1 December 2013 - Advent 1 - Isaiah 2:1-5

In the past, before the advent of commercial airliners, people who immigrated to the United States seldom had an opportunity ever to return to their country of origin.

Once they had left the old world for the new, they would remain in the new world until they died. I know that when my own great-grandparents left Slovakia in the 1890s, as teen-agers, they never went back.

Many of these earlier immigrants had the custom of bringing with them, on their journey to America, a jar or box of dirt from their homeland. It was their intention to keep this dirt for as long as they lived, and to ask their survivors to throw it into their graves when they eventually died and were buried.

In this way, they would - in a certain sense - be able to be buried in their native soil. Bringing a small amount of dirt from their native land to America was, in a symbolic way, like bringing their native land itself with them. Such was the emotional attachment that they had, to the place of their birth.

In today’s Old Testament lesson from the Prophet Isaiah, we are given a description of the messianic age. And we are told of how all the nations of the earth will benefit from the coming of the Christ, and be welcomed into the Lord’s house through Christ.

When the Messiah did come, however, many of the Jewish people of that time were not receptive to the idea that the love of the God of Israel extended out also to the Gentiles; and that God, through the gospel of Jesus Christ, wanted to bring those foreign nations also into a saving relationship with him.

Most of the conflicts that St. Paul had with the Jewish community, were rooted in their disapproval of the religious fellowship that he, as a Jew, was practicing with uncircumcised Greeks. A riot ensued on one occasion, in Jerusalem, when the crowd mistakenly thought that Paul had brought an uncircumcized man into the Temple precincts.

But from the perspective of what Isaiah had preached - by divine inspiration - the people of Israel should have been looking forward to the day when Gentiles would want to come to Jerusalem, and to the Temple: to pray to the God of their fathers; and to enjoy the redemption from sin and death that their God would provide also for them - by means of the life, death, and resurrection of his Son.

The oracles of God had been entrusted to the Hebrews, not only for their own sake, but for the sake of the world. When the Messiah would come, he would indeed come through the Jewish people - but not just for the Jewish people. He would come for all.

Through the Word and Sacraments of this Savior - who commissioned his disciples to bring these means of salvation to all nations - all nations would be invited to become a part of the new Israel in Christ, and to become citizens of the new Jerusalem in Christ.

This was Isaiah’s vision. This was the Lord’s vision, as revealed through Isaiah.

“It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’”

In the recent past, several members and friends of our congregation had the opportunity to travel to the Holy Land, to visit the site of the Temple, and other places where the important events of Jesus’ life on earth occurred. Pilgrimages to Jerusalem, and to the Holy Land, have been a cherished custom among Christians for many, many centuries.

But is that what Isaiah is talking about, when he says that, in the latter days, all the nations shall flow to the mountain of the house of the Lord? When we as Christians encourage each other, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob,” are we thereby encouraging each other to take a trip to the modern state of Israel?

Or do these words apply themselves to us in a different way - perhaps in a way that is illustrated by the action of those immigrants, who brought the soil of their homeland with them to their new place of residence - and who in this way cultivated in themselves an enduring sense of “connection” to their homeland, even while living in a different country?

Today’s text tells us that in the latter days - that is, in the days of the Messiah and his gospel - the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills. This is not a description of a literal geological upheaval, in the literal city of Jerusalem.

It is, rather, a description of what happened when Jesus Christ rose from the dead - after having paid the ransom price for the sins of the whole world with his blood and death. And, it is a description of what happened when the ascended Lord, on the Day of Pentecost, established a new spiritual Temple and dwelling place of God among men, by pouring out his Spirit upon his disciples.

Jesus himself - as the perfect man in whom all the fulness of the Godhead dwells bodily - was established in his resurrection as the most powerful of all kings; as the greatest of all prophets; and as the true hope of the world.

In Jesus’ creation of his church - as the dwelling place of his Spirit, and as his holy nation and royal priesthood - he has lifted up, for all people, a beacon of light in the midst of darkness; a beacon of life in the midst of death; and a beacon of faith in the midst of fear, confusion, and despair.

The nations now flow to the mountain of the house of the Lord, only because that sacred, heavenly mountain has been brought down to them - wherever they are in the world - in the gospel. In the preaching of Christ crucified; in the one baptism that is administered to them for the forgiveness of sins; and in the Blessed Supper of Christ’s body and blood that is offered to them, God’s holy city is carried to them, and made a reality among them.

The means of grace are, in a certain sense, like that jar or box, in which immigrants carried with them - to the new world - a tangible piece of the old world. In their hearts, those immigrants never left their homeland, because they had, as it were, brought their homeland with them.

Christians - in whatever circumstances they may find themselves - likewise bring the mountain of the house of the Lord with them, and are able to enjoy their fellowship with Christ and his church, whenever they bring the Word of God with them.

As the Prophet Zechariah reminds us in today’s Introit: “Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation.”

A pilgrimage to this mystical kingdom and Holy Land, which comes to us - hidden as it is within the gospel and sacraments of Christ - is not like a literal pilgrimage to the literal locations in the City of Jerusalem that Christians in this world do find so interesting.

You can’t get to the New Testament mountain of the Lord by means of a cruise ship or an airliner. People from all nations now flow into the true city of God, by means of repentance and faith.

Jesus says: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

An unbeliever can take a trip to the State of Israel, and visit the religious sites that are there, without receiving any benefit from such a visit. But an unbeliever cannot visit the true mountain of the Lord at all!

Indeed, one who, in his heart, abides in his sins - and in his love of sinning - rather than in the word of Christ, is oblivious to the existence of this heavenly kingdom. If an unbeliever is physically present in an orthodox Christian worship service, he has no idea what is really going on around him.

He has no idea that an eternal city is descending, and that a holy mountain is being lifted up, in his very presence. He is blind to the light that is shining forth from the face of the Kings of Kings who is seated in the midst of his city, and who is standing atop his mountain.

But when the Lord’s Spirit works repentance in the proud heart of an unbeliever, and opens his spiritually darkened mind to the truth of Christ’s redemption, it’s as if he blinks his eyes, and in an instant begins to see things that he never saw before.

What do you see right now? I’m not talking about your bodily eyesight.

Do you see the mountain of the house of the Lord? Do you see Jesus Christ?

In the same way as some of you recently saw with your physical eyes the location and the remains of the Temple in Jerusalem, so too can all of you open your eyes - the deeper eyes of your soul - to see what is here before you now.

I implore you to turn away from your sins. I beseech you to renounce everything that separates you from God, and that blinds you to his presence.

I ask you to open your eyes. I, your fellow sinner in need of God’s grace, invite you in this holy Advent season to join me, and all the Lord’s forgiven people, on a genuine pilgrimage of the heart:

“Let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.”

What is here now, where the gospel and sacraments are at work, is imperceptible to your bodily senses. But it is more real than the Wailing Wall or the Dome of the Rock.

The mountain of the house of the Lord that has been raised up for all nations - and for all of you - in the coming of Christ, and in the inauguration of his church, is an eternal reality. It is an eternal dwelling place for God, and for his people of all tribes and tongues - where all sins are washed away, and all wickedness is banished.

It is an eternal temple, for the prayers, and sacrifices of thanksgiving, of his royal priests. It is an eternal home, and peaceful resting place, for his beloved children.

“It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’” Amen.

8 December 2013 - Advent 2 - Romans 15:4-13

“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction.” In these words from his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul teaches us two important truths.

The first, is that the antiquity of the Scriptures, and their historical distance from the times in which we live, do not make them irrelevant to us. When St. Paul wrote these words to the Christians in Rome, the Hebrew Scriptures to which he was drawing their attention had been in existence for as long as a millennium and a half.

And yet he told them that these Scriptures - written through divine inspiration by Moses, David, and Isaiah - had been written for them. Not just for them, of course. But for them, as well as for all people, of all times.

In this season of Advent, we are reminded in a more focused way that the Hebrew Scriptures were indeed written for us, as well. These Scriptures are old, but they are not obsolete.

The fundamentals of the human condition have not changed over the millennia - only the outward trappings. A sinful and scared man dressed temporarily in a fig leaf apron, is in the same basic condition as a sinful and scared man dressed in khakis and a polo shirt.

What God said about the human condition thousands of years ago is therefore just as true now, as it was then.

The Sacred Scriptures were written, over many centuries, in specific historical contexts. Knowing those contexts is an important part of understanding the intended meaning of the Scriptures.

But once that meaning is determined, it is a meaning that has meaning for all people, and that addresses all people with the authority of the God who speaks through the Scriptures.

What God says in Holy Writ at a particular point in history does not apply only to the people who were alive at that point in history. It applies to all people who have lived since then, as well.

Maybe it does not apply in the same way. But it does apply.

It applies as well to all people who are yet to live, for as long as this world endures. And what St. Paul said to the Romans of the first century, regarding the Old Testament Scriptures, could also be said to us - in the 21st century - regarding the New Testament Scriptures.

From our perspective, what St. Paul and the other apostles wrote, was written a long time ago. But it, too, was written for us.

And the second important truth in that sentence from the Epistle to the Romans, is that whatever was written in former days, was written for our instruction. The Scriptures do not only make us feel a certain way, or cause certain emotions to bubble up from within us. They instruct us.

With God’s own authority, they teach us things that we cannot otherwise know, but that we need to know. Human beings who are ignorant of what the Scriptures have to say about God and man, about human sin and divine grace, do not know how much they do not know.

The Scriptures address us as people who, by nature, do have a faint, inborn echo of the knowledge of God’s existence; and who do sense, in our consciences, that things are not as they should be between us and God. But until we are instructed by God, in the Scriptures, we have almost no idea what God is really like.

We do not grasp how profoundly holy he is, or how deeply disapproving of our sin he is. And, we do not fathom how great is his mercy and forgiveness toward us, in his Son Jesus Christ.

But our response to Paul’s statement that the Scriptures were written for our instruction, is often like the response of a teenager, when she is reminded that her parents are wiser and better-informed about the ways of the world than she is, so that she should listen to what they say, and obey them.

What adolescent does not think that he is smarter than his parents? Likewise, what sinful human being does not think that he is smarter than his Creator - even if he never actually says it in so many words?

How often do we hear those who are ignorant of Biblical doctrine say that they could never believe in a God who would condemn this, or allow that, or... you fill in the blank. The proper attitude, is that we should be willing to believe about God, whatever the Scriptures tell us about God.

And, we should be willing to believe whatever the Scriptures tell us about ourselves - about our natural foolishness and arrogance, our inborn blindness and lostness. These are things that we would likely not admit, otherwise.

But we must admit them. Because whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction.

Even though the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, and many other passages of Scripture do reveal the demands and requirements of God’s law to us - and remove from us all thoughts that we might be able to justify ourselves or excuse ourselves - this is not the chief purpose and goal of the instruction that God gives.

The conviction worked in us by God’s Spirit, is not an end in itself, but is a means to an end - namely, to prepare us for instruction in Jesus Christ: his person and work; his birth and humiliation; his suffering and death; his resurrection and exaltation.

And that’s the point St. Paul is making, when he goes on to write: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”

Your life in this sinful world is something that is, in many ways, a thing to be endured, and not only to be enjoyed. Your life in your own skin - as you think of all the hurtful words that you cannot unsay, and all the harmful deeds that you cannot undo - is also something to be endured.

Even with an appreciation for the good things that we have experience in this life, these pleasant memories are seasoned with the bitter herbs of regret - for the many right paths not traveled, or for the many destructive paths not avoided.

But when you receive the instruction the God gives in the Scriptures, the hope that is then yours in Christ overrides, and overwhelms, all those regrets.

The God-given hope that is now yours, looks forward to an eternity with God, that has been established for you by the shedding of Christ’s blood, for all your sins. The Christ-centered hope that is now yours, rests in the declaration that is pronounced upon you in the gospel - repeatedly and effectively - that your sins are forgiven in Christ.

The instruction that the Scriptures give to you is not merely intellectual or cerebral in character. It is not primarily intended to satiate the religious curiosities of your mind, as much as it is designed by God to calm the fears of your heart.

As you endure the upheavals of a fallen world, and of a troubled conscience, you are comforted by this instruction - in an assurance of a divine love that conquers all human fear; and of a divine peace that passes all human understanding.

The kind of love and peace that God gives, when he instructs, he gives to his people together, as they are gathered together by his Word in the fellowship of his church - to be instructed together.

We are instructed together from the Scriptures - in readings, in sermons, and in hymns. And, we are instructed together, in the deepest and most intimate sense, by our Savior’s Words of Institution in his Holy Supper - as those words not only teach us what the body and blood of Jesus accomplished for us, but also mystically bestow upon us that about which they speak.

When you have in these ways been bathed in the love of God, and filled with the peace of God - by his instruction - you cannot keep what you have received to yourself. And so St. Paul continues:

“May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”

The instruction that we receive from the very old yet ever new Scriptures, concerns not only what we are to think and believe about God and ourselves; but also what we are to think and believe about each other - and with each other.

Those who have been instructed together, and who have learned together, also confess their faith together. And just as the truth that we receive from God is not merely intellectual or cerebral, so too is the confession of what we have learned, not merely intellectual or cerebral.

The faith that we have been taught by God, is a prayable faith. God teaches us how and what to believe, and he teaches us how and what to pray.

With one voice we glorify him. This is possible, only when our individual voices have been taught the divine harmony of truth, in which the Scriptures instruct us.

And, our evangelistic welcome to others - to join their voices to ours - comes in the form of an invitation to them, to receive with us the instruction that comes only from God, through the means that have appointed by God. “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction.”

Blessed Lord, since you have caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning, grant that we may so hear them, read, mark, learn, and take them to heart, that by the patience and comfort of your holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

15 December 2013 - Advent 3 - Matthew 11:2-15

John the Baptist was a prophet - and even more than a prophet. So says Jesus, in today’s text from St. Matthew’s Gospel.

He was the immediate forerunner of the Messiah, preparing the people of Israel for his arrival. He called them to repentance, and administered to them a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

All of this was important, and was a part of God’s plan for the unfolding of Christ’s mission.

As a prophet sent from God, what John the Baptist knew about God, on the basis of God’s revelation to him, was accurate. What he preached to the people from God was correct and true.

But John did not understand everything about how God was going to accomplish his purposes, through Christ. We know of this limitation in his knowledge, because when Jesus, as the Messiah, requested baptism from John, this was a surprise to him.

He wasn’t expecting such a request. He initially declined to do it.

Until Jesus explained the reason for it, John didn’t realize that Jesus’ solidarity with the people of Israel as their Savior and substitute, required him to be baptized with the people of Israel.

In today’s text, we may very well see another example of John’s not knowing the whole story about what Jesus’ ministry would entail, and of John’s not perceiving the full mission of Jesus as Messiah. Matthew tells us that “when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’”

Christian scholars have debated over the centuries, whether John was, in this way, expressing personal doubt, or second thoughts, about whether Jesus really was the Messiah.

He was languishing in Herod’s dungeon, in what were no doubt appalling conditions. And so we would not be too hard on him if, in his human weakness, he did begin to have some doubts.

What this incident may demonstrate, however, is simply another example of John’s lack of full understanding, as he sought clarification and instruction from Jesus.

What God had called John to preach - and what he had preached, before he was thrown into jail - was a message of warning to Israel, that God’s judgment was coming. His judgment against their sins, their half-heartedness, their hypocrisy and unbelief, was coming.

The Messiah - soon to appear - would usher in and bring this judgment. And so the people of Israel should prepare for his coming, by “getting right” with God now, before it is too late.

They should repent of their sins, and receive the forgiveness that God offers. And then, they should bear the fruits of repentance - in a new life lived by faith, for as long as their life in this world continues.

“I baptize you with water for repentance,” John proclaimed, “but he who is coming after me...will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

The popular piety of the day would have been expecting the future Messiah to bring judgment against the Romans, and the other pagan nations. But John correctly pointed out that God’s judgment was coming to Israel. Not just to Israel, but to Israel first.

And yet, when Jesus did appear, and when - after his baptism - he began to make himself known as the Messiah, none of these things seemed to be happening. Or at least they were not happening in any kind of visible, obvious way.

Jesus was not proclaiming a harsh message of divine wrath. He was not personally inflicting God’s punishment upon the wicked.

Instead, he was helping and comforting the poor and the weak, the dispossessed and the lonely. He was healing the sick and the lame, raising the dead, and proclaiming to the people a message of God’s forgiving mercy and redeeming love.

Apparently this was not what John expected. Now, John had not been mistaken in saying that the Messiah would bring the fire of divine judgment upon the unbelieving world - and even upon unbelieving Israel.

That was going to happen. It is still going to happen.

But other things were going to happen first. Other things are still happening, now, as we still await the ultimate day of conflagration and final judgment.

When Jesus responded to the query that John the Baptist had sent to him, by means of some of his disciples, he was gentle and respectful toward John. And he responded, not just by making a bold assertion of who he is, but by calling John’s attention to what the Old Testament Scriptures had predicted concerning him and his ministry - and by comparing those predictions with what he was now doing.

“Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.’”

The Prophet Isaiah had spoken of the ministry of the future Messiah. In the portion of Isaiah that we heard a few minutes ago, as today’s first lesson, we read:

“Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.’”

That’s pretty close to what John the Baptist had been preaching. The Messiah will come with “vengeance.”

But, at least at first, this vengeance will not be poured out against wicked people. That will happen someday, on judgment day. But that’s not the first thing that is going to happen when the Savior comes.

Instead, the Messiah will wreak God’s vengeance against the powers of sin and death. He will attack and punish the devil and his minions.

Satan’s domination over fallen humanity will be thrown off. God, in Christ, will cast him out. And God, in Christ, will rescue those who had been held captive under his evil power.

As Jesus traveled through the land of Israel, the devils fled before him. When he proclaimed and applied the forgiveness of God to the humble and penitent, the Great Serpent fell from his temporary glory, and was vanquished.

Jesus is gentle with John, and with his disciples - who soon will no doubt become his disciples. Jesus is gentle with the sick, the lame, and the social outcast.

But Jesus is not gentle with Satan. A calm and calming word of pardon, spoken to a humble human sinner, is - in the supernatural realm - a furious attack on the forces of evil, wrenching that forgiven sinner from the clutches of the Enemy.

This doesn’t happen in obvious ways. But it does happen. It is God’s vengeance.

It happens by the power of Christ’s Word, and by the miracle of his touch in the lives of hurting people. Isaiah goes on to describe this:

“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.”

Jesus also said: “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven, is greater than he.”

In some respects, we in the New Testament era know a lot more about Jesus and his ways than John the Baptist did.

We have the Gospels and the Epistles, telling us the details of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection; explaining to us the nature and mission of the Christian church, and pointing out to us the signs of the Lord’s Second Coming - for judgment - so that this Day will not surprise us.

But there is also a lot that we do not know. There is much that we do not understand about God and his ways.

Many things happen among us - troubling and unsettling things - that we do not expect to happen. And sometimes, we have expected God to do things that he has not done - or at least that he has not done yet.

Sometimes we suffer grievous disappointments, betrayals and injustices. Where is the Lord’s vindication, that the Bible says will come for those who serve him, and who suffer for the sake of his name?

And what is our response to situations like this? Despair? Getting angry at God, and criticizing him? A loss of faith?

Or, do we respond in the way that John the Baptist responded, at such a time in his life? Do we reach out to Jesus, and ask him to show us his truth?

And do we then wait for him to give us - through the Scriptures - a fuller insight into his will, a fuller understanding of his ways, and a fuller appreciation of his grace?

Jesus has already died for our sins. The atonement price has been paid.

And Jesus has risen from the grave as the victor over death - over our death. The hope of eternal life has been restored, for those who look to him.

But Jesus has not yet brought an end to the pain of this world. He has not yet righted all the wrongs of human history.

He has not yet, in judgment, cut down the “unfruitful trees” of the human race, once and for all, and thrown them into the fire.

We might be impatient for these things to be fulfilled. But there are reasons for the Lord’s delay.

There is a reason that pertains to the whole world - God’s desire that all men have time to repent, and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

And, there is a reason that pertains to you, and to God’s desire that during your time on earth - as you wait on him - your heart will be ever more firmly established: in a patient faith, in Christlike holiness, and in a love for all that God loves.

St. James writes in today’s Epistle:

Be patient, brothers, “until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.”

At a time when John the Baptist needed encouragement from Jesus, Jesus did encourage him, and established his heart, by reminding him of the totality of what the Hebrew Scriptures say concerning the ministry of the Messiah.

And when you need encouragement from Jesus, Jesus encourages you as well - and in the same way. He establishes your heart, as he unfolds the Scriptures to you, and speaks to you in the Scriptures.

As you grow in your ability to admit your own spiritual poverty - and your need to be enriched by God’s grace and forgiveness alone - you will be blessed ever more, to know that in Christ, “the poor have good news preached to them.”

When your faith is weak, Christ, by his Word, will invigorate you. When your faith is incomplete, Christ, by his Word, will teach you.

When your faith is uncertain and wavering, Christ, by his Word, will renew your confidence in him - and your certainty that he is indeed the one who was promised of old; who has promised to come again; and who, in the meantime, is your companion and comforter.

You don’t need to know everything about Jesus, or about his plan for you and for the world. At least not right away.

But over time, your grasp on his promises will be strengthened. Your appreciation for his methods will be deepened.

You will understand things you didn’t understand before. You will see things you didn’t see before. You will accept things you didn’t think you could accept before.

And blessed is the one who is not offended by Jesus. Amen.

21 December 2013 - Advent 4 - Matthew 1:18-25

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, we are told that Joseph was a just or righteous man. This description of Joseph’s character applies to more than one aspect of his life.

First, it means that he was an honorable and moral man. He had not committed fornication with his fiancee Mary.

The time when they would be allowed to live together as husband and wife had not yet come. And so Joseph, as a righteous man, had not been intimate with her.

Exercising this kind of moral discipline was important for a pious Jewish man like Joseph. It demonstrated respect for the institution of marriage, as God ordained it.

And it demonstrated respect for God himself, whose will in these matters was considered to be more determinative for how a man should conduct himself, than his own animalistic urges.

Not everyone in Joseph’s day felt this way, of course. His contemporaries in the non-Jewish Greco-Roman world certainly knew how to indulge their impulses for sexual adventurism, of both heterosexual and homosexual varieties.

But this was not how things were among the Jewish people. This is not the way Joseph thought. As a genuine believer in the God of Israel, this is not the way Joseph lived.

Joseph was a righteous man. And because he was a righteous man in this way, he knew that he was not responsible for Mary’s untimely pregnancy.

Since he had had nothing to do with getting her pregnant, he assumed that she had been intimate with another man, and had violated her pledge of marriage to him. And so, he decided to break off the betrothal - which, according to custom, would have had the force of a “divorce”.

But another aspect of what it meant for Joseph to be a righteous man, is evident in the fact that even under such circumstances, he was going to do this quietly and discreetly. He had every reason to feel that he had been deeply insulted and humiliated by Mary’s actions. But he was not going to be vindictive or vengeful in response.

He was not going to expose her to public shame. Joseph, as a righteous man, was a kind and decent man - even to Mary, at a time when he was quite certain that she had betrayed him.

We are so different from Joseph, so much of the time, aren’t we? Our commitment to sexual purity - in thought, word, and deed - is no doubt significantly lower than his was, even though God’s standards have not changed.

And when we perceive someone to have betrayed us, or publicly embarrassed us, we do not hold back in “getting even,” and in making sure everyone knows who the “bad guy” was.

It is said: “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” It could just as well be said that hell hath no fury like a man scorned, or humiliated, or made a fool of before his friends and neighbors. But Joseph was not like this.

He did value his reputation, and he did seek to honor and obey God in the way he lived. But he did not guard his reputation with arrogance and pride.

When he felt that his reputation was being threatened, he did not lash out in anger against the one whom he perceived to be the offending party - in this case, Mary.

At this point, God communicated something to Joseph - by means of an angelic visitation in a dream - that he certainly did not expect to be told. Matthew reports:

“As he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’”

The explicit meaning of ths is obvious. Mary’s pregnancy was the result of a miracle.

Joseph was assured that Mary had not betrayed him after all. She, too, was an honorable and righteous person, and Joseph should therefore go through with the marriage.

But there was another message for Joseph, that was implicit in this angelic announcement. When you read between the lines, God was basically saying this:

“Joseph, son of David, I am asking you to take care of this very special woman, and this extremely special baby. And so I am asking you to take the blame for this pregnancy, in the eyes of your friends and neighbors.”

When it became known in the community where Joseph and Mary lived, that Mary was pregnant - before the time when she should have been - the people in the community would have started watching Joseph, to see what he was going to do.

If he had separated from Mary, and called off the marriage, then everyone would have concluded that he was not to blame. His reputation would have remained intact, even as Mary’s would have been severely damaged.

But if he did not break up with Mary, and if he instead followed through with the wedding plans, then everyone would have concluded that he and Mary had sinned. It would have seemed to everyone that Joseph was tacitly admitting as much, by staying in the relationship, and by raising the child who had been conceived outside of wedlock as his own.

Nothing that Joseph could have said would have changed that perception. If he had tried to explain that Mary’s pregnancy was by the Holy Spirit, and that the child was the Son of God, it would only have made things worst.

No one would have believed him. The townspeople would instead have become even more annoyed at him for compounding his guilt, by making up such a blasphemous and impossible story, instead of just taking the blame for his sin like a man.

We can assume that Mary had tried to tell him the same thing, before his dream. But did he believe her? Obviously not, since he was still planning a divorce - before his dream.

Joseph was a righteous man. He had not done anything wrong in his relationship with Mary.

But when God asked Joseph to take Mary as his wife, according to the original plan, he was thereby asking him to put himself in the public position of being seen and judged not to have been a righteous man.

And Joseph was not going to be able to justify himself before others, or reclaim his formerly good standing in the community. He was going to have to bear this burden without complaint, and carry this weight in silence, for the rest of his life.

In his own conscience, of course, he knew the truth. But he was going to have to live, from now on, in a situation where everyone else who knew him would have believed something shameful about him that was not true.

The sin of fornication was going to be credited to him, and imputed to him, and pinned on him. But this was the way it had to be - in order for Mary and her baby to be properly loved and cared for.

In his humble submission to God’s loving will, even at the sacrifice of his public reputation as a righteous man, Joseph showed himself truly to be a righteous man.

When God became one of us, he became one of us at the very beginning of a human existence. Emmanuel - God with us - lived with us as a human being all the way from conception to adulthood.

The divine Son entered this world as a baby, in need of the kind of protection and upbringing that would be afforded him by a righteous man.

God wanted that man to be Joseph. And Joseph dutifully accepted this divine calling - for the benefit of Mary, and for the benefit of Jesus.

The angel of the Lord had said to Joseph: “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

In a way that he may not have realized at the time, Joseph’s actions, and his obedience to God, foreshadowed what Jesus was going to do someday, to save his people from their sins.

Jesus - who was without any sin of his own; and who was himself a righteous man in the absolute sense - allowed all human sin to be credited to him, and imputed to him, and pinned on him: all fornication and adultery, all slander and lying, all greed and envy, all hatred and murder.

Before the tribunal of the law of almighty God, Jesus - the Son of God - allowed himself to be thought of as guilty of these sins, and many more such sins.

And he did not try to justify himself, or shrug off this burden that God the Father had asked him to bear - so that by his death, all of these sins would be atoned for. “Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth,” as Isaiah the Prophet reminds us.

This was all a part of God’s plan for making you to be a righteous person, like Joseph - in your moral behavior, as a disciple of his Son; but even more so in your standing before him in his Son, covered with Jesus’ righteous, even as Jesus had been covered with your sins.

St. Paul writes: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Jesus took your sins to the cross and died for them there. And Jesus forgives your sins.

His forgiveness, you receive by repentance and faith. And now, as a fruit of that justifying faith, you know how to act when God - through your vocation - asks you to bear an undeserved shame, and to protect others by taking the blame for things you have not actually done.

As a Christian, it is not the most important thing for you always to be seen by everyone as right in all your actions. As a Christian, you are not governed by such a consuming and selfish pride.

You know that it is more important to have a clear conscience before God, than to be well thought of by all other people.

This means, therefore - as an example - that you will sometimes endure criticism from people, because of how you handled a difficult situation. Your critics don’t know as much as they think they do about that situation, of course.

They don’t know as much as you know. And they therefore don’t know why you had to act in the way that you did, in the ethical fulfillment of a responsibility that you could not shrug off.

But in many such sensitive circumstances, you can’t make everything that you know public - in order to justify yourself - because you are obligated by your vocation to protect the privacy of others, and to guard others from shame and humiliation.

Your critics don’t have a right to know the embarrassing personal information that you know about others. And so you must bear their criticism of your actions in regard to others, in silence.

Until the day you die, people will have negative opinions of you because of things that they don’t understand. And in many cases, until the day you die, you will not be able to make them understand, without breaking confidences that you have no right to break.

Joseph was a righteous man. In his standing before God by faith, in his moral standing before his neighbors, and in the kind and gentle way he treated people, he was righteous.

And, when God called him to do it, he was righteous also in his willingness to be thought of as unrighteous, in order to fulfill a truly righteous purpose for the benefit of others.

In Christ, you too are given this kind of righteousness. In Christ, you too are called to this kind of righteousness.

With the Lord’s help, we seek to live in a way that honors God. And with the Lord’s help, we seek to live in a way that serves our neighbor, and protects our neighbor - even as we are grateful that God calls our neighbor, in Christ, to live in such a way as to serve us, and protect us. Amen.

24 December 2013 - Christmas Eve

“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of 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. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

With these words, as recorded in St. Luke’s Gospel, the angel announced to the shepherds near Bethlehem the wonderful news of the birth of the Messiah. As a part of this announcement, the angel specified that the character of the Messiah would be that of a Savior.

His primary purpose and mission would be to save or rescue people from their sins. Implicit in this, is a reminder that there is a need for such rescuing.

And, the angelic statement that this rescuer or Savior is now here is described as “good news” for the shepherds - and for all people.

If someone does not perceive himself to be in some kind of imminent danger, or in need of a rescue, then the news that a rescuer has come would likely be received as a matter of indifferent curiosity, or at best as a slightly interesting tid-bit of information.

But when you know that you are in trouble, and that you are in a bad situation, the announcement that a rescuer is at hand is indeed good news!

The shepherds needed a Savior 2,000 years ago. They were aware of their sins, and of the disruptions in their relationship with God that their sins cause. Their sins had also marred and scarred them.

The shepherds’ fear of the angel from heaven - and of the holiness that surrounded that angel - was just a small indication of their awareness of their lack of holiness.

But this holy angel proclaimed to them the “good news” that the Savior from sin whom they needed, had arrived in their world. And they did indeed receive this message as “good news” - as necessary and welcome news.

They rejoiced in this announcement, and said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”

They did not lallygag, or mosey on over at a slow pace. Luke tells us that they went “with haste” to find Mary and Joseph, and the baby about whom the angel had spoken.

In other words, they rushed over to the place in Bethlehem where Jesus was to be found. They could think of nothing else, once they had begun to think of this baby, and about their need for what he had come to give to them, and do for them.

How does the news of the Savior’s birth strike you tonight? Remember what the angel said: “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” “All the people” includes you.

What was “good news” for the shepherds, is also “good news” for you. And that means that you, too, are in a bad situation, and are in need of this “good news.”

You are in need of a Savior, or a rescuer from sin - just as the shepherds of Bethlehem were. As you hear the angel’s message tonight, you cannot think of it only as a matter of indifferent curiosity, or as a slightly interesting tid-bit of information.

Rather, you have a desperate and urgent need for what Jesus comes to give to you, and to do for you.

Like the shepherds, you too are marred and scarred by sin. You, too, need reconciliation with your holy God.

Because of the sin that surrounds us, and because of the sin that infects us, we do so often find ourselves in serious moral trouble, and in serious spiritual danger.

Our consciences accuse us. And we can see the pain and the hurt that we bring upon ourselves and others.

We are worn down by worry and discouragement. We stumble and fall through disobedience and failure. We truly are in a bad situation.

But “good news” is proclaimed to us tonight!

You have a Savior, who is willing and able to rescue you - from the guilt of sin, from the power of sin, and from the condemnation of sin. You have a Savior who is ready to forgive your sin.

But where exactly is he? Or at least, where can we find him - and be sure that we have actually found him, and have received what he offers?

For the shepherds, Jesus their rescuer was in a certain manger, in a certain stable in Bethlehem, in the company of certain people - namely, Mary and Joseph.

For you, Jesus your rescuer is where he has promised to be for you. St. Paul writes that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Jesus himself says to those who are sent forth to teach in his name: “The one who hears you, hears me.”

Where Christ’s Word is spoken - in readings and sermon, in carols and hymns - Christ himself is speaking to you. He is calling to you, and drawing you to himself.

He is preaching himself into your mind. He is singing himself into you heart.

The Word of Christ - in all the ways in which it comes to you - is the “manger,” so to speak, in which Christ can now be found, and in which he is accessible to you.

And because his Word is here tonight, he is here tonight. You have come to the exact right place for the rescue from sin that you need, tonight!

In his Word of promise and peace, the Savior of all men has graciously become the companion of this diverse gathering of young and old; seasoned believers and new converts; mature Christians, and Christians with a weak and struggling faith.

And you, whoever you are, are invited to join this motley band gathered here tonight - just as the shepherds were invited to join Mary and Joseph in the stable.

The response of faith, to the good news that announces where Jesus the Savior can be found, is to run, not walk, to that place. It is to run in joy to that place, without delay, and without distraction.

For us, tonight, this is that place. The Savior for whom we yearn, is the Savior who has come.

Jesus has drawn us here. We have found him here.

He is pulling us up out of the muck and mire of sin, here. He is washing away our guilt, and renewing our faith, here. He is setting our feet on a pathway of Christian hope, here.

In the Christmas gospel, the good news that we need to hear, is the good news that we do hear. The rescue that we need, is the rescue that we receive.

The angel’s “good news” to you tonight is that a Savior has been born for you, and is available to you. You do need to hear this good news. And you are hearing it!

“The angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of 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. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.’”

“The shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.’ And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.” Amen.

25 December 2013 - Christmas Day

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

This was the simple yet profound chant of the angels who appeared to the shepherds outside of Bethlehem, the night Jesus was born. This is also something we sing in our liturgical canticle, the Gloria in Excelsis, on most Sundays of the year, and on days such as this - albeit in a slightly different translation.

“Glory to God in the highest...” The word “glory” means splendor and magnificence. God, as God, is glorious.

God’s brilliance surpasses all earthly light. God’s unlimited knowledge surpasses all human thought. God’s almighty power surpasses all worldly strength.

God’s holiness sets him apart from all of his creation, as One who is infinitely greater than all that he has made. He is immortal and eternal.

In the highest realms of heaven - far above all sin and evil, all darkness and death - God’s glory is seen and experienced by those angelic beings who are his companions there. These angels are themselves pure, holy, and confirmed in their righteousness.

God’s own purity, holiness, and righteousness therefore do not need to be shielded from them. They are not “undone” by God when they see him as he really is, in all of his splendor.

They can and do stand in his presence, and sing his praises. “Glory to God in the highest.”

But that’s not what happens here on earth.

Many Christians embrace what is often described as a “theology of glory,” as they yearn to experience the majesty and power of God in this world - which they think would serve as a confirmation of God’s existence, and of the validity of their faith in God.

But people need to be careful what they wish for! Because of human sin and frailty, and because of our debilitated spiritual and moral condition, exposure to the genuine uncloaked glory of God would actually shatter us.

That’s basically what happened to the Prophet Isaiah, when he was mystically transported to the Lord’s heavenly throne room. He exclaimed on that occasion:

“Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”

Atheists think that our inability to see or touch God, and to experience his glory with our human senses in this world, is evidence that God does not really exist. But in truth, it is evidence that God loves us, and does not want to destroy us in our weakness.

God, in his mercy, does not expose his overt divine majesty to sinful mortals like us - not even to those who think they want to see it and feel it. They really don’t.

Instead, so that we sinners will not be repelled by his holiness - when he in grace approaches us, and reaches out to us - God hides himself behind that which is humble and non-threatening. “For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust,” as the Psalmist acknowledges.

This is why the angels also chanted: “And on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” Or, in the form in which we regularly sing it: “And on earth, peace, goodwill toward men.”

The kind of experience that Isaiah had, in his personal encounter with the almighty, was anything but peaceful. It frightened him almost to death.

And the shepherds to whom the angels appeared likewise were frightened by the angels’ appearance - surrounded as they were by the glory of the Lord. Imagine if it had been God himself, in all his splendor, who had appeared to them directly.

But God’s purpose in coming among men is not to scare us away, but to embrace us. He wants to reveal his forgiving and reconciling heart to those who are aware of their sin and weakness.

He dos not want to compound his judgment upon such as repent of their failings, but it is his will to lift his judgment, and replace it with his gift of peace and life.

How, ultimately, does God do this? St. John tells us, in today’s Gospel:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. ...”

“And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.”

God, in the person of his eternal Son - also described as his eternal Word - became flesh. The Second Person of the Holy Trinity - God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God - took to himself, from the virgin Mary, a true human nature.

He became like us in every sense, except for our sin. And he began his human life in this world as we all do - as a baby in the womb of his mother, and as a baby newborn.

A baby does not frighten us. Christ Jesus, asleep in the manger, does not frighten us.

God, in Christ, does not frighten us, or send us running, but he draws us to himself. He embraces us with his forgiveness, and fills our unsettled hearts with peace - with real divine peace.

But it is still the eternal and almighty God who is cloaked beneath this humble human form. A well-known medieval Christmas hymn expresses the thought in this way:

All praise to Thee, eternal God,
Who, clothed in garb of flesh and blood,
Dost take a manger for Thy throne,
While worlds on worlds are Thine alone.

And God still comes to us - in real yet hidden ways - so as to draw us to himself, and not repel us. God in Christ speaks to our minds and hearts through the sound of a pastor’s ordinary human voice - when he speaks the words that Christ has given him to say - in preaching and absolution.

And God, in Christ, attaches himself to us, and enters into us, by means of the blessed bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.

God is really there in these unthreatening, humble means - just as he was really there in the unthreatening, humble baby lying in a manger. And God really does connect with us through these means - and draw us to himself in peace.

In a certain sense, therefore, it is as if it is Christmas here, on every Sunday and festival. As he comes to us in his Word and Sacraments, Jesus our incarnate Lord - our crucified and risen Lord - shields us from his divine glory, and gently gives us the forgiveness, life, and salvation that we need - and that only he can give.

God assures us that he accepts us in Christ, and is kindly disposed toward us because of Christ. And we are able to listen to him, and to believe him, because in Christ we are not scared of him.

There is no overt and visible divine glory here on earth, as there is in the heights of heaven - where God’s splendor shines forth without hindrance or hiding. But there is a divine peace here - a healing, calming, and life-giving peace. Because God is here.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace among those with whom he is pleased!” Amen.

29 December 2013 - Christmas 1 - Matthew 2:13-23

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, we are told of a time when the boy Jesus was in mortal danger. King Herod, a wicked and brutal man in general, did not depart from his usual character when he felt threatened by the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem.

Herod didn’t know exactly who the Messiah was, so he ordered that all boys of a certain age in Bethlehem should be murdered by his soldiers.

If God the Father had not intervened, Jesus would have been killed. But God did intervene, in a discreet yet effective way, to keep Jesus safe.

Our hearts are warmed by this aspect of the story. We like to think of God as one who is able and willing to do things like this - to intervene in the affairs of men, causing good things to happen that otherwise would not have happened, and preventing bad things from happening that otherwise would have happened.

Children are especially precious to a human society - or at least to a normal, civilized society. Even apart from Jesus’ special standing as the Son of God, we are therefore glad to know that he was spared the cruel fate that Herod had planned for him.

But, the other young boys of Bethlehem were not spared. That part of the story does not warm our hearts.

That part of the story grieves us, and perhaps causes us to question why God did not also do something to save them, too.

The Lord sent an angel to warn Joseph to take Jesus away from Bethlehem. Couldn’t he have sent this angel likewise to warn the fathers or guardians of the other endangered children of Bethlehem, and to tell them to do the same?

And while we’re at it, why doesn’t God intervene in all the other situations in which children - the most precious flowers of our humanity - are in danger?: children in abusive homes; children in war-torn areas; children ripped from their mother’s wombs and killed by abortion.

In these and many similar situations, young children - precious, young children - are being led to the slaughter. And God does not intervene. He lets it happen. Why?

In the case of Jesus and Joseph, it is not difficult to figure out what would have happened if God had directed all the fathers of Bethlehem, to remove all the boys from Bethlehem, before Herod’s soldiers got there.

Those soldiers, when they arrived for the performance of their murderous task, would have seen that there were no boys of the right age in that town, as there should have been. And they would have reported this to their king.

And he, in response, would then have extended the range of his murderous dragnet, and ordered his soldiers to kill even more children, over a wider area. That would not have been a better outcome in comparison to what did happen - namely, the killing of a relatively small number of boys, just in Bethlehem.

The reason why Herod was satisfied with those deaths, is because he thought that the specific boy he was after was among them. So, the boys that were killed, died, so that Jesus, and countless other boys in Judea, would not be killed.

They sacrificed their lives for the sake of the life of their Savior Jesus - whose time to die had not yet come. They sacrificed their lives also for the sake of the lives of the boys who would have been added to Herod’s “hit list”, if the soldiers had not found any boys in Bethlehem.

That’s likely the reason why God intervened, only in regard to Jesus, to see to it that he was whisked away before the soldiers got there. That’s likely why God, in great sadness, allowed the rest of the young boys of the village to die.

We do not know why God allows the wickedness of sinful man to have its way with children, and to cause harm and death to come to children, at other times and places, however. We can’t even make an educated guess most of the time, as we can with respect to the boys of Bethlehem.

That’s not easy for us to accept - especially when we have seen someone we love - a young person, or perhaps even a child - suffer and die, in the midst of prayers for divine deliverance that seem not to have been answered.

I personally know how that feels. And I know that many of you also personally know how that feels.

But, in pondering these sad experiences, we cannot underestimate the depth and breadth of the sinfulness of the human race - and of the corrupted world that is inhabited by the human race.

God did, of course, give humanity a warning. God gave a warning which - if it had been heeded - would have prevented all of the evil thing that have happened to people, from ever having happened.

“And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’”

Whose fault is it, that God’s warning was not heeded? It’s not God’s fault. None of this is God’s fault.

It’s Adam’s fault. It’s humanity’s fault. It’s your fault, and my fault.

We know that in this sinful world, man’s disobedience to God will continue to result in evil things happening, until Christ comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead - and to vindicate those who have suffered innocently at the hands of wicked men.

And it is not hard to imagine that those who have harmed or killed children - and who have died in defiant impenitence for these crimes - will indeed receive an intense, fiery punishment.

Herod, take notice. Child abusers, take notice. Warlords, take notice. Abortionists, take notice. God is not mocked.

But what have we done to help children in danger? The Book of Proverbs gives us this directive: “Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter.”

Have we spoken out against the crimes that are perpetrated against children in our society? What have we done to bring an end to abortion?

Have we petitioned our elected leaders? Have we spoken out against abortion?

Have we actively supported the human care agencies and counseling centers - in particular the Christian and Lutheran ones - that are rendering assistance to its potential victims? Have we personally calmed the fears of a girl or woman with a crisis pregnancy, assuring her of God’s pardon and grace, and of our support and friendship?

Elective abortion is an abomination to the Lord. It is legal, of course. But in a day of absolute monarchy, the royal decree that the boys of Bethlehem must die was also legal.

One wonders how a lot of people will be able to give an account of themselves on judgment day, in view of what they stood by and watched happen - saying nothing; doing nothing.

Jesus died for our sins. This is one of the most fundamental points of our confession of faith as Christians.

Even in the Christmas season, when we think about the birth of Jesus, the death of Jesus is not far from our minds either. The well-known Christmas carol, “What Child Is This?”, pulls us forward to a consideration of the reason why God’s Son became a man in the womb of the virgin:

Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear: for sinners here,
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear
shall pierce him through,
The Cross be borne
for me, for you;
Hail, hail
the Word Made Flesh,
The babe, the son of Mary!

Now, if Jesus came into the world to die for us, we might wonder why God went to such extraordinary lengths to prevent the death of Jesus, when King Herod wanted to kill him.

Why would death at the hands of Herod’s henchmen at this time in Jesus’ life, have been any different from death on a cross, at the hands of the Romans, at a later time? Wouldn’t it have accomplished the same purpose - if the reason for Jesus’ birth, was for Jesus to die?

It is true that God’s Son came into the world so that he could die for us, and in our place. But it is also true that he came into the world so that he could first live for us, and in our place.

The mission of Christ was not only to die, as a perfect sacrifice under the condemnation of the law. His mission was also to live, in perfect obedience under the directives of the law.

As St. Paul notes in today’s lesson from his Epistle to the Galatians: “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law...”

Jesus was born under the law, so that he could live under the law, and be the kind of righteous person that none of us has ever been. And he was that kind of righteous person, not just according to his divine nature, but also according to his human nature - the nature that he shares with us.

His years on earth were an entire lifetime of obedience - from childhood, through his teen years, and into adulthood. At whatever stage of human life you are in - child, teen, or adult - Jesus was also there, and he obeyed the law for you there, and then.

Jesus shows us, by his example, that it is indeed possible to live a life of service to others, and of love for others. We can and should notice this, and imitate this.

But when we fail - and as children of Adam, we will fail - Jesus covers over our failures before God, with his successes - with his righteous obedience.

You are therefore justified, and accounted righteous, by faith - not because there is something meritorious in your faith as such, but because your faith grasps this, and clings to this, and receives this, from Jesus.

Your faith grasps Jesus himself: the forgiver of your sins; the Savior of your soul; and the one who, on judgment day, will own you as his own, and will welcome you into the eternal habitation of his saints.

The guilt of your regrets - even your deeply painful regrets - will not weigh you down then. The unjust suffering that you may have endured at the hands of others, will not scar you. It will all be lifted.

The boys of Bethlehem, God’s saints and martyrs of all times and places, and you, will be acquitted of all sin, vindicated, and ushered into eternal joy. It will all be “OK”, forever.

There is a deeply meaningful irony in the story of today’s text. The boys of Bethlehem died for Jesus, so that Jesus, in time, could die for them - and for everyone.

At a time when Jesus was humanly weak and vulnerable, they, as it were, shielded him with their blood - so that he could live on in this world, and fulfill his destiny as the Redeemer of God’s people.

When the time came for Jesus to die, he - as their Savior and ours - shielded all of us with his blood. In our spiritual weakness, he shielded us from divine judgment, so that we would live in eternity, as the redeemed people of God.

We close with these words of comfort and hope from the Lord himself, as recorded by the Prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.”

Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work, declares the Lord, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, declares the Lord, and your children shall come back to their own country.” Amen.