13 December 2015 - Advent 3 - Zephaniah 3:9-17

Please listen with me to the words of the prophet Zephaniah.

Thus says the Lord:

“For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord. From beyond the rivers of Cush my worshipers, the daughter of my dispersed ones, shall bring my offering. On that day you shall not be put to shame because of the deeds by which you have rebelled against me... They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord, those who are left in Israel; they shall do no injustice and speak no lies, nor shall there be found in their mouth a deceitful tongue.” ...

“Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: ‘Fear not, O Zion... The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.’”

So far our text.

The prophet Zephaniah, in the verses that precede today’s text, had condemned the people and rulers of the kingdom of Judah for their idolatry; for their shameful desire to imitate the practices of the pagan nations that surrounded them; and for their rebellion against the Word and ways of the Lord.

Even though they had the unchanging written Scriptures, and had heard the testimony of many prophets throughout their history, the people of Judah as a whole had not been willing to remain faithful to the God who had brought their fathers up out of the land of Egypt, and had made them a nation.

They had not resisted the temptation to embrace the popular yet false religions of their neighbors. And even those who had not actively participated in these sins were still accountable, because they hadn’t done very much to prevent others from doing what they did.

If you can think of an instance when you were disappointed or annoyed by the wrong actions of a person who actually didn’t know any better, and if you can think of another instance when you were disappointed or annoyed by the wrong actions of a person who did know better, at which individual were you more angry? No doubt the one who knew better, but who decided to go ahead and do what he knew he should not do anyway.

Well, that’s similar to the Lord’s disgust at the people of Judah. They knew better. With everything that God had done over the centuries to teach them and guide them, they were without excuse.

But they did what they knew was wrong anyway. So, we are not surprised that the Lord made it known to them that he had finally had enough, and that a divine chastening would come upon them.

And, he also told them to expect suffering at the hands of their enemies. After all, when they ran away from the Lord, they ran away from the Lord’s protection too. So, not only would they be judged by a holy God, but they would also be cruelly attacked and abused by the hostile empires that surrounded them.

And what about us? What about you? How often have you done something that you knew was wrong - contrary to the Ten Commandments - but you did it anyway? We all know better, yet we have all done things that we knew we should not do.

As people today who do know better, nevertheless think, speak, and act in disobedience to the law of God, they are - like the people of ancient Judah - thereby inviting God’s judgment upon themselves. They are, like the people of ancient Judah, in effect running away from God’s protection into the clutches of their enemies.

But in the section of Zephaniah’s prophesy that we are considering today, the prophet also speaks divine words of hope and forgiveness to the people of Judah - and to us.

There is a way back to God’s fellowship and protection. There is always a way back. It is the way of repentance and faith.

As undeserving of another chance as the people of Judah may have been, they were going to get another chance anyway - not because of who they were, but because of who God is. As much as God would be within his rights to cut them off, and start over from scratch with another nation, that’s not what he was going to do. And that’s not what he is going to do with you.

Listen to the words of the Lord:

“For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord. From beyond the rivers of Cush my worshipers, the daughter of my dispersed ones, shall bring my offering. On that day you shall not be put to shame because of the deeds by which you have rebelled against me...”

Are you sometimes not sure what words to use to tell God what you’re feeling, or what you know you should be feeling: to tell him that you’re sorry for your failures and compromises, and to ask him for his forgiveness and help? Don’t worry.

He himself will show you how to call upon him. By his Spirit he will change your speech to a pure speech, teaching you how to pray, how to ask for what you need from the Lord, and how to confess him before others.

The Holy Scriptures are the chief tool God uses to do this. They are his Word to us, and they also give us words that we can then speak back to him, with the confidence that we are saying things that are pleasing to him.

God speaks to us his word of pardon and restoration, lifting from us his anger against us, and lifting from us our shame before him. And he then teaches us the words of joyful praise that we use to bring him an offering of thanksgiving in response.

As you sing hymns and speak prayers that are shaped by God’s Word - and not by the passing whims of your own human emotions - your heart and mind, your will and desires, are reshaped and re-formed, in accordance with God’s Word. You truly are among his worshipers, when you worship him as he wants to be worshiped - thanking him for what he has actually done, and asking him for what he wants you to have.

Listen again:

“They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord, those who are left in Israel; they shall do no injustice and speak no lies, nor shall there be found in their mouth a deceitful tongue.”

In the world in which we live, sadly, we all know what a refugee is. It is a person who flees from life-threatening danger to a safe and protected place.

And God invites us - as we are threatened by the sinful world, by our own sinful flesh, and by the devil - to find refuge in his name. Notice that he doesn’t simply tell us to find refuge in religion, or in spirituality, or even in “God” in a generic sense.

We can’t find true security simply in the idea that there is a God, or some kind of higher power, who might be capable of protecting us. Rather, the Lord invites us to flee for protection to his name.

God has made himself known to us. Ultimately and chiefly, he has revealed his name in the sending forth of his Son Jesus Christ.

He has established a covenant with us, in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. And most personally, he has placed his name upon us in our baptism into Christ, marking us as his own.

Sometimes, literal refugees who are on the move in troubled countries don’t really know where they are headed. They just want to go in the opposite direction from the turmoil.

But as God’s baptized people, we know exactly where we are headed when in faith we seek refuge in the name of the Lord. We are continuously invited by the open hands of our crucified Savior to seek spiritual refuge under the perfect righteousness that he spreads out over us, and with which he clothes us.

He beckons you to return to him, again and again, as he calls out to you, and comes to you, in his gospel. And when you are under the protection of Christ - as you cling to him in joyful faith - the power of sin will not destroy you, or have the mastery over you. Your loving Lord guards and keeps you, in the shadow of his cross.

God’s message through Zephaniah continues:

“Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies.”

Humanity’s sinfulness places our benighted race under God’s judgment, and provokes his anger. But when God forgives us for the sake of Christ, he takes away these judgments. They are lifted.

The judgments of God again human rebellion and defiance are real. Humanity’s sin - our sin - was and is an offense against the Lord’s holiness.

The point here is not that God’s judgments are only an illusion, and that God is actually a very indulgent and benign being who is no threat to anyone. Rather, Zephaniah’s point is that God’s judgments - his very real judgments - have been lifted from us in the Lord’s mercy.

When God’s Son went to the cross as our substitute, he drew those judgments away from us and onto himself. In Christ they are drawn away from us even now.

And in Christ, we are also restored to the Lord’s protection. Our enemies - the dark demonic powers and the evil devilish principalities - cannot get at us, when Jesus envelops us, and brings us into his sheepfold.

By the power of God’s Word, which we believe, these enemies are vanquished from our life. And our life, in Christ, is filled instead with rejoicing and exultation.

The prophet continues:

“The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: ‘Fear not, O Zion... The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.’”

Do you envision God as a distant being, seated on a glorious throne, looking down from afar on the smallness of our world - and on the smallness of our own lives? Well, in a certain sense he is like that.

He is glorious and majestic, all-knowing and all-powerful. But he is also right here with us, in our very midst.

Through the miracle of the incarnation, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity became a man, with a real body and real blood. He came into our world in order to accomplish humanity’s salvation in his perfect life, his innocent death, and his victorious resurrection.

And, especially through the miracle of the Lord’s Supper, the divine-human Savior is still intimately present among us today, with his now-glorified body and blood, to apply to his people the blessings of his salvation. He comes now to those who, in repentance, are ready to meet him; and to those who, with the eyes and ears of faith, are able to see and hear him.

The idea that God is right here, seeing everything and knowing everything, could be a frightening idea. If we love sin rather than God, then it’s not such a pleasing thought to know that God is watching and listening to everything.

But if our hearts and minds have been transformed by God’s love in Christ, so that we are seeking his help in overcoming sin and the suffering it brings, then it is a great joy to know that he is right here, wherever his Word and sacrament are, always accessible to us: to forgive, to heal, to restore, to renew.

When, by his grace, we are growing in our love for the things that he loves, then it is a glad and hopeful thing to know that he is with us in this journey, and will not abandon us.

And God himself is utterly delighted to be with us, his children. He rejoices over us with gladness, and exults over us with loud singing. Truly, in the words of his gospel, our God sings his life and peace into us, and surrounds us with the joyous strains of his love for those whom his Son has redeemed.

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! From the house of the Lord we bless you.” Amen.

16 December 2015 - Psalm 130:5-8

“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope.”

The season of Advent is a season of waiting. During Advent, through the appointed lessons that are read on Sunday mornings, we hear about people of the past who waited for, and looked forward to, the fulfillment of God’s promises. And during the season of Advent, through these same lessons, we too are taught by God how to wait.

And we need to be taught how to wait, because it is our human instinct to be impatient and not to want to wait for things that, according to God’s plan, are not actually going to happen for a while. This kind of impatience can be harmful, because it can cause us to fail to appreciate the importance of other events that are supposed to happen during the intervening time, before the occurrence of the specific thing that we may be concentrating on, and thinking about, and wanting to happen right away.

When a young woman gets engaged, she might then become very eager to get married as soon as possible. She loves her fiancé, and so she can be impatient, and want to start her married life with him right away.

But this kind of impatience could cause that young woman to miss the significance of the various things that are supposed to happen between the proposal and the wedding. She might miss, or undervalue, the importance of the bridal shower that her friends want to throw for her.

She might miss, or undervalue, the loving woman-to-woman talks that her mother wants to have with her. She might miss, and undervalue, the pre-marriage counseling that her pastor wants to offer to her and her fiancé, to help prepare them, on the basis of God’s Word, for a godly and peaceful life together.

You can’t help but to look forward to a future good thing that you are eager to experience. But as you do so, make sure you look around, and notice the good things that are happening now, while you wait for that ultimate good thing.

John the Baptist is someone we hear quite a bit about during the season of Advent. He was someone who was waiting for the coming of the Messiah.

And more specifically, he was waiting for the divine judgment against human sin and corruption, and the purification and restoration of God’s people, which was going to be brought about by the Messiah. As reported by St. Matthew, John proclaimed:

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He 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.”

John was waiting for this, and looking forward to this - so much so, that he was surprised that when Jesus did show up, he presented himself to John for baptism.

John was not expecting that before his coming for the winnowing and the threshing, the Messiah would first come in humility, and would identify with sinners and take their sin upon himself, to carry that sin to the cross. As John was eagerly awaiting the fiery judgments of the future, he needed to pause, and look around, so that he would not miss what was actually supposed to happen before those fiery judgments, according to God’s plan.

John needed to see and learn, that before Jesus would become God’s judge of the sin of the world, he would need to be God’s Lamb, who on the cross and in the empty tomb would take away the sin of the world - so that individuals within the world, who would repent and believe in him before the final judgment, could have their personal sin taken away in the grace and cleansing of Christ’s absolution.

John did learn that, and then he did declare that. In effect, he declares this to us, every time his words are quoted in our Communion Liturgy: “O Christ, thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us; grant us thy peace.”

“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope. My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning. ”

The apostles of Jesus, after his death and resurrection, were now ready for Jesus to “take over”: to bring the rule of Satan on earth to an end; and to beat down and crush all his - and Israel’s - earthly enemies. We read in the Book of Acts that when the apostles had come together,

“They asked him, ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.’”

The apostles were eagerly awaiting the vindication of God’s Son - and of God’s people - which they hoped might now be imminent. And they should have been waiting for that, because that will happen someday.

But Jesus explained that there was a whole lot more that needed to happen before such a day of outward vindication would come. They were being sent out into the world - a fallen world, full of fallen nations - in order to make disciples of those nations by the supernatural power of the gospel that they would proclaim.

They were not only to look forward, toward the end of the world. They were also to look around them, at the world in which they still lived, and see fields white for the harvest of souls that they were called by their Lord to bring in.

And that work of harvest is not yet completed. The apostolic church - to which you and I belong - is still busily fulfilling this apostolic mission, as we wait for the end.

“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope. ... O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love.”

We today are also awaiting the second coming of Jesus. And perhaps at a personal level, we are awaiting our own individual departures from this world, with the assumption that we will likely pass away before the end of the world as a whole.

If our lives are filled with spiritual remorse or physical pain, with stress or fear, we may be tempted to yearn for the end of this world - or at least for the end of our own presence in this world - in such a way that we miss the blessings and the opportunities that are still available to us here and now.

We may need to be reminded of those things of which St. Peter reminds his readers, in his Second Epistle: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”

Jesus may not be visibly present among us - as he will be on judgment day. But he is here nevertheless, according to his promise to be with us always until the end of the age. He is here to show us his grace: in our guilt, to forgive and restore us; in our suffering, to sooth and comfort us.

He is here, in his Word and sacraments, to replace our worry and anxiety with peace and hope. He is here, in the present, to be our companion and guardian in life. And even with our many flaws and weaknesses, he is here to use us as his instruments for love and service to others.

In his own patience, Jesus teaches us patience, and humility. In his own compassion for those who do not yet know his saving truth, Jesus teaches us also to be compassionate; and to think about them and their needs, and not only about ourselves and our wants.

We are not to wait for that ultimate encounter with Jesus that will happen in our future death, in such a way that we miss all the little, wonderful encounters that Jesus wants to have with us now, while we live - in our various callings, and in our fellowship with his church.

Through Christ, there is much joy to be found in life - even a life of hardship and trials. In the grace of Christ, we can and will wait for as long as we need to, for the fulfillment of all God’s promises to us. And as we wait, Christ is with us, helping us to wait.

“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope. ... With him is plentiful redemption. And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.” Amen.

20 December 2015 - Advent 4 - Luke 1:39-56

Today’s text from St. Luke includes the account of the original singing of Mary’s song, commonly called the Magnificat. This happened on the occasion of St. Mary’s visit to her kinswoman Elizabeth.

Both of these women were pregnant. Elizabeth was further along in her pregnancy. John the Baptist was growing in her womb.

Mary had not been pregnant for very long at this point. By a miracle of God, her son Jesus was growing inside of her.

When these two women had their encounter, Elizabeth greeted Mary with these words: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” And after a few more remarks from Elizabeth, Mary responded with her song.

This song is actually very familiar to us - and to all Christians who preserve the liturgical heritage of the ancient church - because the Magnificat is a canticle that is appointed to be sung as a part of the historic order of Vespers. We have sung it here many times.

The song speaks of some things about Mary that are true only of her. It therefore helps us to remember who she was, and to understand her special role in the coming of God’s eternal Son to earth as a man.

But the song also speaks of some things about Mary that are true also for all of us - who are members of the same Christian church to which she belonged, and who believe in the same Savior in whom she trusted. We therefore also learn from this song how to imitate Mary’s faith, in our own relationship with God through Christ.

Mary’s song begins:

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

The ancient Hebrew and Jewish poetic form - which is reflected in the Magnificat - is often characterized by a style of composition according to which a certain thought is repeated twice, from two slightly different angles, as a couplet. The opening lines of Mary’s song follow this poetic form.

The thought, “my soul magnifies the Lord,” and the thought, “my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” are fundamentally the same thought, expressed in two different ways, with a slightly different emphasis each time.

The Jews of the first century, and still today, did not speak out loud the testamental name of God - Yahweh or Jehovah. Instead, they used a substitute word - the word for “Lord.” So, in many cases at this time in history - as reflected also in the New Testament - when the word “Lord” is spoken, the name “Yahweh” is meant.

And this is God’s testamental name. The Old Testament refers to him in this way, when it is emphasizing God’s faithfulness, and his love and loyalty. The special name Yahweh or Jehovah does not call to mind the power and sovereignty of God, as much as it calls to mind the fact that the God of Israel is a God of relationships, who makes and keeps promises.

And so, when Mary magnifies “the Lord,” this means that she is magnifying God according to his testamental name, with an acknowledgment of God’s faithfulness in keeping his promise to bring his salvation to the nation of Israel, and to the world.

This thought is repeated more explicitly in the second line, where Mary says that her spirit “rejoices in God my Savior.” To magnify the Lord is to rejoice in him - with a joyful gratitude for what he has done and is doing. There is a joy in true faith, and in a submission to God’s gracious and loving will, that is stronger than the discouragements and trials that often surround that faith in this life.

Jumping ahead to the conclusion of Mary’s song, we can see that what she sings at the end of the Magnificat confirms this thought. Her final lines connect her very specific faith, to a specific person in history to whom God had promised the sending of a Seed, and through whom - according to the Lord - all nations of the earth would be blessed:

“He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

In her song, Mary is not worshiping God merely because he exists, or because he is powerful, or because he is glorious. She is worshiping God - she is worshiping Yahweh - because he is faithful.

And that is the difference today between the worship of a generic God, as defined in very vague and general ways, and the worship of the God who has made himself known, and fulfilled his gracious promises, in the sending of his Son.

Which God will you worship this Christmas? In which God will you trust this Christmas?

May it be Mary’s God to whom you lift your voices in praise and thanksgiving. May it be Mary’s Son whom you acknowledge, with a very specific and exclusive faith, as your Savior from sin and death.

Mary’s song continues:

“For he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me.”

In this section of her song, Mary is talking about things that are true just for her. Now, in the English version of the Bible that we use, where our translation says, “he who is mighty has done great things for me,” what the original Greek actually says is, “he who is mighty has done great things to me.” The old King James Version did get that one right.

The mighty God had done something to Mary that he did only to Mary. There had been various women in history whom the Lord had supernaturally helped to conceive, by their husbands, when they were either infertile or past child-bearing years. Elizabeth, in today’s account, was one such woman.

The father of the baby who was growing in Elizabeth’s body was Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah. Mary’s pregnancy was of a totally different character.

It was a profoundly miraculous pregnancy, because Mary was still a virgin when she conceived. Her baby, Jesus, had no human father.

To be sure, Jesus had been conceived in Mary in such a way that he was a real human being, with a true human nature that he had received from her. Mary was his true mother. But God, directly, was his father.

Jesus was not conceived according to the ordinary course of human nature. And he was accordingly conceived without the contagion of human sin, which otherwise is passed on to every descendant of Adam through the regular procreative process.

Jesus, as the Son of God, actually had an eternal existence. The Second Person of the Holy Trinity, who had always existed as the only-begotten of God the Father, took to himself a true human nature, and became a true human being, in the womb of the Virgin Mary.

But he became a sinless human being - so that he could live in perfect obedience under the Law of God, in the place of disobedient men; and so that he could offer his life as a perfect sacrifice to divine justice, in the place of corrupted men.

God became man only once. This had never happened before, and it will never happen again.

It happened in fulfillment of God’s pledge in Eden that the Seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head, and thereby deliver humanity from Satan’s grasp. It happened in fulfillment of God’s pledge spoken through Isaiah, that he would give a sign to the house of David by causing a virgin to conceive and bear a Son, who would be called Emmanuel - God with us.

The only Savior you will ever have, become a member of the human family, and entered into your world, through Mary. All generations accordingly do call Mary “blessed” - uniquely blessed. Her Son, and her Son alone, is the way, the truth, and the life, through whom you can come to the Father.

And this is not an arbitrary claim, which Christians make because they would like to think their religion is better than anyone else’s. This is a claim that Jesus himself makes, because he knows that his mission - his unique and unrepeatable mission - was to be the one mediator between God and men, and the one Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

No one else ever did that, or even pretended to do that. No one else could conceivably do that.

But even though the specific miracle of the virginal conception of God’s Son happened to Mary and only to Mary; it happened for everyone whom the Lord calls to come to him - in humility and repentance. It happened for you. Mary’s song continues:

“And holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.”

If you “fear” the Lord - that is, if you acknowledge the holiness of God’s name, and honestly admit the unholiness of your existence, and of your life - then you can know without any doubt that God’s mercy and forgiveness in Christ is for you. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

God’s Son will not come to you in the manner by which he came to Mary - entering into your womb, if you have one, and taking from you a human nature. Only Mary was blessed in that way.

Rather, as you believe the Lord’s Word of pardon and peace; are baptized into his name; and live out your baptism in daily repentance and faith, Jesus comes into your heart, and gives you a new godly nature.

Now, when Mary sang her song, the things that God’s Word had said her Son would do, had not yet happened. But because God’s Word had spoken of what would be accomplished through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, Mary could speak of these things with confidence, as if they had already occurred.

In God’s infinite and omniscient mind they had occurred, of course. And in Mary’s faith - anchored as it was to God’s own promise and pledge - they had, in effect, already occurred.

The throwing down of all wicked arrogance, and of all human self-satisfaction and defiance against God, which would happen through Christ’s rebuke and condemnation of human sin, was so certain, that it was sung about as having already happened.

The lifting up, through the gospel of Christ, of the Lord’s redeemed and regenerated people - a people dependent on him and not on themselves - which Christ would accomplish through his ongoing ministry of Word and Sacrament within the church, was so certain, that it was sung about as having already happened.

And so Mary did sing:

“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.”

That’s how confident you can be, when you trust in the promises that God makes to you. Jesus’ death for your sins, and his resurrection for your justification, cannot be undone or deleted from sacred history.

These things happened. Your sins have been paid for. The gates of heaven have been opened before you.

And in the gospel, you have been filled with the good things that Jesus delivers to you. Indeed, you have been filled with Jesus himself.

These are not theories that a human religion encourages you to ponder and analyze. These are objective realities that a divine Savior invites you to embrace, by the help of his Spirit, as these realities embrace you.

And as you know Christ now by such a faith, you can - in that faith - be sure that you will know him forever in his eternal, heavenly kingdom. He will raise you up on the last day.

He will vindicate you and claim you as his own on judgment day. He will welcome you into the mansions of his Father’s house that he is now preparing for you.

In Christ, it is as if these things have already happened. And you can sing of these things, and rejoice in them, as if they have already happened.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Amen.

24 December 2015 - Christmas Eve - Isaiah 1:2-3

Please listen with me to these words from the 1st chapter of the Prophet Isaiah, beginning at the 2nd verse:

Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the Lord has spoken: “Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.”

So far the text.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

For a long time now, in religious art related to the Christmas story, and in the customary make-up of the figurines in a Christmas creche, it has been standard to portray an ox and a donkey as being present in the stable where Jesus was born.

The Nativity accounts in the New Testament Gospels do not say what animals, if any, were in the stable. Where did this now-universal tradition originate? It originated in the verses from Isaiah that were just read.

The early church understood this passage to be teaching that an ox and a donkey were not only present when Jesus was born, but that they, in some sense, were able to recognize that baby - laying in the manger - as their almighty creator; as the ruler of the natural order of the earth, of which they were a part; and as the divine overseer and sustainer of the whole universe.

Remember the Lord’s declaration in Psalm 50: “For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills.” In the mean stable in Bethlehem on that holy night, the ox knew its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib.

The story of Christmas is not the story of a baby boy who, in time, became the Son of God - in some sentimental or poetic sense. It is instead the story of the Son of God who, at the appointed time, became a baby boy - to grow up and live as a man; and finally to die as a man - a sinless man - as the Redeemer of all other men.

For the salvation of a humanity plagued by death and covered with shame, the eternal and glorious God shrouded himself in mortality and humility. God, in Christ, became like us - sin alone excepted - in order to solve humanity’s most fundamental problem from inside humanity, and to bring us back to where we belong, in a restored fellowship with our Creator.

But when God the Son became a human baby - already within the womb of Mary, his mother - he did not stop being God. God is immutable.

This means that God - in the nature and character of his existence - cannot ever become something other than what he has always been. He says through the Prophet Malachi: “For I the Lord do not change.”

And so, when the Second Person of the Holy Trinity took to himself a human nature, became a man, and lived on earth as a man, this did not in any way change or diminish his divinity. Even when taking the form of a frail human baby, with all the appearances of weakness that came along with being a baby, God’s eternal Son remained who he had always been.

And he continued doing what he had always done. The Epistle to the Colossians teaches, with respect to Christ, that

“By him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities. All things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

The baby Jesus, as he slept and nursed, still ruled, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, over all things. As he looked up quizzically at the ox and the donkey who were looking down in awe at him, the baby Jesus - with his deeply hidden yet real divine power - was holding all things together.

He was holding that ox and that donkey together, and was keeping their world going. And somehow, in some way, the ox and the donkey knew that he was doing this. They knew who he was.

They knew what they owed him, and how dependent they were on him. The ox knew its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib.

But the Lord’s words, as spoken through Isaiah, also reflect God’s grief over his own people not knowing him, and not recognizing him. This evening’s text anticipates the sad fact, that when God’s Son would come into the world, to dwell among the people of Israel for a lifetime, most of them would not acknowledge him, or accept him.

“Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me. ... Israel does not know, my people do not understand.”

This was the sad story of Jesus’ life among his people. St. John’s Gospel reminds us that “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world” - that is, the world of humanity - “did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.”

Their eyes were blind to the identity of the baby, and the man, who grew up before them, and walked among them. They refused to see what the ox and the donkey could see.

But before we get too judgmental of the majority of the Jewish people of the first century, we need to ask ourselves this night: Do we know our master, and our owner’s crib?

As you and I hear the story, and see with our mind’s eye the image of this newborn baby lying in the manger, do we recognize him for who he really is? Do we worship him for who he really is?

Or is Jesus for us merely a sentimental figure, not to be taken too seriously? Is the Christmas gospel merely a poetic flourish that we listen to once a year - jumbled together with our many other holiday customs - and then forget?

We don’t know how the ox and donkey knew what they knew, or exactly how much they did know.

But we do know how Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds knew who Jesus was, and what his presence among men meant and would mean. They knew, because God had sent an angelic messenger to tell them.

When the conception of Jesus was announced to Mary, the angel Gabriel told her: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy - the Son of God.”

An angel - perhaps the same one - soon thereafter told Joseph: “Do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

And when an angel - perhaps the same one yet again - appeared to the shepherds on the outskirts of Bethlehem, to invite them to go and worship the newborn king, he told them: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

And the way in which Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds were able to know who Jesus was and is, is the same way in which you can know. Tonight, I ask you to listen to these angelic words, to believe these angelic words, and - in the faith that these words will instill in you - to worship the Lord who made you, and to whom you belong.

Tonight, I implore you to let these words transform your heart, enlighten your mind, and open your eyes - so that you, too, can know your master, and your owner’s crib. St. Paul writes, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.”

As you do acknowledge Christ as your master and owner, one necessary byproduct of that, will be that you will also acknowledge your rebellious failure to obey your master, and your proud failure to submit to your owner, in how you have lived your life. Acknowledge your sin this night, and your need for the Savior from sin who has been sent for you.

And, finally, tonight, I invite you to receive the greatest of blessings from this baby in the manger. This is a blessing that the ox and donkey did not receive, but that all mankind is invited to receive from its divine Savior in human flesh.

Receive the forgiveness of all your sins before God, which Jesus earned and accomplished for you.

About 30 years after the events that we are recalling tonight, Jesus - now grown to full manhood - spoke these words to a certain individual: “Man, your sins are forgiven you.”

Some scribes and Pharisees who saw and heard this, did not like it. They said: “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

Now they were correct in saying that only God can forgive the sins that have been committed against God and his law. But they were not correct in rebuking Jesus on this basis, because - as Jesus himself said in response - “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.”

And this is why it is important for you to know that the baby of Bethlehem is more than a baby. When this baby grew up and died for your sins, it was God in human flesh who died for your sins.

When this baby, and who he grew up to be, forgives your sins today, it is God who is forgiving your sins today. And when God forgives your sins, your sins are forgiven.

As God was hidden yet truly present in the baby in the manger, so too is God truly present today, when the risen Savior absolves you through the voice of his ministers. As your divine master and owner could be seen with the eyes of faith in the stable in Bethlehem, so too can your divine master and owner, in faith, be seen and heard in the living and healing words of Christ that are spoken to you in the gospel:

Man, your sins are forgiven you. Woman, your sins are forgiven you.

On this holy night of Jesus’ birth, do not be like unbelieving Israel: “Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me. ... Israel does not know, my people do not understand.”

Instead, on this holy night of Jesus’ birth, be like the ox and the donkey: “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib.” Amen.

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

25 December 2015 - Christmas - Revelation 21:3-7

Please listen with me to these words from the 21st chapter of the Revelation to St. John, beginning at the 3rd verse.

St. John writes: And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son.”

So far the text.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

We might say that the birth of a baby gives everyone in that baby’s family a feeling that a new beginning has come - not just for the baby, but for the whole family.

A new joy, and a new optimism about the future, accompanies the arrival of a new baby. The whole family is, in a sense, rejuvenated, on the occasion of the arrival of a new member of the family.

In the family of God, something like that happens, whenever we have an opportunity to witness a baptism. When we see a new Christian beginning his or her life of discipleship, and when we hear the baptismal words spoken over that person, this gives our faith a boost.

Our faith is refreshed and renewed, when the faith of another is - in such a way - inaugurated and brought to life in our presence. And, according to the rhythm and discipline of the church year, something like that can also happen for us - and in us - every year at Christmas.

During the past year, our faith has been battered and attacked, bruised and beaten - from the inside as well as from the outside - by the onslaughts of the sinful flesh, the fallen world, and the devil and his minions. Through all of this, we have - to one degree or another - become tired in our souls, and spiritually discouraged.

And we are filled with regret on account of our moral failings, our compromises and lack of conviction, and our half-heartedness in the love and service we have owed others. We are filled with remorse over our many failures to speak and act when we should have spoken and acted; and over our many failures to be silent, and to defer to others, when we should have done that.

After another year of living in a sin-sick world - with an old sinful nature that still clings to us, and seems so often to drag us down - we may very well be feeling pretty old, and pretty worn out, at this point.

Perhaps we are troubled also by a frightening sense of distance between ourselves and God, that may have settled in due to our many human weaknesses. We can feel unaccepted and rejected by God, because we know that sin is in fact unacceptable to him. And we know that we are sinners.

But there is a message for us on Christmas that can and will lift us up from all of this, and cleanse us of all of this. There is a message for us on Christmas that will restore our hope, renew our joy, revitalize our faith, and give us - once again - a vivid awareness of God’s close, loving, and forgiving presence in our lives.

It’s the message that Joseph heard even before Christmas, when the angel told him: “Do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Jesus will save you from your sins. Jesus has saved you from your sins.

It’s the message that the shepherds heard while they watched their flocks on the night of Jesus’ birth: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

This is good news for you. In the city of David, a Savior was born for you.

The story of the birth of Jesus, when we hear that story once again today, and believe that story once again today, gives us a new birth of hope, joy, and faith - once again, today. When the Christmas Gospel enters into our minds and hearts, Jesus himself enters in, and does for us what he always does for his people when they embrace him, and when he embraces them.

Today’s text from the Book of Revelation testifies to what Jesus will do for us, and for all his elect, on Christmas Day, on every other day, and ultimately on the last day: “He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.”

And then, as Jesus himself speaks from the pages of that book, we hear him say: “Behold, I am making all things new. ... I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”

On a cosmic scale, Jesus will make all things truly and fully new in the new heavens and the new earth, at the end of this world. But before then, Jesus already makes all things new wherever he goes, and wherever he pours out his life-giving Spirit.

He makes all things new for you. Are you tired in your soul, and spiritually discouraged? The Son of God, your Lord and Redeemer, makes all things new.

Are you filled with regret and remorse, and do you feel old and worn out? Jesus Christ, who washes away all your sin, and justifies you with his righteousness, makes all things new.

The pure and fresh Babe of Bethlehem, vibrant and full of life, makes all things new for his people this day. But, not only on this day.

We understand the point that is often made, that every Sunday is like a little Easter. Every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection, and of the resurrected Lord who is with his church, as its living Head, in his Word and Sacraments.

But every Sunday, and indeed every day, can also be for us a little Christmas too. You don’t have to wait for December 25th to roll around each year, to regain the freshness and vitality of a renewed faith.

Whenever Jesus is with you - at any time, and on any day - he is with you as the one who makes all things new. His grace, when received, never leaves you alone and separated from God.

His pardon, when believed, never leaves you ashamed before God. His reconciliation, when embraced, never leaves you afraid of God.

When he speaks, everything is new again. The slate is wiped clean. Discouragement is vanquished.

There is a saying - designed, I suppose, to oppose the commercialism of Christmas - that goes like this: “Keep Christ in Christmas.” That’s a good saying, and we should follow it.

But I recently read another saying that I think also fits with what we have been talking about today: “Keep Christmas in Christ.”

At any time of the year, even in the most sober and somber seasons, you will never have an encounter with Christ that will not be an encounter with the newness and joy of his life - so vividly portrayed and made manifest to us in the Christmas Gospel. Every time you receive Christ, you will receive him as the one who gives you a new beginning in your faith, and a new beginning in your relationship with God.

When he comes to you in the words of his absolution - today and every day - he comes to make all things new. When he comes to you in the words of his Sacred Supper - with the glorified body and blood that he received from Mary, and that he sacrificed for the forgiveness of your sins - he comes to make all things new.

And so we sing his praises on this Christmas Day, and with a renewed and refreshed faith, we confess him together before the world:

HaiI, the heavenly Prince of Peace! Hail, the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings, Risen with healing in His wings.
Mild He leaves His throne on high, Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth; Born to give them second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the new-born King!” Amen.

The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

27 December 2015 - Christmas 1 - Luke 2:22-40

It is our custom, and the custom of American Lutherans in general, to sing the song of Simeon - the Nunc Dimittis - in conjunction with our reception of the Lord’s Supper. And this is a good thing, because there are many parallels between the encounter with God’s Son that Simeon had in the Temple - as reported in today’s text from St. Luke - and the encounter with God’s Son that we have in Holy Communion.

Regarding Simeon and what happened to him, in some extraordinary but very real way, a word from God came to Simeon on this occasion, revealing to him that the Messiah for whom he was waiting was now there with him, in the Temple. He could be touched and worshiped.

And so Simeon did touch him, and did worship him. He took the baby Jesus into his arms, and praised his Lord, declaring: “for my eyes have seen your salvation.”

Now, what had Simeon actually seen? With his physical eyes he had seen a small baby.

This baby, in his bodily appearance, would have looked like any other middle-eastern Jewish boy of his age. Contrary to much of the Christian art originating in the religious culture of northern Europe, Jesus did not have blue eyes and blonde hair.

So, he would not have stood out from other babies on the basis of any kind of unusual outward feature. But on the inside, this baby was indeed unusual.

On the inside - in, with, and under the humanity of Jesus - the eternal Son of God was there, in Simeon’s arms. Jesus, in his person, was and is God in human flesh. And Simeon saw this.

He did not just feel this, or think this. Rather, when his optic nerves delivered to his brain the image of the baby, God’s Word simultaneously testified to his brain that this baby was God’s Son; that this baby was God’s salvation.

The person of Jesus cannot be separated from his work. So, when Simeon saw who he was, he also saw what he would do, and what he would accomplish.

Everything that Jesus would do, would be an unfolding of who he was. Simeon saw the Lord’s salvation in that little baby.

He saw a lifetime of perfect obedience under the law of God. He saw the self-offering of a spotless sacrifice for human sin, to the justice of God.

He saw a resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God. And, he saw the sending out of apostles by the authority of God, to bring forgiveness and reconciliation to a world of rebellious yet now redeemed sinners - by means of baptizing and teaching, and accompanied by a pledge: I am with you, always.”

Simeon saw the Lord’s salvation. And in seeing it, he received it. The Lord’s salvation became his salvation. Jesus became his Savior.

Simeon did see all this, but he was not the only person capable of seeing it. He chanted: “for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.”

All nations, and all people within all nations, have access to Jesus, and are capable of seeing what Simeon saw in Jesus. What God would do to bring salvation to the world through his Son, he would do in the presence of the world.

To all who hear God’s Word, that Word is able to reveal who was really there in that baby, and what was really going on in the ministry of the man that baby would grow up to be. This is there for all to see. But, sadly, not all do see it.

On one occasion during his earthly ministry, as Jesus was explaining why he spoke to the people in parables, he said this: “This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.”

With few exceptions, the people who heard Jesus, did not really listen to Jesus. What the crowds took away from his ministry, was not that he was the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world; but that he was a miracle-worker who could be counted on to give them a free lunch, every day, if he were to push out the Romans, and set himself up as king.

So, they did not overtly reject him - at least not right away. They had a use for him.

But when they looked at him, they did not see what Simeon had seen - because they did not listen to the enlightening Word to which Simeon had listened.

Oh, they saw the miracles. They saw the carpenter from Nazareth preaching from town to town. But seeing, they did not see. They did not understand.

Do you see? Do you understand?

Do you see God’s salvation in the baby in Simeon’s arms? Do you see God’s salvation - your salvation - in the gospel of Christ crucified for sinners in general, and in the Holy Supper of Christ’s body and blood in particular?

If the idea of “seeing” is conceived of in a strictly physical manner, then of course none of us is able to see Jesus. But remember that most of those who could see Jesus, during his time on earth, did not really see him as Simeon saw him.

Something more was required then, and something more is required now - in addition to the functioning of the optic nerves within your eyes. The Word of God is required.

Optical illusions are interesting. They are drawn in such a way that they can be seen in two completely different ways, depending on your perspective, and on how the various angles and shapes in the picture are decoded by your eyes. Usually something is hidden inside the illusionary image, which is not noticed right away.

But then, once you have seen that hidden thing, and your eyes have decoded the lines, shapes, angles, and shading of the picture so as to be able to see it, you cannot thereafter un-see it. Every time you look at the picture after that, it’s the first thing you notice.

Jesus is like that. His gospel is like that. His Supper is like that.

The salvation of God, which is in Christ, has been prepared in the presence of all peoples. It’s right there, for anyone to see. But so many do not see it.

People are blinded by pride. “I don’t need anything from God. I don’t need anything from anyone.”

People are blinded by lust and greed. “I won’t believe in any God who will try to control me, and restrain me.”

People are blinded by pain and anger. “I cannot believe in a God who let that horrible thing happen to me, and didn’t prevent it.”

People are blinded by a recalcitrant and rebellious will. “I don’t want there to be a God, and I don’t want his salvation to be real: because believing in him would make my life too complicated; and would undo so much of what I have invested myself in.”

For one or more of these reasons, or maybe for another reason, are you blind, or partly blind, to Christ? Are you - with an impenitent defiance and rejection of God’s gift - refusing to open your eyes?

Or do you see? When you do see - as Simeon saw, by God’s grace and promise - everything will change. For one thing, you will no longer be afraid to die.

You will be able to pray what Simeon prayed: “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word.”

The sin that otherwise separates you from God, and causes you - with a deep-seated fear - not to want to deal with God, is taken away by Christ. And peace is given to you by Christ.

And the peace that prepares you for departing in death, also prepares you for staying here in life. Living on earth becomes something much better than it was, when what will happen after life on earth is no longer a fearful mystery.

The salvation that is in Jesus, and that we can see when we see Jesus in faith - by the light of God’s Word - is not just fire insurance for after we die. It is a source of hope and joy for every day in which we live.

It allows us to see and enjoy the goodness of God in places where we would otherwise miss it, and to live in the kind of confidence that prompted St. Paul to write:

“If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

The message of God’s forgiveness in Christ, and of eternal life for believers in Christ - in whatever way that message is delivered to us - has within it the power to open our eyes, so that we can see that Jesus is in fact right there in that gospel, coming to us, and abiding with us, through its soothing tones.

And in particular, the gospel message - declared by Christ himself - that is sung and spoken in the Lord’s Supper, has the power to reveal to our minds, that when we see the blessed bread and wine that are offered to us, we are also seeing the body and blood of Jesus Christ; and that when we, in penitent humility, partake of the blessed bread and wine, we are partaking of Christ himself, who comes to renew to us - in the most intimate of ways - the pardon and peace that were accomplished on the cross for us, by the offering of his body and the shedding of his blood.

And once you see this, by God’s grace, you can’t un-see it.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the King of Prussia - now a part of Germany - was a zealous member of the Reformed Church, which teaches that the true body and blood of Christ are not, and cannot be, in the bread and wine of Communion. The king decided to go ahead and misuse his political power, by forcibly joining the Reformed and Lutheran churches in his kingdom into one government-administered ecclesiastical structure.

But he underestimated the degree of opposition he would get from many of his Lutheran subjects. When he ordered all Lutheran pastors to use a distribution formula in their celebrations of Holy Communion that did not clearly confess the Real Presence of Christ’s body and blood in the blessed bread and wine, the faithful ones refused to do it.

When they were threatened with jail, they still refused. When they were thrown in jail - for the crime of refusing to abandon their call, and of refusing to weaken their confession of the salvation that they, by faith, could see in the Lord’s Supper, they stayed in jail - sometimes for years. They refused to deny what God had graciously let them see.

Finally the intrusive king died, and his son assumed the throne. His son was also Reformed, like the father had been.

But he thought his father had been a bit crazy to throw Lutheran pastors in jail just for being Lutheran pastors. And so he let them out, with the understanding that the most outspoken of them would leave the country.

And America was then enriched and blessed by their arrival; by the arrival of their congregations, which emigrated with them; and by the faithful testimony that they all gave to what the eyes of faith can indeed see, according to the Words of Christ, in the eucharistic miracle of his Supper.

At Redeemer, as God strengthens us in our weakness, we value the gift of Christ; we value the gift of Christ’s gospel; and within the gospel, we value the gift of Christ’s sacrament.

As the Lord preserves and guides us, we gather on the Lord’s Day, in this place, to hear and receive the gospel. And as we heed Jesus’ invitation to us, to celebrate his Supper “often,” on the Lord’s Day we are glad to have an opportunity, in this place, also to partake of the body and blood of our Savior.

We do these things, in response to what God has done for us, in the sending of his Son as a real human baby, to be our real human and divine Savior. We rejoice in these things, because of what we are able to see in them, as God has enabled us to see it.

We take hold of these things, wrap our hearts and minds around these things, and - with God’s help - will never let go of these things, because we can see God’s Son, and God’s salvation, in these things. And God saves us from sin and death, through what we see there.

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