7 December 2014 - Advent 2 - Isaiah 40:1-11

There are many times in life when you need to be comforted: times of great loss; times of great disappointment; times of great embarrassment; times of great fear and anxiety.

The comfort that people offer you at such times usually takes the form of words. Your friends or relatives say comforting thing to you.

But not everything that someone might say, in an attempt to comfort you, will actually deliver that comfort. The comforting words that someone says to you need to be true - or likely to be true - in order for those words to have a comforting effect.

So, if you are in a jet liner, and the wings of that plane have fallen off so that the plane is hurling itself - out of control - toward the earth, it would not be comforting to you if, before the aircraft crashes, the person in the seat next to you says: “Don’t worry, everything will be alright.”

Everything will not be alright! And the person who would try to comfort you - and himself - by saying this, would not be in a position to make things to be alright.

This would be a false comfort, based on wishful thinking and not on reality. And a false comfort is no comfort at all.

God is the ultimate reality - not only in the universe, but also beyond it. Even when people are not directly conscious of him, he remains as the ultimate reference point for all human existence.

Those who feel guilty over their misdeeds, or who feel regret over past mistakes, feel that way because of him - whether they realize that or not. In the deepest recesses of every human conscience, there is a sense that someday, all of us will have to give an accounting for our lives before God, who will judge us.

This voice of conscience cannot be silenced. And what also cannot be silenced - at least not by any human effort - is the nagging thought that we will not pass this muster, and that we will not be vindicated and justified in this judgment.

We all know, deep down, that we are, as it were, on a jet liner of human destiny that has lost its wings. We are on our way down. The human comfort - such as it is - that we offer to one another from inside this plummeting plane, in the final analysis, does no good.

If someone who is being hurled to the final judgment with you were to tell you that the plane is not really going to crash, or that you will be able to walk away from the crash when it does occur, you would not be comforted by this. You would not be comforted - you are not comforted - because you know that this is not true.

And you also know that there is nothing that you or any other mortal man can do to change the trajectory that this plane - and you, and all people - are on.

False comfort, based on wishful thinking, is offered by many. We do have this spiritual survival instinct to say something - to try to cover our own fear, or to try to silence the testimony of our own conscience.

According to our old fallen and blinded nature, we may indeed offer and receive false assurances that we will be able to face God on our own, or even that there will be no ultimate accounting before the Almighty.

But this false comfort denies what is real and inevitable. And it is being offered by people - people like you and me - who have no power to make what they are wishing for, happen.

Our sins have undone us. They have distanced us from God - alienating us from him, and also corrupting us.

And we are all in this condition. “All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God,” as we are so honestly reminded of by Holy Scripture.

Who can comfort us in this situation? Who is able to change this situation, so that his words of comfort - if he does speak such words to us - would be believable, and would actually result in genuine comfort?

In today’s text from the Prophet Isaiah, God gives this authorization to Isaiah, through him to John the Baptist, and through them to all faithful preachers of his Word:

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

According to God, that warfare in your conscience - and between your sinful nature and his holiness - is now ended. According to God, your iniquity - the dirtiness and shame of your sin - is pardoned, and will not be held against you.

God desires not only to bring you up from your sin to a spiritually neutral state, but he wants to bring you all the way up to fellowship with him, peace with him, and an eternal destiny with him. That is, he wants to give you “double” for all your sins - not just to cancel out your failures, and give you another chance to succeed; but to credit you with success already!

Can God actually do this? In Christ, God has already done this!

He sent his Son into the world to live for the world, in perfect obedience under the law; to redeem the world from the power and guilt of sin, with the price of his own blood; to atone for the sins of the world, by the sacrificing of his own body; and to justify the world, by the vindication that was pronounced upon him - in humanity’s place - in his resurrection.

God can reattach the wings. In Christ, God has reattached the wings. In Christ, the plane will not crash. In Christ, you are justified, and will be justified on the day of judgment.

Words of genuine comfort concerning God’s saving works, and God’s saving grace, are therefore spoken to you in Christ. Indeed, they are cried out to you. Such is God’s eagerness that you would believe his words, and be truly comforted by them.

Through his delegated spokesmen - Isaiah the Prophet, John the Baptist, and the pastors who serve his church today - the Lord’s tender words of comfort and hope are directed to your conscience. And these words come from one who is able to make all these things happen for you.

The comfort that comes from God - his gentle and faith-instilling comfort - is not a false comfort. It is not based on wishful thinking.

It is based on God’s actual love for the world, and on the important things that have flowed out from that love in sacred history. God so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten Son into the world - to reconcile the world to himself in Christ, by his life, death, and resurrection.

As your pastor in this place - this little “Jerusalem” - our God has commanded me, by virtue of my divine call, to comfort his troubled, fearful, and penitent people in this place. He has commanded me to comfort you.

And so, when the absolution of your Savior is spoken to you, this is the “tender” speaking of a real, believable comfort. God wants you to hear that comfort, and to believe it.

When the gospel of Christ is preached and expounded from this pulpit, the end of your warfare is thereby being cried out to you. And when the sacramental words of Jesus are recited from the altar to the communicants of his Supper, they - you - can know that your iniquity is pardoned, and that you have received from the Lord double for all your sins.

Dear friends, please listen to me. In your fear and anxiety, listen to me. In your discouragement and embarrassment, listen to me.

In your feelings of loss and disappointment, listen to me. In you doubts as to whether there is any real comfort to be had in this sin-sick and corrupted world, please listen to me:

In Christ, your warfare is ended.

In Christ, your iniquity is pardoned.

In Christ, you have received from the Lord’s hand double for all your sins.

This is real comfort. This is real comfort for you.

We close with this prayer from Psalm 80, sung in today’s Introit:

“Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved!” Amen.

14 December 2014 - Advent 3 - John 1:6-8, 19-28

Many religious people today have a very elaborate set of expectations regarding what will happen in conjunction with the second coming of Christ.

People pore over the Bible, looking for verses that they think are about the “end times” in one way or another. And these verses of Scripture are then pieced together to construct a sequence of “end times” events that are expected to occur.

But it is often the case, that these constructs, and these expectations, are not completely correct. Through improperly literalistic interpretations of poetic passages, and through improperly figurative interpretations of straightforward passages, events that will not really happen get thrown into the mix; and important things that are going to happen get missed, and left out.

This is the way it was with the Jewish people of the first century, too, as they were thinking about the first coming of the Messiah. There was not just one scheme in the minds of Jewish Biblical scholars, of what was expected to happen before, during, and after his coming. Different rabbis emphasized different things, and set forth different interpretations.

But there were some generally-accepted beliefs about what was going to happen, which are reflected in the line of questioning to which John the Baptist was subjected in today’s text, from St. John’s Gospel. We read:

“And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the Prophet?’ And he answered, ‘No.’”

The Messiah that the Jews expected was envisioned mostly in terms of a great king - like David - who would be victorious over Israel’s external enemies; and who would also reform the life of the nation internally. John the Baptist told them right away that he was not this “Son of David” figure.

Now, in today’s account, John was talking specifically with some priests and Levites who had been sent by the Pharisees, to go out to where he was baptizing, and find out about him. These delegates then asked him a couple more questions, to satisfy their curiosity about how he still might fit into their preconceived Messianic scheme - because it wasn’t just the Messiah himself whom they were expecting to come, in the Messianic era.

Through the Prophet Malachi, in the Old Testament, the Lord had promised:

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”

The great Prophet Elijah had never died, but was assumed bodily into heaven in a fiery chariot. The Jews of John the Baptist’s time interpreted the prophecy from Malachi literally.

They believed that the literal person of Elijah would return from heaven before the coming of the Messiah. On this point they were not completely wrong, since in the Transfiguration, Elijah - with Moses - did appear on earth visibly, with Jesus.

But Elijah did not return to conduct a public ministry, as the Jews expected. And so, when they asked John if he was the Elijah from ancient times, who had now come back to the earth, he said No.

We do know, by the way, that this prophecy in Malachi was actually fulfilled by the ministry of John the Baptist - not because he was the literal person Elijah, but because he came in the spirit of Elijah; and carried out his calling as the last of the Old Testament prophets, in a way that imitated the boldness of Elijah, the greatest of the Old Testament prophets.

Jesus tells us this, and thereby shows us that the words in Malachi were not supposed to be taken literally, but figuratively.

The next Messianic figure on the Jewish checklist that John was asked about, was a figure known as “the Prophet.” The Jews expected that a Prophet like Moses would also come in the days of the Messiah.

This expectation was based on Moses’ own words from the Book of Deuteronomy, addressed to the Israelites before they entered the Land of Canaan:

“You shall be blameless before the Lord your God, for these nations, which you are about to dispossess, listen to fortune-tellers and to diviners. But as for you, the Lord your God has not allowed you to do this. The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers. It is to him you shall listen.”

The Jews understood this prophecy to be referring to someone other than the Messiah himself, whom they generally envisioned as a political and military personage, and not as a prophet. When the priests and Levites asked John the Baptist if he was this Mosaic Prophet, he again said No.

St. Peter teaches us in the Book of Acts that Jesus is both the Davidic King and the Prophet like Moses, to whom the people were to listen. But the rabbis thought that these would be two different people.

So, even though John had already said that he was not the Messiah, they still asked him if he was the Prophet. They thought that he might be one, but not the other.

In any case, those who were interviewing John in today’s text were now a bit confused. They sensed that he was in some way connected to the coming of the Messiah. But he didn’t match any of the Messianic figures they were expecting.

He was not the Messiah himself. He was not the Prophet Elijah returned to earth from heaven. He was not the great Prophet predicted by Moses.

Who was he? We read:

“So they said to him, ‘Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” as the prophet Isaiah said.’”

Even though John’s coming had been predicted, he was not someone they were expecting. He was someone they had missed in their construction of their Messianic timetable.

Why had they missed him?

John was talking about something very personal, when he called upon the people of Israel to make straight the way of the Lord. He was not talking about the literal building of a literal road through the desert.

He was talking about the need for each individual to prepare for the Lord’s entrance into his heart: by a deep, soul-searching humility before God; and by an unswerving reliance on God’s mercy. Indeed, John had been sent to administer - to the children of Abraham - a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

This was, in general, not a welcome message. To people who were filled with pride - pride in being the chosen people; pride in being religiously superior to the idolatrous Romans and other pagans - John’s preaching was actually a very threatening message.

The Jews were expecting a Messiah who would come to vindicate them, not to judge them. They were expecting a Prophet who would come in conjunction with the Messiah to answer their questions; not to set a new agenda by silencing their questions with rebukes from the Lord.

But John was sent to them from God precisely to do this: not to congratulate them that they were descendants of Abraham, but to condemn them for not having the faith of Abraham; not to reward them for their religious faithfulness, but to call them to repentance for the unfaithfulness of their minds and hearts.

And, John was sent to them from God to forgive their sins, in the name of God, and in the name of the coming Messiah.

They were not to prepare themselves for the Messiah’s appearance by boasting in, or amplifying, their own righteousness. As they waited for their Savior to be revealed, they were to find their hope in the righteousness that the Messiah would earn for them, and bestow upon them by the gift of the Holy Spirit.

We should not be too critical of the “blind spots” of the Jews, or judge them too severely for missing that aspect of the Old Testament’s Messianic message that was intended to have a humbling effect on them. Because we are just like them.

If God did not constantly warn us of our sins, or press upon us our need to turn away from our sins and renounce them, we would easily be able to find whatever excuses we needed, to justify our sins, and explain them away.

Heck, we do that anyway, even though we do often hear the preaching of God’s law!

Humility does not come naturally to us. So, religious beliefs and religious expectations that are calculated to make us humble, and keep us humble and dependent on God’s mercy, will not be very popular - at least as far as the sinful flesh is concerned.

But, even if humanity does not yearn for, or expect, warnings of God’s judgment, that’s what humanity gets. That’s what you get, when you are selfish, and uncaring, and unforgiving toward others.

God causes you to hear “a voice of one crying out in the wilderness” - whenever and wherever a pastor or a fellow Christian warns you about things in your life that are a threat to your faith; and that endanger your fellowship with God and his church.

But that’s not all you get. Jesus - the King and the Prophet - also comes to you. King Jesus claims you as his own, by covering you with his righteousness, and by bathing you with his forgiveness. Jesus renews to you the gift of his Spirit, who helps you in your weakness; and he spreads his protection around you.

And, as the greatest and truest Prophet, Jesus teaches you. Through the Scriptures - his Scriptures - he teaches you what to believe. He teaches you how to live.

In the midst of all the demonic lies and human confusion that surround you in this world, Jesus proclaims to you the piercing truth - the clear truth of who he is, and of what he is for you.

One of the most vivid ways in which you experience all of this - on a regular basis - is in the focused repentance, and the focused faith, that God works in those who are preparing for Holy Communion.

It seems often to be the case, that those visitors who least understand the true meaning of the Lord’s Supper, are also those who are most offended that they are not invited to receive it.

But unless you have been specifically taught from Scripture about the self-examination, and the discernment of Christ’s body and blood in the consecrated bread and wine, that God requires of communicants, you will not know how serious this is. It will be easy to miss the significance of this profound mystery of the faith, with the assumption that whatever it is, it is not a threat, or a potential threat.

People don’t expect the Lord’s Supper to be such a humbling and challenging thing, and so they are surprised to find out - if they allow themselves to find out - how humbling and challenging it really is!

But those who do listen to God’s Word as it is taught to them; who do confess their sins as God’s law exposes those sins; and who do trust in the gospel of God’s Son that is proclaimed to them in Christ’s Words of Institution, are indeed prepared for their mystical encounter with their Lord in this Supper of his.

They are prepared, through repentance and faith, for the blessings of forgiveness, life, and salvation that their Savior offers and bestows through this Supper of his.

John the Baptist was sent to prepare the people of Israel for the coming of Christ, by calling them to repentance, and by announcing to them God’s forgiveness - in and through the baptism that he administered. The people of Israel, by and large, were not expecting this.

But they were in need of this. And those who received John’s ministry, were truly prepared for Jesus’ coming. And they were eternally blessed by this preparation, and by this coming of their Savior to live for them, to die for them, and to rise again for them.

The preaching of John the Baptist prepares you for the coming of Christ, too. His call to repentance, and all calls to repentance that come to you, prepare you for the coming of Christ.

As with the people of Israel in John the Baptist’s time, you might not be expecting it. And the old sinful nature in you will certainly be offended by it. But you are in need of it, just as were the people of Israel two thousand years ago.

And then Christ, your Savior, does come. He who lived for you, who died for you, and who rose again for you, comes. In his Word and Sacrament he comes.

Through Sermon and Supper he comes. He comes, and he saves, he forgives, and he restores.

Oh, grant, Thou Lord of Love, That we receive, rejoicing,
The word proclaimed by John, Our true repentance voicing;
That gladly we may walk Upon our Savior’s way
Until we live with Him In His eternal day. Amen.

21 December 2014 - Advent 4 - Luke 1:26-38

In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, we once again hear the familiar story of the annunciation by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary, concerning the miraculous conception and birth of Jesus.

To us, as we look back on this from the vantage point of knowing everything that was to follow from this announcement, we see only an occasion for joy and hope. But that was not Mary’s initial reaction to the angel’s visit, and the angel’s words.

“And [Gabriel] came to her and said, ‘Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!’ But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.”

It’s interesting to see that Mary was not particularly troubled by the actual appearance of the angel. We might expect that this would be the scary thing.

But that’s not what Luke tells us was startling and troubling to Mary. What troubled her was what the angel said. “Greetings, O favored one.”

A different translation of this greeting that is as well-known as it is inaccurate goes like this: “Hail, full of grace.” But in the original Greek of the New Testament, the word for “grace” or “favor” that is used here does not refer to something that is in Mary.

She is not full of grace. Rather, God is full of grace. When he thinks of Mary, God’s own heart is full of grace, and favor, and acceptance, and mercy.

God sends his angel to Mary because God has a favorable attitude toward Mary. He thinks well of her.

But she is troubled by this. “Why does God think well of me?”, we can imagine her asking.

She would have known that, in herself, she did not deserve God’s favor. As a pious Jewish girl, Mary would have been familiar with Psalm 14:

“The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.”

Mary knew that she was indeed among the “children of man” - that she, too, just like everyone else, would have a reason to fear God’s judgment and punishment, and not automatically to expect God’s favor - at least not based on anything inside of herself.

There is no Biblical warrant for the belief that Mary was without sin. Rather, the Bible teaches that “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.”

I hope that no one is scandalized by this, but “all” means “all.” “All” includes Mary.

Mary would have admitted that. And so, as the angel makes this unexpected declaration to her, “Greetings, O favored one,” she is troubled and perplexed. What could this mean?

And what is even more frightening is the phrase that follows: “The Lord is with you.” Those with a troubled conscience, who are aware of their weaknesses and shortcomings before God, sometimes like to comfort themselves with the thought that God is not close by.

“Maybe God is not noticing my sin,” they imagine. But of course this is just an illusion.

God knows all, and sees all. You cannot escape from the Lord’s awareness of you and of everything that is going on in your life.

You cannot hide from God, as Adam thought he could in the Garden of Eden. God will call out to you, as he did to Adam: “Where are you?” And God will find you.

So, when someone like Gabriel would tell a person, “the Lord is with you,” that can be a scary thought. He is not far away, preoccupied with other things.

He is right here, up close. Whatever is going on in your life right now - in thought, word, or deed - he knows about it.

And Mary was afraid. We know that, from the words that the angel then said to her:

“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.”

The angel emphasizes that she should not be afraid. He assures her that the Lord really is favorable toward her.

He is not approaching her in order to judge her or to punish her for her sins, but to reveal his grace to her in a very special way.

And these words of assurance are not just empty talk. There is a reason why these things are true.

There is a reason why Mary should not be afraid. There is a reason why Mary should believe that God truly is gracious and favorable toward her.

It is because God is giving to Mary - and to the human race through Mary - the greatest of gifts: his own Son. God’s Son, begotten from eternity, will now become Mary’s son, conceived in her by the Holy Spirit.

The Second Person of the Holy Trinity will take to himself a true human nature, in order to become the Savior of humanity. And he will take that human nature from Mary.

Mary was not encouraged to “wish away” her fear through “positive thinking.” She was encouraged instead to believe the joyful good news about Jesus her Lord.

Mary was not told that she is actually without sin, or that her sin is not an offense to God, and that she therefore should never be fearful at the thought of being in the presence of his holiness. She was told instead that her Savior from sin was now coming into the world, to accomplish his work of redemption and justification - paying the debt of sin, and covering over its stain and guilt.

That’s why Mary ceased to be afraid. That’s why the words of the angel, “the Lord is with you,” became a message of comfort and joy, and ceased to be a troubling and frightening message.

Angels don’t appear to you with personal messages from God - at least not very often. But a messenger sent to you by God does perform some of the functions that Gabriel performed in today’s Gospel.

Your pastor, called to his office by the Lord of the church, says these words to you two or three times in the course of each Sunday’s worship service: “The Lord be with you.” This is essentially the same thing that the angel told Mary when he said, “the Lord is with you.”

And what reaction do you have to these words? My guess is that you have heard them so often that you probably don’t have much of any reaction.

But you should have a reaction. These words speak of something very important in your life - just as they spoke of something very important in Mary’s life.

If you were to think about it, perhaps your initial reaction would be the same as Mary’s initial reaction. She was frightened.

And you too, might be frightened when you begin to think about the Lord’s imminent presence: here and now, up close.

The pastor’s statement, “the Lord be with you,” can be an alarming statement, if it prompts you to think of the sin that still permeates your life, and that makes you - in yourself - unworthy of a divine visitation. What is going on in your thoughts, at each of those points in the Liturgy when the pastor sings that phrase?

Are you comfortable with the idea that God is, in that moment, coming up close to you, peering into your mind and heart, and measuring and evaluating you on the basis of what he - in that moment - sees in your mind and heart? Probably not!

“The Lord be with you” can be a scary idea, when you’d prefer that the Lord not be close enough to notice your failures, your hypocrisies, your half-heartedness, and your confused priorities. But the Lord is with you. And he knows it all.

And therefore, with respect to the shameful things that are a part of your life, and that are a part of you, God invites you - he implores you - to stop trying to distance yourself from him, and to stop trying to hide your sins from him. The Lord causes himself to be with you - accessible to you, and ready to hear what you have to say - so that you can repent of your sins, and seek his pardon.

From that perspective, therefore, it is a good thing that the Lord is with you, here and now, so that you can tell him what you need to tell him:

“O almighty God, merciful Father, I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess to You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You... But I am heartily sorry for them, and sincerely repent of them, and I pray You of Your boundless mercy... to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor, sinful being.”

And it’s also a good thing that the Lord is with you, so that you can then receive from him what he wants to give you. In the case of Mary, he gave her the gift of a Savior, who would rule among his people in righteousness. And that’s also what he gives to us.

Now, Jesus certainly doesn’t come to us in the same way as he did with Mary. God’s Son doesn’t enter into our bodies in the way that he entered into the womb of his mother.

But he does enter into our minds and hearts - in an equally miraculous and wonderful manner. The divine-human Savior who lived and died in your place, and who rose again from the dead for your redemption, comes to you now: to reconcile you to God and bring you back to his fellowship, and to fill you with his own loving and healing presence.

The hymn writer Phillips Brooks expresses the thought so beautifully in his well-known Christmas carol:

O holy Child of Bethlehem, Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in, Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels The great glad tidings tell:
Oh, come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Immanuel!

That’s what happens to you when Christ absolves you - when he says to you, “I forgive you all your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Jesus thereby casts out your sin, and once again “enters in” - as he did in your baptism, and as he continues to do whenever the grace of your baptism is recalled in this way.

He renews to you the gift of his Spirit. He strengthens within you the mystical bonds of faith that unite him to you. He lives within you with his regenerating, life-changing power.

And so, when “the Lord is with you” in this way, and for this purpose, it is a wonderful thing! Do not be afraid! The son who was born to Mary is here, once again, to save you, and to take away all your fear.

In a few minutes you are going to hear that familiar phrase, “the Lord be with you,” yet another time today. At the beginning of the rite of Holy Communion, when the pastor and the congregation begin their solemn “dialogue” concerning the great and mighty wonder that is about to break into our midst, you will once again hear these words.

As your sins have been washed away, and as your faith in Christ’s Word and institution has been renewed and strengthened, it is not going to be a frightful thing to be told this. But it will be a marvelous blessing to be assured that the Son of God - and the son of Mary - is once again present among his people.

The Lord is with us in the bread and wine of his Holy Supper, in order to unite himself to us in our human need, precisely at the point of his own glorified humanity. For our forgiveness once again, and for the renewal of our faith once again, Jesus bestows upon us the very body and blood with which he purchased us as his own.

“The Lord is with you.” And as he is with you - as he is with us in his sacrament - we respond to his intimate presence in our midst, not in fear, but with a joyful yearning to be blessed by him according to his pledge and promise.

In Christ, and for the sake of Christ, God does not come to us in his gospel and sacraments to judge us or punish us. Rather, with Mary, and for the sake of Mary’s son, we, too, are “favored” by the Lord. When God thinks of us in Christ, his heart is once again full of grace, and favor, and acceptance, and mercy.

“Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” “Do not be afraid, ...for you have found favor with God.” Amen.

24 December 2014 - Christmas Eve - Luke 2:8-14

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

What Child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

In the minds of many, the words of the angelic host, chanted on the night when Jesus was born, describe in a nutshell the reason for Christ’s coming to this world. He came to bring peace.

In his later years, Jesus himself confirmed that this was indeed at least a part of the purpose for his coming. As recorded in St. John’s Gospel, he said to his disciples:

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”

But that’s not all that Jesus said about the reason for his coming, and about peace.

The appearance of Jesus, and the saving work of Jesus, were not welcomed by the forces of darkness and evil in this sinful world. What Jesus represented, and what Jesus did, was, and still is, seen as a threat by those who do not recognize their need for God’s deliverance from these captivating and blinding forces; and who do not recognize God’s authority and God’s love in Christ.

This is all serious stuff. The coming of Christ had a serious purpose. And the message that the church of Jesus Christ still proclaims in this fallen world is a serious message - and a message that often gets a hostile reaction.

And so, as St. Matthew reports it, we note that Jesus also said this:

“Nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. ...”

“Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

That doesn’t sound exactly like what the angels said. But when you look at the bigger picture of Christ’s presence in this world, and of the reason why he came, you will see that the Babe of Bethlehem came to earth to do battle.

Now, Jesus did not come to do battle against people. He did not come to do battle even against those people who directly opposed him, and sought his death.

He came to do battle, not against them, but for them, against the one who had enslaved them and blinded them. He came to do battle against the devil, the great deceiver of humanity, and to win a victory for all of us against this enemy of our souls.

And it was chiefly in his suffering on the cross, and in his resurrection, where Jesus took the devil on. He entered into the domain of death itself, to defeat Satan precisely where his power over us was strongest.

Martin Luther poetically described this battle in one of his hymns:

It was a strange and dreadful strife, when life and death contended;
The victory remained with life; the reign of death was ended.
Stripped of power, no more it reigns; an empty form alone remains.
Death’s sting is lost forever!

In breaking the bonds of death by his victory over the grave, Jesus broke the devil’s fearsome grip on humanity. And he opened up for us a pathway of escape to everlasting life: by means of our justification in Christ, and by means of our own resurrection in Christ.

This pathway of liberation is a pathway that is traveled by us in repentance, and by faith in the certain promises of our Redeemer.

What the angels proclaimed is most certainly true. The coming of God’s Son in human flesh, to be humanity’ Savior, does bring peace.

But before it brings peace, it brings war and conflict. Jesus comes first to fight against your enemy, and to defeat him: to liberate you from the power and guilt of sin, and to restore you to fellowship with your true heavenly Father.

Think of that when you ponder his humble birth. Think of that when you ponder your need for the victory and deliverance that this baby will win for you - on his bloody cross, and in his empty tomb.

Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, 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.

And then the peace does come. Real peace: not just a lack of spiritual conflict, but a positive enjoyment of God’s goodness, by God’s reconciled children, in God’s kingdom.

In his Word and Sacrament, within the fellowship of his church, Jesus gives you this peace with God.

Jesus gives you peace within yourself, as your conscience is calmed by the knowledge of God’s gracious pardon and acceptance through his Son. And Jesus gives you peace with your fellow man, as the healing love and forgiveness that he pours into your heart flows out through you to others.

So bring Him incense, gold and myrrh,
Come peasant, king to own Him;
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone Him.
Raise, raise a song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy, joy for Christ is born,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

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

25 December 2014 - Christmas Day - Luke 2:8-14

Christmas is generally understood and experienced to be a time of joy and happiness. This joy and happiness is fed and nurtured by the joyful and happy things that are usually going on around us at this time of year.

The old Christmas song “Silver Bells” describes some of those uplifting features - in the typical ambiance of the Christmas season - that contribute to this kind of cheerful atmosphere:

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style;
In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas.
Children laughing, people passing, meeting smile after smile,
And on every street corner you’ll hear:
Silver bells, silver bells. It’s Christmas time in the city.
Ring-a-ling, hear them ring. Soon it will be Christmas day.

Other things that help to make the Christmas season to be a joyful and happy time are: the time spent with family and friends; the sharing of gifts; the glow and sparkle of candles and other decorations; and the overall amplification of a general feeling of goodwill and kindness that this season produces.

But what if these positive and uplifting things are not a part of your Christmas? Or what if they may be there, externally, but are not able to overcome a more powerful inner sadness that you may be feeling?

What if you have lost your job, or your health, or a dear loved one, in the past year? And for many, a heavy conscience may be weighing you down at Christmas, with regret over hurtful actions that you cannot undo, or remorse over broken relationships that you cannot mend.

If this is the way things are for you - in whole or in part - your Christmas may not be very joyful and happy, but rather depressing, discouraging, and lonely.

There may be some people right here in our midst - maybe you - who secretly are without a feeling of hope; without a sense that life has real meaning or purpose; or without a reason - as far as outward circumstances are concerned - to think that Christmas is in any way special or noteworthy, or a time for rejoicing.

But it is a time for rejoicing. For true rejoicing: not a superficial pretense of happiness, but a real, inner, and overflowing happiness and celebration. This is so, not because of the circumstances of your life in this world, but - in many cases - in spite of those circumstances.

The joy and happiness of Christmas are not created by the ambiance or traditions of Christmas that surround you, but by the gospel of God’s Son made flesh for your redemption. That gospel - that joyful good news of forgiveness, life, and salvation in Christ - pierces through the sadness, even when the sadness is deep and wide, and goes right to your heart.

The angel, in his announcement to the shepherds outside Bethlehem, gets it exactly right:

“And 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.’”

It is the Word of God that supernaturally puts true joy and happiness into Christmas: not silver bells and children laughing; not friends and family; and not the absence of hardship or grief. It is the Word of God that puts true joy and happiness into you.

And this is why Christmas can be, and should be, a joyous and happy time for anyone, in any life circumstance.

Christ the Lord - the divine Lord of Israel and of all nations - has been born as a human baby, to be the companion and friend of humans. A Savior - one who will rescue us from the danger and peril of our sins - has come to this troubled and troubling world to live for us, to die for us, and to rise again for us.

Jesus is now a part of our human story. And as the resurrected Lord, he remains even now as a part of that story. He lives among us still, and in his gospel and sacraments he speaks to us.

In our guilt, he speaks forgiveness. In our fear, he speaks peace. In our loneliness and discouragement, he speaks to us as one who will never leave us or forsake us, and who tells us: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

If you look at what is going on around you at this time of the year, or if you look inside of yourself - at your own emotions and thoughts - you may or may not find joy and happiness. But if you look to the Babe of Bethlehem - the Savior born for all people, who is with you today in Sermon and Supper - you will find a deep and abiding happiness, and an enduring comfort in your human troubles.

If you hear and believe the angel’s good news of a great joy that is for all people - and that is therefore for you - you will know that joy. The joy of Christ will shine upon you - and through you - even as you continue to face hardships and challenges, trials and temptations.

Now to the Lord sing praises, all you within this place,
In Christian faith and charity each other now embrace,
This holy tide of Christmas reveals to us God’s grace.
O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy,
O tidings of comfort and joy. Amen.

28 December 2014 - Holy Innocents - Matthew 2:13-18

Today’s text from St. Matthew recounts for us the first time in history that children were killed - in the stead of Christ, and as his stand-ins - by a world that hates Christ. I wish that I could say that this sort of thing doesn’t happen any more, but I can’t.

Not long ago, Canon Andrew White, the Anglican Vicar of Baghdad, told the story of four children - all under 15 years of age - who were approached by ISIS terrorists, and given this order: “You say the words that you will follow Mohammed.”

They refused, and according to Canon White, they said instead, “No. We love Jesus. We have always loved Jesus.”

For this confession of faith, they were all beheaded, on the spot. With a pastor’s heart, Canon White concluded his account of this heartbreaking event in this way:

“How do you respond to that? You just cry.”

This is just one of many similar stories that can be told, about the most severe persecution of Christians that the world has seen for many decades - going on right now in Iraq and Syria. Indeed, for all the children who have been killed throughout the centuries, because of the world’s hatred of Christ - the beloved Savior and Friend of those children - “you just cry.”

A voice was heard in Ramah - and is still heard in all places where such horrors are perpetrated - weeping and loud lamentation. The church on earth weeps for her children.

In this life, there is no sadder experience for a parent than the loss of a child. And for the church, there is no sadder experience - humanly speaking - than the loss of our youngest members to a martyr’s death.

But when this does happen - whether in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, or in Iraq a few weeks ago - it is a time for our own faith to be refocused, and for us to be reminded that “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come,” as the Epistle to the Hebrews teaches us.

The fallen world in which we live is a world of death. And that world, together with its unregenerated children, hates the living God, and the life that God offers.

With that sad fact as the backdrop, St. John, in his First Epistle, gives us this encouragement: “Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. We know that we have passed out of death into life.”

But as we do mourn the untimely deaths of the martyrs of Christ - especially the deaths of the youngest of these martyrs - we are guided by the inspired and inspiring words of Psalm 116 to lift up the eyes of our faith, from the hardships that Christians are enduring in this world, toward the eternal goodness and grace of God in Christ:

“What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord, I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.”

“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. O Lord, I am your servant; I am your servant, the son of your maidservant. You have loosed my bonds. I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the Lord.”

“We love Jesus. We have always loved Jesus.”

Those who think that God has to prove himself to humanity, and convince humanity that he is worthy of their faith, will often point to the existence of evil and injustice in the world - things such as the murder of children - as evidence that God is not worthy of our faith, and does not in fact exist.

Of course, the reason why people - even unbelievers - find such cruelty to be so objectionable, is because in their creation God has imprinted on their conscience a knowledge of his law, and an intuitive recognition of the difference between right and wrong. The sadly prophetic words of the pre-Soviet Russian author Dostoyevsky were and are very true: in a world without God “everything is permitted.”

But if we listen to the voice of our conscience, we will know, deep inside, that everything is not permitted. The killing of children - of any children, whether before or after birth - is not permitted.

We condemn the actions of Herod and ISIS, and the actions of abortionists and all other perpetrators of harm against childen, because God’s law - as written on the heart of man - condemns those actions.

The occurrence of such actions does not disprove the existence of God. But our human revulsion at these actions does, in a sense, prove his existence.

Imagine a scenario like this: An angel visits Joseph in a dream, and says to him: “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”

But Joseph responds: “If God is going to allow the children other than Jesus to be destroyed, which is an injustice, that proves to me that there is no God. So, I will no longer believe in him. And I do not believe in you either. Therefore I will not do as you say.”

This is ridiculously unthinkable. God, through the angel, is actually speaking to Joseph.

But this is exactly what today’s atheists do, even though God - through Holy Scripture, and through those who preach its message - is speaking to them too.

We live in a world that hates God, that hate’s God’s church, and that hates God’s children. And so, in this world, God’s children suffer.

They are mocked. They are persecuted. They are mistreated. And they are killed.

But we live in a world that has been redeemed and reclaimed by Christ nevertheless. We live in a world where the love of Christ is also still known among his people, and where the forgiveness of Christ is still proclaimed to all people.

In the peace of this forgiveness, those who know Christ by faith, and who live in him, are willing - by faith - also to die in him. And if they are martyred, they in their death testify to this forgiveness, and to this peace, even to those who are killing them.

“We love Jesus. We have always loved Jesus.”

The word “martyr” literally means “witness.” A martyr bears witness to the sobering conviction that eternal fellowship with God is more valuable than earthly life. And a martyr bears witness to the comforting belief that the death of his saints is precious in the sight of the Lord.

God, in Christ, would have forgiven Herod, if he had repented before he died. God, in Christ, will forgive the ISIS terrorists of our day, if they turn away from their wicked beliefs and deeds, and trust the Savior who died also for their sins.

Our response to the killing of Christians because they are Christians, is to honor the memory of these saints with respect and admiration - as we are doing today, for example, in our observance of the feast day of the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem.

Our response is also to praise God for the endurance and faithful witness of the martyrs; to pray for those who survive them and mourn their departure; and to thank God that he has spared us - for now - so that we will have the privilege of continuing the work of calling the world to repentance, and of proclaiming to the world the message of its reconciliation to God in Christ.

Jesus did not respond to the hatred that he experienced with hatred in return. He responded with love and forgiveness. For those who were in the very act of torturing him to death, he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Those who persecute Christians today likewise do not know what they are doing. The Islamic fanatics who kidnap Christian girls in Nigeria, and sell them into slavery, do not know what they are doing.

The Hindu fanatics who beat Christians in India for singing Christmas carols, do not know what they are doing. And the ISIS terrorists who behead Christians of all ages - even children - do not know what they are doing.

These and others are blinded by the darkness of their sinful hearts, and by the deceptions of the devil. But as we heard in the appointed Gospel for Christmas Day, Jesus was and is the Light that shines in the darkness, and that the darkness cannot overcome.

Jesus was and is the eternal divine Word who became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. Jesus was and is the Savior who died for us, who rose again for us, and who now intercedes for us at the right hand of the Divine Majesty.

Jesus intercedes for us as we learn from him how to be like him: in loving our enemies, in doing good to those who hate us, and in blessing those who curse us. Jesus intercedes for us as we believe his gospel for our own salvation, and as we look for opportunities to proclaim that gospel to others.

The gospel of Christ crucified for sinners has a supernatural, regenerating power that is able to soften the hardest of hearts, and to convert the most stubborn of wills. It can change the hearts and minds of those who have no belief, and of those who have a wrong and harmful belief.

I personally know people who used to be atheists, who used to be Muslims, and who used to be Hindus, but who now know him who is the author of Life, and the Light of the world; and who are now, with God’s help and strength, willing to die for him - not kill for him, but die for him - if that is what they are called upon to do.

Martyrs there will always be. But the church also will always be.

This world - through the instrumentality of Herod, or ISIS, or any other dark and demonic force - has never been able to kill all who represent Christ, and it never will be able to do so. And therefore this world will never be able to silence the testimony of Jesus Christ - until the Last Day, when Jesus himself brings this world to an end.

Indeed, when Christians are willing to die with the precious name of Jesus on their lips, rather than to renounce the Lord who bought them with the price of his own blood, this is a proclamation of the saving reality of Christ that speaks louder than any sermon preached from any pulpit in Christendom.

That’s one of the reason why God allows this to happen - so that those who kill Christians, will be able to hear with their own ears, and see with their own eyes, the truth of Jesus, and the courage and hope that Jesus gives to those who know him.

The joy of the Christmas season is not the joy of knowing that trials and suffering will never come upon us. Jesus has not promised this to us, and has actually told us just the opposite. He said:

“If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”

The joy of the Christmas season is, rather, the joy of knowing that in all the trials and suffering that we do endure, God is with us. In the Babe of Bethlehem, God himself became our brother according to the flesh, and our companion and comforter - in life, and in death. He is with us always, even to the end of the age.

“We love Jesus. We have always loved Jesus.”

“These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

“In you, O Lord, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me!” Amen.