2 December 2012 - Advent 1 - Luke 19:28-40

“And as they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ And they said, ‘The Lord has need of it.’”

Have you ever thought about what it means for God Almighty to need something from us?

Quite often, we refuse to acknowledge our needs. When you actually do need help from someone, do you always admit it?

Or, in your pride, do you tell people that you are OK, and that you don’t need anything from anyone? You may want to be self-sufficient, and not to be dependent on anyone else. But that’s not always the way it is.

On other occasions, we may speak of something as a “need,” even when it is not really a need but simply a desire - often a sinful desire. Fornicators often excuse their indulgence in sexual sin by speaking of their “needs.”

How often have you justified a craving for something that was morally questionable, or for an unnecessary luxury, by telling yourself or others that you needed it?

But here we have a situation where God needs something - specifically a donkey - so that Jesus can ride on it. We might think that God does not need anything from human beings.

Isn’t God self-sufficient? Isn’t that a part of what it means for him to be God?

Well, in regard to God’s own existence as God, he does not need anything from you or me. But God does not simply exist.

In order to save humanity from its sins, God became a human being. He personally entered into his creation and became a part of it.

God’s divine story became a part of our human story. The Second Person of the Holy Trinity - the eternal Word - became flesh, and lived among us.

And in order to save humanity from within humanity, there are a lot of things that God needed to appropriate from humanity - and from the created world in which humanity lives - so that those things could be used by him for the fulfillment of his good and gracious will toward us.

For the accomplishing of humanity’s salvation from sin and death, the first thing God needed from humanity was a genuine human nature, so that Jesus - the Son of God - would be true God and true man. God could not create for Jesus a new human nature from scratch, which would be genetically disconnected from Adam and his descendants.

That would not be a human nature at all, but only a copy of human nature. And it would leave Adam and his actual descendants without a Savior.

And so, God needed to enter into the womb of a virgin, and miraculously take to himself a human nature from that virgin, in order to become a part of the human race to which she - and we - belong.

The Epistle to the Hebrews explains why God needed this, so that Jesus would come into the world in the way he did; and also why we, as the fallen children of man, also needed this:

“Since...the children share in flesh and blood, [Jesus] himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. ...he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.”

In today’s text from St. Luke, we are told that on a certain unique occasion, God also needed a donkey colt. God would not say that he needed something, if he did not really need it.

The Lord did not simply want a donkey, so that he could have improvised with a horse - or with some other creature - if he had to. No. The almighty creator and Lord of the universe - in the humble form of a man; and according to his eternal plan for our salvation - needed a donkey.

Centuries before the events that are described in today’s text, Zechariah had prophesied: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

God needed a donkey, so that this prophecy would be fulfilled. Only a donkey would do.

The donkey was emblematic of Jesus’ humility. He was not entering Jerusalem as a fearsome, worldly conqueror - on a noble steed. He was entering the city as one who had come into the world not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

The donkey - as a beast of burden, and as a working animal - was also emblematic of the fact that Jesus was entering into the Lord’s Holy City to do the hard work of redeeming humanity, and to bear the heavy burden of all human sin - as he would carry that sin to the cross in our place.

As the donkey labored to carry Jesus down the road and through the gate, so too would Jesus labor to carry to Calvary your sinful pride, and your sinful self-justifications - and to suffer and die there, for the forgiveness of those sins, and for the forgiveness of all human sin.

Luke reports that Jesus sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village in front of you, where on entering you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever yet sat. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ you shall say this: ‘The Lord has need of it.’”

So those who were sent went away and found it just as he had told them. And as they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?” And they said, “The Lord has need of it.”

Can you imagine a situation where you look outside your window, and see two guys opening the door of your car, getting into it, and preparing to drive it away?

You then go outside to ask them what they are doing with your car, and they respond, “The Lord has need of it.” What would you think?

Well, Jesus is not going to send two disciples to your driveway to borrow your car in exactly this way today. Since the time of his ascension, that’s not the way he operates. But there are other things that God does need from you today, for the fulfillment of what he is doing today.

God became a part of the human race in the person of Christ, and in his earthly, human body he suffered for our sins, and atoned for them. The incarnation was a once-and-for-all-time miracle. It will not happen again.

But God does still use things that he needs to get from us, and from the world in which we live, in delivering to people the salvation that Jesus won at the cross.

This morning we had the privilege of witnessing a baptism. In a very tangible way, Jesus’ regenerating and forgiving gospel was applied personally to a real human baby - who had been conceived in sin, but who also had been redeemed by Christ.

According to the Lord’s institution, God needed water in order to do this, in this way - the same kind of earthly water in which Jesus himself had been baptized. According to the Lord’s institution, God also needed the human hand and human voice of a minister of the gospel in order to do this, in this way.

In a few minutes, the communicants of our congregation will be given the opportunity to receive the sacrament of their Savior’s body and blood, for the forgiveness of sins and for the strengthening of faith. According to the Lord’s institution, God needs bread and wine for this to happen.

No other earthly elements will do. He needs, here and now, the same elements that Jesus used when he first administered this sacrament to his disciples, on the night in which he was betrayed.

God brings the message of human salvation to human beings through the ministry of human ministers. As this mission is continually carried out in the Lord’s name, in each generation, the Lord needs called servants to do this.

And for the maintenance of these ministers, the Lord needs the material support that comes from the rest of God’s people, so that pastors, teachers, and missionaries can in fact be set apart to do what God has called them to do.

God, in Christ, needs all these natural things thing from you, so that he can give to you - to your friends and relatives, and to all men - the supernatural things that you need from him.

What you need from him - a new heart, a new life, and a new hope for eternity - you would not be able to receive, if God had not taken your humanity to himself in the conception and birth of Jesus. What you need from him, you would not have, if Jesus had not borrowed that donkey, and if he had not ridden that donkey to his death - and to your salvation from death.

But God did take and use what he needed, so that he can now bestow upon you, and fill you with, what you need. As a man among men, Jesus forgives and heals you.

As your brother according to the flesh, Jesus is your true friend, your constant companion, and your ever-vigilant protector, in all the trials that you face.

He uses what he needs to use - ministers and laymen; water, bread and wine - so that the comforting promises of his gospel can be brought to you, and so that the power of his love can remain with you, and work through you.

As the humble servant of God and man, Jesus calls and equips you to be his servant, and the servant of your neighbor.

He uses you, and the things that you own and share, as his instrument in meeting your neighbors’ needs - for this world, and for the world to come; even as he meets your needs through your neighbors, and through the things that they own and share.

“And as they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ And they said, ‘The Lord has need of it.’” Amen.

16 December 2012 - Advent 3 - Zephaniah 3:14-20

At our house right now we are getting ready for the arrival of our son Paul, our daughter Catharine, and our grandson John, who will be spending the holidays with us. They are coming on Wednesday.

As is often the case at such times - when house guests are expected - much energy is being spent in vacuuming and dusting, in straightening up the clutter, in getting bedrooms ready, and this time also in doing a lot of baby-proofing - as we try to anticipate what dangerous or breakable items will attract the baby’s attention, and what we need to do now, in advance, to keep him and our belongings safe.

We want things to be nice for our family’s arrival and visit. But we know that things are not as nice as they should be yet.

We are in some ways burdened now, by a sense of what we need to do to get ready; and by a sense of how much effort it will take, over the next few days, to get ready.

This will not be a relaxing time. There will no doubt be some stresses, some frustrations, and some weariness associated with this whole preparation process.

According to the discipline of the Church Year, the season of Advent is also a time of preparation, for Christians - preparation for the arrival of God’s Son on Christmas. We are, as it were, getting ready for Jesus’ coming among us.

I’m not talking, though, about putting up the Christmas tree, stringing lights along the eaves of your house, or shopping for gifts. I’m talking about the inner preparation - the spiritual preparation - to which we are called by the appointed lessons, prayers, and hymns of Advent.

In the Proper Preface for the Advent season, for example, we speak prayerfully of the Lord Jesus Christ, “whose way John the Baptist prepared, proclaiming him the Messiah, the very Lamb of God, and calling sinners to repentance, that they might escape from the wrath to be revealed when he comes again in glory.”

When we hear such words, the fact that we are not yet ready for our Christmas encounter with Christ, is driven home to us very vividly. Indeed, as we contemplate these words, and the call to repentance issued to us by John the Baptist - and by the law of God in general - we are reminded of our lack of preparedness for any encounter with the Holy God.

At a level much deeper, and more troubling, than the consternations of parents and grandparents who feel that they are running out of time to get ready for a family visit, we know in our conscience that, of ourselves, we will never be truly ready for Christ.

There are deep stains of past sin that no amount of personal moral reform can wash clean. There are ethical and spiritual disorders that no amount of human will power and determination can make right.

The season of Advent is not a long enough period of time, for you or me to make ourselves clean enough, or tidy enough, or safe and pure enough, for God. An entire lifetime is not a long enough period of time.

As Carol and I are getting ready for our children and grandchild to arrive, I hope that we will at some point pause from the busyness of the cleaning and the shopping, and reflect on the significance of who is actually coming. As we do so reflect, the tiring stress and debilitating worry will, I hope, be set aside, even if just for a day.

And I expect that what will come over us instead will be a joyful and eager anticipation of a renewed embrace with three of the most important people in the world to us. Especially as we think of the coming of the little one - with all of his charms and delights, and his simple and uncomplicated love of life - a deep gratitude that God has blessed our family in the way that he has, will set our otherwise restless minds at peace.

I suppose that if we do take such a break - to stop and think about these things - then it won’t matter that much after all, if some of the many tasks we have assigned to ourselves don’t get done before our loved ones arrive. The fact that they are going to arrive, and that they will fill our home and our hearts with joy when they do arrive, is the most important thing.

Today is the day, during Advent, when the seriousness of our seasonal repentance and humility before God is, in a sense, set aside, and is balanced off by a different sentiment.

To be sure, Jesus is still coming. And Jesus is the holy God, who judges sin.

But that’s not all he does. Or maybe we can say that he doesn’t judge sin in only one way.

We know that Christ will return on the last day to judge the world’s sin. But God’s Son came into this world on the first Christmas, also to judge the world’s sin - in a different way.

In this first coming, he judged that sin by taking it upon himself, and by wrapping himself in it; by carrying it to the cross; and by absorbing into himself his own divine wrath against that sin.

Jesus’ suffering and death, for you and for me, was God’s judgment against your sin and mine. And it was a judgment - a decisive judgment - that lifts from us the fear of a future judgment.

In speaking of his impending “lifting up” on the cross of Calvary, Jesus said: “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

It is not just the message of the end of the world that is a message of God’s judgment against sin. The message of the cross is likewise a message of God’s judgment against sin.

But the message of the cross is also a message of forgiveness, and of the washing away of sin. The message of the cross is also a message of the covering over of sin, and of God’s removal of it from us - as far as the east is from the west.

The message of the cross is a message of deliverance: a message of deliverance from the power of sin and death, and from the alienation that sin and death have brought about; a message of deliverance from the kind of judgment that will be poured out on the last day, upon those who are not ready for the Lord’s final coming.

For you who repent of your transgressions, and who look to Christ alone as your hope, Jesus’ coming to you now - at Christmas, and at all times - is not a foretaste of the dread that the wicked and unbelievers will know on the last day. It involves instead a reception, and an enjoyment, of the blessings that Jesus won for humanity, and for you, on his cross.

And so, as you prepare in this Advent season for the arrival of the Babe of Bethlehem, it is an occasion for rejoicing. Today is an occasion for rejoicing.

It remains true that Jesus is to be taken seriously - in Advent and in all seasons. Your sins, and the harm and pain that they have caused, are to be taken seriously.

But Jesus is coming to put away your sins, not to punish you for them. He is coming to justify you, not to condemn you. And therefore we join today in the song of the prophet Zephaniah:

“Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil.”

And in this respect we’re not just waiting for Christmas, either. Jesus comes already, sacramentally, in the bread and wine of his Holy Supper.

Christmas reminds us of God’s incarnation in Christ, once and for all time. But Christmas also reminds us of the repeated invisible arrivals of Jesus among us, as he is mystically laid in the “manger” of bread and wine, where we can find him now, and receive him now.

As the communicants in this sanctuary anticipate this kind of coming once again - in just a few minutes - we do soberly examine ourselves. We reflect on the warnings of divine judgment that St. Paul gives to those who partake of the body and blood of the Lord in an unworthy manner.

But also as we anticipate this special sacramental coming of Christ, our hearts are unburdened - by his Word of pardon - from the weight of guilt and remorse. In the words of the Communion Liturgy itself, we lift up our hearts unto the Lord, yearning for the forgiveness that we know by faith will be ours in Christ, according to the pledge and promise of Christ.

Christ comes in love, to reveal his love to us. He delights in coming to us in this way, and for this purpose. He rejoices in his own coming, for the sake of his mercy toward us, and for the sake of his own enjoyment of his fellowship with his redeemed people.

On that day - on this day - it shall be said to Jerusalem: “Fear not, O Zion... The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”

On that day - on this day - the Lord himself says: “I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival, so that you will no longer suffer reproach. Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise... At that time I will bring you in, at the time when I gather you together...” Amen.

23 December 2012 – Advent 4 - Luke 1:39-56 - Guest Preacher: Seminarian Paul Webber

The Gospel lesson for today contains one of the most well-known, and commonly used, song texts from the Bible. Mary's Magnificat is a beautiful example of faith and joy from a young woman who, while certainly blessed by God, was being asked to carry out something which would certainly not be easy. However, something that I have personally found strange has to do with how we translate Mary's first words, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Now, we know that Mary isn't rejoicing because she is putting God under a magnifying glass. The word, megalunei, which we commonly translate as “Magnify” has as its possible English meanings; exalt, glorify, magnify, and speak highly of. These other meanings add depth to how we understand Mary saying that she Magnifies the Lord, and they certainly make sense when we take into consideration that The gift of the son of God, as he had been conceived in the womb of Mary, was a gift of great joy. This was because it showed god's faithfulness to his people and also the mighty deeds which he had, and would, carry out for their salvation.

When Elizabeth met Mary, she knew that this was no ordinary pregnancy. This was not just because the circumstances of someone like Mary being pregnant were so out of the ordinary. Normally, if someone in the exact situation in life as Mary became pregnant, it would be bittersweet at best. She was young, unmarried, and faced a life of hardship and shame, not just for herself, but for her baby too. It is interesting, then, that Elizabeth never assumed that there was anything wrong or troubling with Mary being pregnant. From the very moment that Elizabeth heard Mary's voice, she knew both that Mary was pregnant and that this pregnancy was not a cause of fear, sadness, or uncertainty, but that it was a cause for great, uncontainable joy.

Elizabeth did not perceive the wonders of Mary's pregnancy on her own. She was made to know all this by the power of the Holy Spirit, who worked this knowledge in Elizabeth when she heard Mary's greeting. It was because of the Spirit, because of the miraculous baby growing in the womb of Mary, that Elizabeth reacted as she did. Hear again, Elizabeth's words:

“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? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

This blessing spoken by Elizabeth upon Mary is not because of anything that Mary had done. It was because Mary believed what had been spoken to her by the Angel of the Lord, and she had gratefully and humbly accepted this honor and task upon herself even though she would have immediately known that it could very easily ruin her life.

Mary was not a glutton for punishment. It isn't as if she relished the idea of being ostracized in her community as someone who slept around. She certainly wasn't looking forward to being divorced by Joseph, either publicly in great shame or, hopefully, privately, but still shamefully. Mary believed and accepted what had been spoken to her because she knew that by this miracle, the Lord had remained faithful to all that he had promised his people, Israel. Mary knew, along with all of us, that this child was a long time coming. The messiah had first been promised to Adam and Eve as the one who would undo the effects of their first sins on humanity. Then, as Mary reminds us in the last lines of the Magnificat, God had promised this same messiah to Abraham and his offspring, the people of Israel. But, the Christ child was not conceived and would not work to save only Abraham's offspring. Let us turn for a moment to another famous song from the New Testament. Luke tells us in the second chapter of his gospel of a devout man named Simeon who had been promised by God that he would not die until he had met his savior. When Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple after he was born, the Holy Spirit guided Simeon to the temple where he held his infant savior in his hands and sang these words:

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

“A light for the Gentiles.” Simeon uttered these words by the guidance of the same Spirit who had guided him to the temple so that he could lay eyes on his Lord and Savior. The child growing in the womb of Mary had been promised to Abraham and his descendants, but he was for all people, Jew and gentile alike.

This was because the Christ child had come to satisfy a great need that was shared by both the Jews and the gentiles. Obviously the peoples of the many gentiles nations had been unfaithful to God. Even though there were not descendants of Abraham and were not God's chosen people, they still had their God-given sense of right and wrong, a knowledge of right and wrong to which they had definitely not remained faithful. However, even though the unfaithfulness of the Gentiles had been great, it was nothing compared to the unfaithfulness of the Jews. This was not because the sins of the Gentiles were less serious than the Jews, for we know that to God, sin is sin, and unfaithfulness is unfaithfulness, without any sort of curve or grading scale. The reason why the unfaithfulness of the Jews stands out so much is because it stands in contrast to the enduring mercy and faithfulness shown by God to his people.

Unfortunately we are like the Jews. We have God's word, he has made us his chosen people by the washing of Holy Baptism. There are those times that we, by faith, remain faithful to God and what he desires for us. But, we all have our moments when we reject the guidance of the Spirit in our lives. Often times we get ourselves into trouble, both physical and spiritual, and it falls to God, in his patient mercy, to save us from the full consequences of our actions. It can be easy for us to be utterly perplexed when we read of how Israel continued to fall away from the worship and service of the God who had, so many times, saved them from sure destruction. But we are not better. So often we fall away, and have to rely entirely on the mercy and faithfulness of God to bring us back to faith in him.

To use the words of Mary, God had helped his servant Israel on many occasions, showing the strength of both his power and his divine resolve in rescuing his people out of situations that were usually their own fault. God did not just help his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy. He did not just keep his promise to send his son as their and our savior from sin and death. God remembered his servant Israel and ensured that they were not entirely and permanently obliterated at those times when Israel and its leaders acted against the expressed will of God and his prophets. There is no logical, worldly, reason why Israel should have remained as a people and as a nation in the face of such great threats as Assyria and Babylon. God saw to it that his people would be preserved, that a remnant would remain, through which He could keep the promise which he had made to Adam and Eve, Abraham, and which had now manifested itself in the womb of Mary.

The conception of our Lord in the womb of his mother Mary was the culmination of all of God's promises, miracles, and mercy towards his people; of all the prayers, hopes, and dreams of those from generation to generation who had remained faithful to God in their hearts, believing in him and his promise to send them a messiah.

Mary was one of these people. Even before the Angel of the Lord had appeared to her, she hoped and believed that one day, God would send her and her people a savior. It was this knowledge that led Mary to say that all subsequent generations would esteem her and call her blessed. It was not, as some people say, because of any inherent qualities or goodness to be found in Mary. To be sure, Mary was good and faithful when she heard and believed that she would become pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit and that she would give birth to her Lord and savior. There are many good and decent reasons to esteem Mary. She gave birth to, raised, and loved Jesus in a way that only a parent can until the time came for him to go to the cross and offer up his life to pay for our sins. Those of us who are parents know how much we love our children, even when they are just silly little babies, and how hard it would be to watch our children suffer and die in such a horrible manner as Jesus endured to pay for our sins.

Mary didn't know the gory specifics of what her son would go through when she was told that her son would be the Christ. There were, however, some difficulties which would have immediately come to her mind. She was someone who was engaged to be married, but she and her fiance, Joseph, were not yet supposed to enjoy marital intimacy. Mary was pregnant. Joseph was going to know that his fiance was pregnant, and he was not the father. People would be convinced that Mary was nothing more than a promiscuous hussy. It would have been bad enough if Joseph was the father, because at least he was supposed to marry her. But for her to become pregnant by some other man was even worse.

Mary must have known that Joseph was going to divorce her. Hopefully he would do it quietly and not in some public spectacle. There was no way that he was going to actually go through with marrying her. He was an honorable man, and no honorable Jewish man would marry his pregnant fiance unless he, himself, was the father. Mary and her baby would either be left to fend for themselves, or they would be an ever-present financial and social drain on her parents for many years to come. And this was if Mary was able to avoid being stoned to death, as was allowed according to Jewish law. The happiness enjoyed by Mary and Elizabeth, as we are shown by this account, had nothing to do with vain pride in some great accomplishment or the hope of impending glory and wealth. Mary was happy that God had finally sent her savior into the world, and she would enjoy a particular closeness and relationship with her Lord different from his relationships with anyone from the past, present, or future.

It is clear from the Magnificat that Mary KNEW that her child had a special, divine, purpose, and that he would accomplish many great things. What parent doesn't have lofty goals, hopes, and dreams for their children? I already know that my son John is going to be the President of the United States, a significant Lutheran theologian, and that he will marry a beautiful young woman and be a good father to quite a number of athletic, musically talented, children. But Mary was not guessing. She knew who Jesus was and what he was going to do. As I said before, she didn't have a concrete knowledge of the timing and specifics of Jesus' life and death. But, when it came to the general principles of what Jesus meant to her and others, and what he was going to do for her and others, Mary knew.

Mary begins her song with “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” She is not referring only to God the father. She is also speaking of the baby growing inside of her. Hear the words spoken by the Angel to Mary:

“Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying . . . “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Even though Mary believed these words as they were spoken to her, they were probably, well, more like certainly, doubted by those with whom she was closest: her parents and her fiance. It must have come as such a joy to Mary, then, that Elizabeth greeted her as she did. Elizabeth did not say, “Oh, you're pregnant, this is terrible for you.” She said “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?” How comforting this must have been to Mary, where even though she believed in her heart of hearts that what the Angel had spoken to her was true, there was someone else whom she knew and loved who believed it as well. Two people actually, because we're told that little John would-be-the-Baptist knew he was meeting his Lord too, and was very happy to be doing so.

Mary and Elizabeth were not rejoicing by themselves. All those who had come before them who believed in the promise of the Messiah rejoice at his entrance into our World. We here today rejoice as we near our observance of the birth of our infant savior. God had remained faithful to his people Israel, both by his patient mercy and the many great deeds which he had performed. Now, with the conception and birth of His son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the greatest deed was in the works. God had looked upon the humble estate of Mary and all his faithful servants, and he has sent us his son in the flesh, just as he had promised he would. Amen.

24 December 2012 - Christmas Eve - Luke 2:16-19

“And [the shepherds] went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.”

Many people are moved and fascinated by the Christmas story. People often have a very warm, sentimental reaction to those familiar words from Luke chapter 2 - whether they hear them read by the pastor in church, by their father at home, or by Linus in a Peanuts Christmas special on TV.

There are still many people who go to church for Christmas, to hear that story, who don’t go on any other day of the year. The story of the baby Jesus - born in Bethlehem as the world’s Savior, and announced by a heavenly host to shepherds - has embedded itself into the culture of western civilization.

But has the story of the baby Jesus embedded itself into your heart? Even if you are fascinated and amazed by this story, that doesn’t mean that you believe this story. Do you believe it?

When the shepherds gave their account of their angelic visitation, and reported to people what the angel had said to them concerning the baby Jesus, “all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.” But the fact that they all wondered at it, doesn’t mean that they all believed it.

It’s easy to imagine that for many of the people who heard them tell their tale, what they said seemed too fantastic to be true. Angels appearing? And singing? Really?

It is not easy to accept the veracity of something that somebody tells you, when what he is describing is totally outside of your experience. That’s true for us today, and that was true also for the people in and around Bethlehem 2,000 years ago.

Are these shepherds just making this up, to get attention, or to alleviate their boredom by pulling our legs? Were they hallucinating?

Another reason why some people no doubt wondered at the shepherds’ story, without necessarily believing it, is because of what believing it would have meant for their view of themselves and of their lives. The report of the shepherds would have concentrated on quoting these words from the angel:

“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.”

This is what might have been going through the minds of the people who heard what the shepherds announced: If I believe this, then that means that I have to recognize the angel’s message as a message that is also for me - since it is a message that was said to be for “all the people.”

And if I believe this, then that means that I also have to admit that I am a sinner in need of a Savior, since this message - to all the people - is a message about a Savior for all the people.

And if I believe this, then that means that everything in my life has to change now, because the Savior I need has come, and I must acknowledge it.

Many of the people who heard the shepherds were probably not willing, ultimately, to believe them. They kept these men’s story “at arm’s length,” so to speak. They kept Christ, and his salvation, at arm’s length.

A message such as the shepherds proclaimed can indeed be a matter of wonder, and amazement. But a message such as the shepherds proclaimed can also be a scary and threatening message - for the people of ancient Bethlehem, and for you.

How many of the people who heard this message from the shepherds were willing to believe it, and to allow it to become a part of them, and to transform them? How many of you are willing to believe it tonight, and to allow it to become a part of you, and to transform you?

We don’t know how many Bethlehemites became true believers in the Messiah, 2,000 years ago. But we do know that at least one of the people who heard the report of the shepherds did believe every word of it! St. Luke tells us:

“And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.”

Mary was no doubt filled with wonder at hearing what they said to her, as was everyone else. She, too, found their words to be amazing. But she also found their words to be most certainly true.

These words did not merely stay in her mind, to be intellectually pondered there in the same way as a new economic or political theory might be considered, and debated back and forth, within one’s own mind. No. She treasured up all the things that the shepherds said, and she pondered them in her heart.

Mary received their words into her innermost being - into the inner realm of her deepest convictions - and she fully embraced their story. She meditated upon those words - which were actually God’s words - as they sank ever deeper into her heart and soul, and brought ever clearer definition and meaning to her life.

She, of course, had previously received a similar visitation from an angel, who had given her the same kind of information about her son. And so, what the shepherds told her about their visitation was a confirmation for her, which strengthened and renewed her faith.

And for many of you, who may be wondering tonight if the Christmas story can really be true, there was a time in your life - before the shroud of doubt descended upon you - when you too had an innocent and unquestioning faith in these things.

Probably you were baptized into this faith. This faith was then nurtured and sustained by Bible story books being read to you, and by the instruction you received in Sunday School - before the world, the flesh, and the devil crept up on you, and began to deceive you and mislead you; perhaps even robbing you of your faith altogether.

Let the Christmas story that you hear tonight be a confirmation and a strengthening of that faith. If need be, let the Christmas story that you hear tonight restore to you a lost faith. Let the Christchild find you, tonight.

Do not simply wonder at these words. Rather, with the Lord’s mother, treasure up these words, and ponder them in your heart.

You are a sinner in need of a Savior. Admit this. It is true, whether or not you admit it.

So just go ahead and acknowledge that you need to hear the Christmas story. And be thankful that God is bringing it to you.

And be thankful that a Savior from sin has been born for you this day in the city of David. Rejoice in that divine and life-filled message! Celebrate it! Believe it! Be transformed by it!

Everything has changed - for the world, and for you. Nothing will ever be the same again. And that is indeed a wonderful and marvelous thing.

Your sins are forgiven by the Christchild. You are at peace with God and man through the Babe of Bethlehem.

You are set free from the fear of death, and from the power of the devil, by the liberating grace of your newborn king. You are a child of God, and a member of God’s family, through the only-begotten Son of God in human flesh.

“And [the shepherds] went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” Amen.

2012 December 25 - Christmas Day - Luke 1:45

After the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would be the mother of the Messiah, Mary visited her relative Elizabeth - who was at that time pregnant with John the Baptist.

When Mary arrived for that visit, Elizabeth said to her, as recorded in St. Luke, chapter 1: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Elizabeth also said, in reference to Mary: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

The English word “blessed” that appears in these two statements by Elizabeth actually translates two different words in the original Greek of these verses.

When Elizabeth said, “Blessed are you among women,” the term for “blessed” in the original of that verse is “eulogeoo.” This is the same Greek word that the English word “eulogy” is based on. It means having received “good words” or a “good message.”

So, when Elizabeth says that Mary was “blessed” in this sense, this means that good words had been spoken over her. These good words were the words of God himself, as they had been delivered to her, and spoken over her, by the angel.

The angel had told Mary that she was highly favored by the Lord, and that the Lord was with her. He had told her that she would bear a son, Jesus, who would also be the Son of the Most High God. He had told her that Jesus would reign over his kingdom forever, from the throne of his forefather David.

These were indeed “good words.” They were marvelous and fantastic words. Mary had been blessed by them, as they had been spoken over her.

But Mary had also been completely surprised by these good words. She wasn’t even married yet. And she was going to have a baby?

“How will this be, since I am a virgin?,” she asked. And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy - the Son of God.”

You, too, have been “blessed,” in this way, according to the will of God for your life. God has spoken good words to you.

And he continues to speak good words to you. But as with Mary, when God does speak good words to you, or when he sends a messenger - a pastor - to speak such words to you on his behalf, you likewise might be surprised by what you are told.

When you were born, you were born in the “name” of your parents. You literally inherited their surname. You also inherited their sinful nature.

You, like them, came into this world as a member of a human race that is by nature alienated from God: ignorant of him, hostile to him, disconnected from him.

But then, in your baptism, God, and God’s minister, “blessed” you in a humanly unexpected way. “Good words” were spoken over you.

Not in the name of your human parents, but “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” you were baptized into a new beginning with God. You were baptized into the grace of God’s forgiveness in Christ his Son; and into the grace of the new birth, and the new supernatural life of faith that God’s Spirit now works in you.

The celebration of the coming of Jesus into this world, at Christmas, is a good time for you to remember, and celebrate, the coming of Jesus into your own life. In both of these comings, good words - marvelous and fabulous words - were spoken. And those good words, filled as they were with the power of God himself, made something good happen.

Mary was blessed by the message of the angel, when God’s eternal Son became a part of the human race through her. You were blessed by the Word of God that was spoken over you in your baptism, when the one who is the Son of God and the son of Mary, became a part of your life.

As you daily turn to him in humility, and in repentance of your sins, Jesus remains at the center of your life, and as the focus of your eternal hope. And for the sake of his Son, God speaks more good words over you, and blesses you with his pardon, telling you: “I forgive you all your sins.”

Through such “good words” from God, Christ remains as your companion and teacher, as your guardian and your guide - in the Christmas season, and in all times and seasons.

Returning now to the story of Elizabeth and Mary, Elizabeth also said this to Mary - and about Mary: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

This time, the word “blessed” translates a different Greek word - “makarios.” “Makarios” means “fortunate” or “happy.”

In this sense, then, a “blessed” person is a person who has experienced something beneficial and uplifting. There is rejoicing by such a person, in that something good has been received, and has made a positive impact.

When Gabriel told Mary all the wonderful things that Jesus would do and be, she believed what he said to her. Because Gabriel was God’s own spokesman, delivering God’s message to her, she did not have to wait for the actual fulfillment of all those prophecies, before she was blessed through them.

Simply in her faith that they would come to pass, she was filled with as much joy as she would have been, if all of it had already happened. As she carried Jesus in her womb, and as she gave birth to him in the stable at Bethlehem, her confident joy bubbled up and overflowed.

She knew who he was. She knew what he would become. She knew what he would do for her, and for all people, as their king and Savior.

She knew it. She didn’t just think it, or wonder at it, or suppose that it would probably happen.

She was not merely looking forward to a blessing that would come in the future. Rather, she was blessed, in her faith, already.

By the power of the “good words” that had been spoken over her, she had been given a sure and certain faith - even as she had been given a real live baby son; even as the world had been given its Savior from sin and death.

She rejoiced. And so do we, when we believe the promises that God makes to us through his Son. Blessed is everyone who believes that there will be a fulfillment of what is spoken to them from the Lord.

At Christmas we celebrate God’s promises to Mary. And of course, in many ways, those promises are promises to us as well.

The child who is born today is your Savior and mine. As the “desire of nations,” he came to give you a new desire for him, and for fellowship with him; and then to fulfill that desire.

The promises that Mary heard - about Jesus’ divine glory, and about his eternal kingdom - were a great blessing to her, because she believed those promises. These Christmas promises are a great blessing to you today, because you also believe those promises.

So many of the things that we celebrate at Christmas are in the realm of pledge and promise, and not in the realm of our tangible experience. But our enjoyment of the blessings of Christmas does not have to wait until everything becomes tangible and visible. And that is because these blessings are enjoyed by us in faith - just as they were for Mary.

Remember who it is who has promised you salvation from sin and death through the Christchild. A pastor may be an instrument in speaking the words from God that enshrine those promises, but the words of forgiveness and hope that he speaks to you are words that originate in God, and in his love for a fallen world.

And everything that God says about the future - about your future in him - is so sure and certain, that it is as if it has all happened already.

Today’s lesson from the Prophet Isaiah tells us that “all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.” In your faith, you have seen that salvation already. The salvation of our God is your salvation, already.

When you gaze upon the Babe of Bethlehem today, laying in the manger, you do so while listening to what God says about this baby. And so, you see not only a baby asleep in the hay.

You also see a boy, a young man, and a mature man, living perfectly throughout life under God’s law, for you. You see a suffering man dying on the cross for you.

You see a victorious man rising from the grave for you. You see a glorified man exalted to the right hand of his Father’s glory, ruling over all things for your benefit, and for the benefit of all his people.

You see all those things, and are blessed in your faith in all those things, because the Word and promise of God tell you that this is who that baby is, and that this is what he will become and do.

When God speaks, there is no doubt. There is certainty and confidence. It is as if it all already happened.

And you are blessed as well in your faith in God’s yet-to-be-fulfilled promises. God promises that all things will work together for good for you, who love God, and are called according to his purpose.

You are blessed in your faith in this promise, even if you cannot yet see how a trial you are undergoing now will work for your benefit, or for the benefit of others. Still, you know that it will, because God says that it will.

And Jesus himself promises that whoever believes in him will never die, and that he will raise up those who belong to him on the last day. You are blessed in your faith in this promise too.

The gift of eternal life that the Christchild brings and gives, takes away your fear of death. He who rested in a manger in Bethlehem, now rests upon you. The peace and the hopefulness that he brought to Mary and Joseph, and to the shepherds, he brings now to you.

What God promised to Mary was true, and definitely came to pass. And because these things did turn out to be so, what God promises to you is true, and will definitely come to pass.

“Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Blessed are you who believe that there will be a fulfillment of what is spoken to you from the Lord. Amen.

30 December 2012 - Christmas 1 - Luke 2:22-40

St. Luke tells us that there was a “righteous and devout” man in Jerusalem named Simeon, who was “waiting for the consolation of Israel.” Luke also tells us that “it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.”

When Joseph and Mary brought little Jesus to the temple, for his formal “presentation” to the Lord, Simeon was directed by the Holy Spirit to this family, and specifically to this child. Luke picks up the narrative there:

“He took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, ‘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.’”

With his physical eyes, Simeon saw Jesus - who was no doubt an ordinary-looking baby. But with the eyes of faith - faith in what God had revealed to him concerning this baby - Simeon saw the salvation of the Lord embodied in that baby.

Seeing this, and holding in his arms the Redeemer of Israel and of all nations, Simeon expressed in his prayer to the Lord his willingness now to depart from this world. “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace.”

Simeon was prepared to die. This readiness to depart, with a sense that he had experienced everything that he needed to experience in life, is one of the main reasons why Simeon is almost always portrayed in sacred art as a very old man.

Religious artists throughout history, and we today, pretty much assume that a fulfilled life is a long life. We tend to assume that only those who are aged would have the kind of attitude that Simeon had.

But there’s nothing in the text that tells us that Simeon was an old man. He could have been a middle-aged man or even a young man.

St. Luke does not tell us that he was ready to die because he was old. St. Luke tells us that he was ready to die because he had seen the Lord’s Christ.

How old is “old” anyway? The Book of Genesis indicates that Noah’s grandfather Methuselah lived to be 969 years old. Abraham, many centuries later, lives to be 175 years old.

Today, when someone passes away at the age of 75, 80, or 85, we would probably not consider that person to have lived a life that was too short. We would expect such a person to feel that he or she had lived a full life.

But is that really so, in comparison to the life span of the ancient patriarchs? Would Methuselah have thought that Abraham had lived for a long time?

From Methuselah’s perspective, Abraham’s time on earth was very short. And from Abraham’s perspective, a person who dies today, at the age of 75, would be seen as someone whose life had been very short.

In truth, death at any time is evidence of human sin, and of the fallenness of our human nature. “The wages of sin is death,” as St. Paul writes.

Adam and Eve were created to be immortal. Anything short of immortality, is a very short life, according to the way things were meant to be.

But the way things were meant to be, is not the way things are. Instead of immortality, and instead of being in harmony with an immortal God, humanity’s experience in this world is colored and shaped by sin: inherited from parents, passed on to children, and enacted personally by all of us - every day, in thought, word, and deed.

But as St. Paul also writes, “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Receiving this gift, seeing this gift - as Simeon did - is what allows you to be ready to die, because those who live and die in Christ, live forever.

Christ forgives the guilt of sin. He breaks the power of sin. In the resurrection, he will reverse all the effects of sin.

It is not true that only a long life can be a full life. If Simeon was, say, 35 years old when he held Jesus in his arms, his life - for that reason alone - would have been a truly full life.

God’s definition of a full life is a life that is filled with his Son Jesus Christ - filled with his grace and guidance; filled with his promise of eternal life for those who have “seen” him; filled with the faith that his Spirit works in those who believe in him.

This is what Simeon knew. This is what Simeon said. “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.”

The Christmas season is a time when we think about peace. “Glory be to God on high; and on earth, peace, goodwill toward men,” the angels sang - and we sing.

In the words of Isaiah the prophet, we confess Jesus as “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

But as today’s lesson reminds us - with some sobriety, but also with a joyful hope - the Christmas season is also a season to think about what it means to depart from this world in peace, when the time for our departure comes.

We might wonder, though, if we can compare our encounters with Christ, such as they are, with the encounter that Simeon had with him in the temple. Can we have the same kind of confidence that he had, in view of the fact that he physically held Jesus in his arms, and really saw him?

Well, how does today’s text describe what he saw? Does Luke report that Simeon sang a song with this line?: “For my eyes have seen Mary’s baby?”

No, that’s not what he sang. For his salvation, Simeon saw a lot more than that.

According to the Lord’s Word to him, Simeon in faith saw much more than what his physical eyes would have allowed him to see. “For my eyes have seen your salvation,” Simeon chanted.

Simeon saw a human baby, but he also saw the promised Seed of the woman, crushing the serpent’s head. He also saw the Lamb of God, taking away the sin of the world, and his own sin.

He saw, and heard, an invitation - to him, to Israel as a whole, and to all the Gentiles - to put his trust in this Savior, and to be enlightened for eternity by his truth.

Can you see Jesus in this way? You certainly can!

It is customary in traditional Lutheran congregations - such as ours - to sing the song of Simeon immediately following the communicants’ reception of the body and blood of Christ, in the Sacrament of the Altar. Putting that song at that place in the Liturgy was not an arbitrary decision by our forefathers in the faith.

Rather, they knew that what Simeon had experienced in the temple with the baby Jesus, according to the Old Testament promise that God had made to him, is what we experience in the Lord’s Supper, according to the New Testament promise that God has made to us.

With his physical eyes, what Simeon saw was an ordinary-looking baby, and nothing more. But with the Word of God ringing in his ears - and in his heart - Simeon did see more. He saw the Lord’s salvation.

With your physical eyes, what you see is ordinary bread and wine, and nothing more. But with the Word of God ringing in your ears - and in your heart - you, too, do see more. You, too, see the Lord’s salvation.

The body of Christ that was given in death to liberate you from the Serpent’s power, and the blood of the Lamb that was shed to take away your sin, are not visible to you in a bodily way. The divine glory and Messianic character of the baby Jesus was not visible in a bodily way to Simeon either.

But it was all there nevertheless. It is all there nevertheless. God’s Son - who comes to save Simeon, and you, and the world - is there, nevertheless.

To be sure, Christ is available to us whenever and wherever his Gospel is available to us - in preaching, in absolution, in reading and meditating on the Sacred Scriptures. If need be, you can know him, and be saved by him, without the Lord’s Supper, if for some sad reason you never have an opportunity to receive it.

There were many faithful and pious Jews in the time of Simeon who also believed in the coming Messiah - as promised in Scripture - and who were saved in that faith, without having had an opportunity to take Jesus literally into their arms.

But Simeon did have that opportunity. Simeon did have that special, tangible blessing and privilege.

And that’s one of the reasons why the Lord’s Supper was instituted, as a special manifestation of the Gospel for the church - to give Christians like you and me a uniquely tangible way of holding Christ, of receiving Christ, of seeing Christ.

In this death-prone world, and in the death-prone life that we live in this world, faith falters, and commitments waver. Temptations arise, and sin sometimes wins out.

In our grief and weakness - in our shame and penitence - we need something objective and concrete to remind us of Christ. We need something divine and certain actually to deliver Christ to us: so that we are once again able to live in him; so that we will once again be ready to die in him.

Regardless of how old you are - 15 or 50; 18 or 80 - you need something similar to what Simeon had. And according to Jesus’ gracious institution, on the night in which he was betrayed, you have something similar to what Simeon had.

Indeed, you have exactly what Simeon had, albeit in a different external form. According to the Lord’s Word to us, we have, and see, the Lord’s Christ. We have, and see, the Lord’s salvation. And so we sing:

“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.