In such circumstances I would often stumble over the various things in the room that could not be seen.

But when you are in a darkened room at night, usually, after your eyes have adjusted, the little bit of light that sneaks in through the window shades - from the moon and stars outside, or from a street light - eventually enables you to see the basic outlines of things. So, if you wait for a while, you will begin to see, at least in a general way, where things are in the room.

But there is also another kind of darkness that most of us have probably experienced less often. And that is total darkness.

When you are in a place where there is no light whatsoever, your eyes will never adjust to being able to see anything, regardless of how long you wait. That kind of absolute darkness is a bit more scary than the other kind of relative darkness.

In absolute darkness we are totally helpless. We are, as it were, overwhelmed, overpowered, and paralyzed by such darkness.

In matters of Christian faith and life, there are, perhaps, two levels of spiritual “darkness” to be found among those who do not know the Lord. We might call these different kinds of darkness the darkness of ignorance, and the darkness of evil.

Many people go through life in a state of spiritual and moral confusion. They are aware of their failures and shortcomings, but they can’t figure out how to rein-in their selfish or destructive impulses, or how to find the kind of happiness and peace in life that they do want.

They know that there is a God - or some kind of divine power in the universe - and they are curious to try to figure out what God is like. But according to the natural knowledge of God, all that can be seen of God is a vague, shadowy outline of his existence.

This is darkness - the darkness of ignorance. It is the darkness into which we are all born.

It is the darkness of our fallen sinful nature, which would cause us to “stumble” aimlessly throughout life - that is, unless God intervenes, and shines his light upon us.

Jesus Christ, through the Gospel of his death and resurrection for our salvation, is the light that shines through the darkness of ignorance. In the Gospel, Christ brings his heavenly truth and wisdom to those who had previously lived in this darkness.

In St. Paul’s speech to the idol-worshiping Athenians in the Book of Acts, he says: “we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent...”

And in his Epistle to the Ephesians, Paul warns Christians against the temptation to slip back into this darkness. He writes:

“you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous, and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!”

By nature we are children of wrath, and are cut off from the true knowledge of God. But Jesus breaks through this ignorance, by the power of his saving Word.

He brings life where there was only death. He brings forgiveness where there was only guilt. He brings hope where there was only despair. He brings light where there was only darkness.

To quote today’s text, “the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light.”

This kind of darkness is bad enough. But it is not the only kind of darkness there is. It is not the worse kind of darkness.

There is a supernatural realm beyond the natural world in which we live. Most people believe that. But people are often much less discerning than they should be in their understanding of everything that is in that supernatural realm.

God, of course, is in this realm. The angels, too, exist in this realm. They are ministering spirits who serve God, and who carry out his bidding. Even when they sojourn among us, they are invisible to our eyes, because they are not of this world.

But we shouldn’t think that everything that is supernatural is therefore automatically good and godly.

God and his good angels do exist in this realm. But so do the evil angels - Satan and his demons - who have fallen away from their original holiness, and who are now consumed and governed by an unredeemable hatred of God and of everything that God loves.

The “prince of the power of the air” - the “ruler of this world” - is always lurking, in one way or another, behind every human sin. He is very crafty in his supernatural deceptions.

He is very experienced in leading us into temptation through the circumstances of life - circumstances which he seeks to manipulate, strategically, to our detriment.

Satan, and the unclean spirits who serve him, are immortal. They have therefore had thousands of years to perfect their knowledge of our foolish ways and predictable weaknesses.

Through many indirect means and intrigues, by which we are “set up” for our many falls, these dark angels make good use of this knowledge. They are successful more times than not, in tricking us into doing things that end up bringing much pain into our lives, and into the lives of others.

But sometimes, the demons also work in direct ways. They don’t just stand “behind the scenes” of human wickedness, but they sometimes insert themselves directly into the lives of people.

They haunt the minds, and sometimes posses the bodies, of people who have invited them to come in, or have in some way attached themselves to these spirits, or have placed themselves under their influence.

Those invitations and attachments are sometimes done with a conscious knowledge of what is actually going on. Practitioners of black magic, for example, know exactly what they are doing, when they invoke demons.

But most of the time, people who invite demons into their lives don’t really know what they are doing. With great naivete regarding the supernatural realm, they often issue such invitations by means of playful and seemingly innocent occult activities - such as participating in a seance, or using a Ouija board.

Of course, God’s Word explicitly forbids these and similar activities. And that’s because God knows that these are often the points of entry for real beings - evil and dark beings - into people’s hearts, minds, and bodies.

He knows, too, that devils can and do disguise themselves, so that even when people may realize that they are having an encounter with a supernatural entity, they don’t realize - at first - that they are having an encounter with an evil supernatural entity. “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light,” as St. Paul warns.

But when Satan and his minions do come to people in these frighteningly direct ways, they bring a thick and heavy darkness - like a pall, that completely covers, and weighs down, those who have become the victims of such oppressions.

People who have become trapped in this kind of deep darkness, and who later regret it, often think that there is no way out. It seems to them to be a darkness of death - a darkness of inescapable, eternal death.

It’s understandable why people in such a regrettable situation would feel this way, because the darkness in which they are enmeshed is not just an ordinary darkness. It is not just the darkness of natural human ignorance.

It is a supernatural darkness. It is the darkness of evil.

But Jesus Christ is the light of the world. The darkness of sin, death, and Satan has never overcome him, and never will.

Again, to quote today’s text, “the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.”

In the Book of Acts, St. Paul recounts what Jesus has told him on the road to Damascus, regarding the ministry of preaching the Gospel to the nations that he was entrusting to Paul. Jesus told Paul that he was sending him to the Gentiles “to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”

People who have made a “pact” of some kind with the devil often think that there is no way for that pact to be broken. They often think that they are irretrievably damned, and without hope.

But this is not true. The pact or covenant that God has made with the whole human race is more powerful, and more authoritative, than any sinful pledge or deal that a foolish individual makes.

All people have been created by God, not by the devil. And all people have been redeemed by Christ, who died for the sins of the whole world.

God, therefore, has a rightful claim on all people, and offers his pardon and salvation to all people. The devil has no legitimate claim on anyone. Whenever God renews his rightful claim on a lost soul, the devil’s false claim is instantly nullified.

Through the Prophet Jeremiah, God looked forward to the time when his only begotten Son would die on the cross for our sins, and rise for us from the grave, to liberate us from the fear and bondage of death - and from the lies of Satan. And God said:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah... I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And...they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

When you were baptized, God brought this covenant personally into your life. He placed his name on you; he placed his law of life within you; and he covered you with the righteousness of Christ.

As you now abide in your baptism, in a life of daily repentance and faith, God’s covenant of love and forgiveness abides with you. God protects you from the attacks of the devil. God’s light, in Christ, shines upon you.

In today’s text, we read that Jesus “went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. ...they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics - and he healed them.”

The Lord’s healing of natural afflictions, as well as supernatural afflictions, illustrates that Christ is a light from heaven that has the power to penetrate and disperse all the darkness that surrounds us: the darkness of ignorance, and the darkness of evil.

Jesus, the light of our salvation, comes to us in his Gospel. In whatever condition he finds us, he shines on us through his Gospel.

And whether he finds us stumbling around in shadowy ignorance, or completely weighed down under the power of a supernatural evil, his light breaks through!

Through the Word of the Lord, the Spirit of Christ vanquishes all the ungodly influences in our life, both natural and supernatural. Through the Word of the Lord, he makes us to be new creatures in Christ: justified in Christ, liberated in Christ, and enlightened in Christ.

“The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” Amen.

30 January 2011 - Epiphany 4 - Micah 6:1-8

Have you ever been sued in a court of law? We live in a very litigious society, so the chances are pretty good that some of you have been.

And those of you who have been taken to court would probably confirm to the rest of us that it was not a very enjoyable experience.

I would imagine, too, that getting sued by a person who has a lot of resources at his disposal - and a fairly good case against you - would be an especially onerous experience. Your chances of prevailing would not be very good.

What do you think it would be like to be sued by God? How would you like to be hauled into court by the Almighty, where he would press very damaging charges against you, and call forth witnesses who would validate those charges?

What would be your chances of prevailing in such a case? Well, it would impossible to come out on top in that kind of scenario.

The idea of God suing people may seem preposterous. But in today’s Old Testament lesson from Micah, this is the exact kind of imagery the Lord uses, to illustrate what is going on when he calls his people to account for their failure to honor the covenant that he has made with them.

And to the extent that we, too, are guilty of this kind of “breach of faith,” in our relationship with God, then we too are, as it were, being sued by him, right now. He is hauling us before an objective tribunal of justice. He is making his case against us.

In today’s text, the nation of Israel is on trial for its sin of turning away from the God who had established them as a nation. As a people, they owed everything to him. But they were now ignoring his Word and violating his laws.

God, who had made a sacred and enduring covenant with his people, has been wronged by them. His love for them has been betrayed.

And he is not happy about it. And so, in the courtroom to which he has summoned them, the Lord calls upon his people to answer for their negligence:

“Arise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the indictment of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has an indictment against his people, and he will contend with Israel.”

“O my people, what have I done to you? How have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember what Balak king of Moab devised, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

God had saved the Hebrews from a very real earthly slavery in Egypt. Mount Sinai - and indeed all the immovable mountains of the world - had witnessed those momentous events of history, by which the Lord had liberated his people from this cruelty; and by which he had protected them from their enemies during their journey to the promised land.

The mountains are therefore called upon by the Lord, in this courtroom proceeding, to bear witness to all these things.

The nation of Israel cannot ignore the objective, factual history of God’s saving actions on their behalf. They are, accordingly, obligated to serve him always, and to remember the covenant he has made with them.

But, shamefully, they have not done this. And no one can deny that either.

Today, those who have been baptized into Christ have become a part of the New Israel, and have become spiritual heirs of the promise made to Abraham. Christians, too, are therefore under obligation to serve the Lord.

By the death and resurrection of his Son, God has set us free from our inborn slavery to sin, death, and the devil. We therefore owe him everything.

It’s true, of course, that Christians, as Christians, no longer live under the law, or under the weight of its judgments and accusations. But Christians, as Christians, do now live within the law, willingly serving God and their neighbors according to it, in love.

St. Paul asks these rhetorical questions: “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” “Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!”

But how have we measured up under these obligations - to live as Christ lived, and as Christ has told us to live? How faithfully have we honored the Lord who bought us with the price of his own blood?

Have we treated him and his claims on us as an annoyance, and as a hindrance to our desire to pursue and fulfill our own goals in life? Have we been guilty of a “breach of contract” with the God of our salvation?

Is God, right now, suing us, as he calls us to answer for our inexcusable failures? As far as the demands of the divine law are concerned, I think he is.

And if you examine your life and its priorities on the basis of what God’s law does in fact require of you, I think you will agree that you have not honored him to the extent you are obligated to. You do deserve to be “sued,” and to be compelled to give an account of yourself.

Mount Calvary witnessed the death of the Prince of Life. And Mount Calvary - together with all the other mountains of the earth - thereby testifies against you, when you act as if God, in Christ, has not earned the right to have your absolute and total loyalty.

God has deserved much more from us than what he has gotten.

When God “sued” the nation of Israel, as described by the prophet Micah, Israel acknowledged its guilt, and inquired of the Lord as to what kind of “compensatory damages” it needed to pay to him:

“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

The assumption was that God would demand some kind of huge payment, offered in the “currency” that “gods” usually want from their devotees - namely sacrifices of appeasement and self-atonement. It was even suggested that perhaps the Lord might require a human sacrifice, because of the enormity of Israel’s sin.

But of course, the sacrificing of children - which was common among the Canaanites and other idolatrous nations - was strictly forbidden by the God of Israel. The fact that it was even suggested showed how little the Hebrews in the text really understood the God whom they were obligated to serve - to serve according to his will, as he had revealed it to them.

The conventions and “standard operating procedures” of the various pagan religions of the region, did not apply to the true God.

When you admit that God is justified in condemning you for your lack of obedience to him, how would you think that you might be able to “make it up to him”? What kind of “settlement” might you try to reach with him?

Nowadays, most people no longer think that divine beings are interested in human sacrifices. But they do usually think that God can be appeased through other kinds of less extreme religious activities on our part, such as attendance at church, making contributions to the church, and so forth.

People who have been convicted in their conscience of displeasing God will often assume that God can be appeased, and that they can atone for their own failures, by performing such religious actions.

But it’s all completely wrong-headed. God doesn’t need these things.

And God doesn’t want these things when they are offered with the attitude that we ourselves can turn God’s anger away from us by outwardly doing them. When such religious actions are performed as a work to appease God, they are, in fact, an abomination to him - because they then become an idolatrous substitute for the way back to God that God has actually revealed.

By the blood of his Son Jesus Christ, God has redeemed us, and purchased us to be his own people. And in his death on the cross, Jesus has already atoned for all our sins - including our sins of ignoring God and turning away from him.

That’s why it’s an even deeper offense against God when people try to atone for their own sins. When you do this, or think in this way, you are in such times putting yourself in the place of Christ, as your own Savior.

You are thereby presuming to do what only Christ can do. And you are presuming to do what has already been done by Christ on your behalf, and for your benefit.

For a whole host of reasons, God strictly forbade the people of Israel to offer their children as human sacrifices to him - as many of the pagans were willing to do in regard to their false gods. From the true God’s perspective, there would be only one such sacrifice that would be pleasing to him - the sacrifice that he himself would provide by sending his own Son into the flesh, and to the cross.

In Christ, God himself bore the weight of his own justice against human sin. He himself paid the penalty of our negligence, rebellion, and disobedience, as our substitute.

In today’s text, the misguided people of Israel are told what God really expects of them in their national life, and in their attitude toward him: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

It’s not an outward ceremonial action that God demands of those who have offended him. He doesn’t want to be “paid off” through ritual sacrifices.

But he calls instead for the turning of the hearts of his people, back to him. God wants to see in the people of Israel - and in us - a life of humble repentance, and a life that is characterized by the fruits of repentance in the way we think about and treat other people.

He wants to see in the people of Israel - and in us - a life of humble trust in his mercy, as we “walk humbly with our God,” in accordance with how God reveals himself in the Gospel, and comes to us in his Word.

And God does not only want to see this. He also causes it to happen.

His Word is not only the guide and the norm, by which we can know how to avoid sin and idolatry, and how to please the Lord with our behavior. His Word is also the power of God, by which God instills within us the repentance and faith that he requires.

To “walk humbly with our God” is to walk by faith. It is living life, every day, in recognition of the fact that God’s ways are better than our ways, and that his promises - promises of grace and forgiveness - are always true.

We do often fail in holding up our end of our relationship with God. We often do not believe him when he speaks to us, or listen to him when he calls out to us. And he is not happy about it.

But when God “sues” us over it, it’s not because he wants to be “compensated” for the “pain and suffering” that our sins have brought upon him. He just wants us to stop ignoring him, and once again to acknowledge him to be the loving Lord of our lives.

He wants us to look to Christ and to his cross, as the chief evidence of that love, by which God has made us to be a new, holy nation before him.

Your sins have caused an “alienation of affection” between you and your Savior. God wants that alienation to be brought to an end.

When God, as it were, hauls you into court, it’s not because he wants something from you. It’s because he wants you.

In your baptism you were made to be a part of the body of Christ, and to be a citizen of the kingdom of Christ. Whenever you slip away from this, God wants you to return to where you belong. He wants you to be what your baptism says you are.

Today, as the law of God impresses itself upon you, God is “suing” you. He is calling to your attention the seriousness of your failures.

But also today - in the Lord’s absolution, in the Supper of his Son’s body and blood, and even in the preaching of this message right now - God is forgiving you.

He is not extracting a payment or a sacrifice from you. He is, rather, giving you the fruits and benefits of the one sacrifice for sin that really counts.

He is calling you back to where you belong. He is renewing his fellowship with you. And he is sending you out, once again, on the wonderful and joyful pathway of walking humbly with your God. Amen.