4 December 2016 - Advent 2 - Matthew 3:1-12

Among the Jews of the first century, the ritual of baptism - that is, a ceremonial washing with water, to which religious blessings are connected - was not an unknown ritual. What is often described as “proselyte baptism” was administered by the Jews to a gentile, or to a gentile family, that wanted to convert to Judaism.

In their writings on this subject, the ancient rabbis specified that all members of a converting family - including infants - were to be baptized in this way. And the rabbis further described this ritual washing as the new “birth” of the converts.

Their first birth was as gentiles. Now they were said to be “born again” as Jews.

When John the Baptist began his ministry, this did elicit a lot of interest, and stimulate a lot of curiosity. The Jewish leaders did not find it odd that John was administering a baptism of some sort. They were used to that.

What was odd, however, was that John was administering this baptism to Jews. John was saying, in effect, that Jews who wanted to be truly prepared for the coming of the Messiah, should now think of themselves before God as if they were gentiles.

St. Matthew tells us in today’s Gospel that

“John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ ... Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”

And John explained:

“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.”

The people to whom he was saying this should not cling to ancestry, to tradition, or to any other external prop that would prevent them from a true inner preparation. Being Jewish, in itself, was not enough.

A genuine preparation, and a proper humility before God, would require a personal acknowledgment of sin, and a heartfelt repentance of sin. There would be no room for any presumptions about an inherited standing before God that ostensibly would not require the kind of repentance that is ordinarily demanded only of idolaters and pagans.

There would be no room for any pride - national, religious, or otherwise - when it comes to the individual’s standing before God, especially at this pivotal time in sacred history. The Messiah was not coming to congratulate the obedient and the faithful, but he was coming to seek and to save the lost.

A man who was not ready to admit that, without God’s grace, he as an individual would indeed be lost, was not ready for the coming of the Messiah.

Many among John the Baptist’s listeners resisted his words, and John could sense that they were resisting. Many of his listeners were not ready to give up the notion that being descendants of Abraham, gave them an automatic status of approval by the God of Abraham. And so John said to them:

“Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

And John spoke very pointedly to the personal and religious arrogance of these listeners:

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”

To this day, we continue to invite our Jewish friends, individually, to consider carefully the appeal of John the Baptist, and the claims of Jesus of Nazareth. We may be a bit more gentle in our wording, as compared to John’s sharp rhetoric, but the point is the same.

We implore them not to think that their cultural and religious identity as Jews exempts them from God’s personal demands, or from God’s personal gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation through the Son of his love - their Savior and ours.

But John’s message today applies also to us, and not just to our Jewish friends. The season of Advent is a good time for you to consider your standing before God.

What is the basis for your belief that you are ready to meet Jesus, as he comes to you now in his Word and Sacraments? What is the basis for your belief that you will be ready to meet Jesus when you are called from this world, or when Jesus returns visibly to this world?

Do you even have that belief? Or are you not sure if you are ready? Might you be thinking very seriously, as you look at yourself and your circumstances, that you are not ready?

Do not assume that you are ready for the coming of Christ because you were raised in a Christian family. Do not assume that you are ready for the coming of Christ because of your external religious affiliation, or because of your external participation in the liturgical and sacramental actions of the congregation.

Do not assume that you are ready because of your affiliation with an orthodox Lutheran church body - what C. F. W. Walther called the “true visible church on earth.”

Nothing that has any tinge of pride makes you ready for Christ’s coming - now or in the future. Nothing that has any tinge of religious self-satisfaction, spiritual self-sufficiency, or moral self-righteousness, makes you ready for Christ’s return. In fact, anything like that makes you unready, and unprepared for an encounter with God’s profound holiness.

As you stand before God, you cannot hide your own personal failures behind a curtain of a noble Christian heritage, or cloak your own doubts or unbelief with the faith of others - your spouse or your parents. You stand before God as an individual, with an individual conscience, and with individual accountability.

Nobody else can believe for you. You need to believe for yourself. You need to be prepared, yourself. Everyone, in his own heart and conscience, needs to grapple with the claims of God on his life.

It doesn’t matter if other people in my family, in my community, or in my nation are ready for an encounter with God in Christ. If I as an individual am not ready, then I as an individual am not ready.

God himself says, in the First Book of Samuel, that “the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” The Lord looks on my heart, and on yours. What does he see?

Does he see a heart that is at peace with him, filled with hope and confidence, and an inner assurance of God’s acceptance? Or does he see an unsettled heart, a troubled heart, a doubting heart, and a fearful heart?

Does he see a heart that gropes for false, superficial comfort in religious institutions, religious history, and religious affiliations, while never actually finding any comfort in those external things?

Dear friends, let us, all together, listen again to the words of John the Baptist: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Repent. To repent means to turn away from something, in your heart, mind and will; and to turn toward something else, in your heart, mind, and will.

Turn away from your sins: your sins of thought, word, and deed; your sins of commission: what you did that you should not have done; your sins of omission: what you did not do that you should have done.

Repudiate your sins, and hate your sins. They are killing you spiritually. Kill them, by repenting of them.

Turn away from all the sins you have ever committed. Turn away from any sin of the past - no matter how far in the past it is - if that sin is, or might be, a cause of continuing fear, shame, or doubt today.

Even if this sin has been absolved by the Lord already, the devil likes to dredge up old sins and remind us of them, so as to dampen our joy and confidence in God, and so as to diminish our preparedness for fellowship with God. This is the primary reason why our prayer of confession guides us to say:

“O almighty God, merciful Father, I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto thee all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended thee.”

So, turn away from your sins, old and new, past and present. And turn to Christ. Be turned to Christ, by the cleansing power of his forgiveness of all your sins, old and new, past and present.

Christ’s kingdom of grace was established through his atoning death, and his justifying resurrection - on your behalf, and for your benefit. By the Holy Spirit, you have been baptized into this kingdom, and made a citizen of it.

And this kingdom is at hand. It is right here, right now, coming down to you and enveloping you, as the mercy of God in Christ comes down to you, and envelopes you.

This is the kingdom of heaven, filling you with the hope of heaven. Your own heart and conscience are filled with this hope, because you as an individual have been regenerated by the Spirit of Life, and made to be a member of God’s family by the Spirit of Adoption.

God makes you ready for the coming of his Son Jesus Christ, by removing from you all that would cause you not to be ready. God makes you ready for the coming of his Son Jesus Christ by extracting you from all of your false securities, and by filling your soul with your true and genuine security - Jesus himself, and a God-given faith in the promises of Jesus Christ.

And as God makes you ready for Christ, God also sends Christ to you. Jesus comes to you and meets you, not to punish and destroy you with unquenchable fire, but to heal you and restore you.

Jesus comes to you in peace - in sermon and Supper - to give you peace, to renew to you the gift of his Spirit, to draw you to himself in love, and to lift you up with confidence into a new way of thinking, speaking, and living.

We each confess in the Small Catechism that Jesus Christ has redeemed, purchased and won me from all sins, “in order that I might be His own, live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness; even as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity.”

In this Advent season, as we prepare to meet Christ once again, this is most certainly true. In this Advent season, as we prepare to be brought once again into his heavenly kingdom, this is most certainly true.

On Jordan’s bank, the Baptist’s cry Announces that the Lord is nigh;
Come, then, and hearken, for he brings Glad tidings, from the King of kings.

Then cleansed be every Christian breast, And furnished for so great a Guest.
Yea, let us each our hearts prepare For Christ to come and enter there.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Amen.

11 December 2016 - Advent 3 - Matthew 11:2-15

“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

As recorded in today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, this was the question that John the Baptist sent several of his disciples to ask Jesus. There are at least a couple interpretations of why he did this.

John had been thrown into the dungeon of Herod Antipas, for rebuking Herod regarding his illicit relationship with his brother’s wife. Some believe that John’s own faith had been weakening under the strain and discouragement of this imprisonment, with its horrible conditions; and that his question arose from doubts that were arising within him.

Previously, of course, John had been very confident in identifying Jesus as the promised Messiah. He had unhesitatingly declared him to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and had identified him as the one who would baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit.

John had warned his hearers that when the Messiah came, he would come also for judgment. He said: “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.”

But now, perhaps, he was losing his former certainty that Jesus was this Messiah, and that Jesus was going to accomplish these things. It might have seemed to John that the decisive actions he hoped to see Jesus do, were not happening - at least not according to the pace and timetable he expected.

And so, if this is what was going on in John’s mind and heart, he would have been reaching out for some reassurance and clarification from Jesus. If his faith was weakening, he wanted it to be strong again, and centered on Christ and his promises again.

John would have wanted a fuller and clearer statement from Jesus that his preaching and ministry had not been in vain, and that his confidence in Jesus had not been misplaced.

John was a prophet, with the special mission and calling of a prophet. But John was also a mortal man, like us. The message of repentance, forgiveness, and preparedness that he was sent to proclaim to the crowds, was a message that he also needed to hear.

John was likewise aware of his own unworthiness in comparison with Christ. Remember how he said that he was “not worthy to stoop down and untie the Lord’s sandals”? In his human weakness, John was, therefore, capable of becoming discouraged and disheartened.

His doctrine concerning Christ, and concerning Christ’s Messianic mission, was, of course, God’s doctrine. This doctrine did not arise from John’s faith. And therefore this doctrine would not be discredited if John’s personal faith might weaken.

The content of his preaching, coming as it did from God, always remained true, regardless of who believed it, and regardless of how firmly anyone believed it.

Perhaps it had become difficult now for John to believe his own preaching - at least for a time. Perhaps he needed Jesus’ help to believe for himself, once again, the message he had proclaimed.

“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

Apart from this interpretation of what John the Baptist’s question meant, others see in this account an attempt on John’s part to give his disciples a fuller and clearer exposure to the message and ministry of Christ. This interpretation sees the question that was posed to Jesus, as something that John directed his disciples to ask for their benefit, and not for the purpose of alleviating his own doubts.

John may have anticipated that his death would occur before too much longer. He may therefore have wanted his disciples to know, for themselves, that when this happened, they should then become followers of Jesus.

John had said, with respect to Christ, “He must increase, but I much decrease.” So, he may have wanted to make sure that his disciples would take that to heart.

He may have wanted them to hear with their own ears the Lord’s identification of himself as the one about whom John had preached. The ministry of John the Baptist had always pointed to Jesus. It was therefore to Jesus that his followers must ultimately go.

John wanted that to happen. He didn’t want their devotion and loyalty to him to stand in the way of their developing relationship with their true Savior, who alone would die for their sins, and who would fill them with his own divine Spirit.

And once John was permanently removed from the earth by his impending execution, he certainly didn’t want his disciples to become so discouraged, or so jaded by the injustice of it, that they would lose interest in the important spiritual matters that both he and Jesus had been talking about.

This second interpretation is bolstered by the fact that John did not send his disciples to ask only on behalf of himself, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall I look for another?” Instead, he wanted them to include themselves in the query. “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

In the final analysis, John’s underlying motive for sending these men to Jesus, to ask him this question, cannot be decisively established. We really don’t know for sure why he did it.

Yet that may not be such a bad thing. Maybe St. Matthew, as he wrote this account by divine inspiration, intentionally wanted us to be a little uncertain about the reason why John sent his friends to make this inquiry of Jesus.

In that way, people like you and me can relate to the experience that John and his disciples had with Jesus, whether our circumstances involve doubts in our own faith, or whether our circumstances involve concerns about the faith of other people whom we care about. Or both.

There are many who have been deeply committed to Christ throughout their lives. But then something unexpected and deeply troubling comes along, which challenges the certainties and assurances of the past: a tragedy, a disappointment, a betrayal, an infirmity.

Or perhaps doubts arise from an inner spiritual crisis of some kind. The sinful nature, with its destructive enticements, is also always lurking in the shadows of our human existence, looking for opportunities to destroy faith, and to pull God’s children away from him.

In the darkness of human doubt and fear, it might begin to seem that Christ is not the loving Savior, protector, and friend whom he was previously thought to be. Emotionally, the religious answers that used to satisfy the mind and heart, now ring hollow for those who are tired and worn out by their inner struggles.

Maybe that’s the way John the Baptist was feeling. And maybe that’s the way some of you are feeling.

Perhaps you sense a need to ask Jesus, in your own way, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” In your human weakness, you too might need to be assured today that Jesus really is the Savior you have believed him to be.

As Christians, we also care about the faith and spiritual life of others. This is especially the case regarding the spiritual well-being of children and grandchildren, brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents.

Perhaps in the past, these loved ones did have what would be seen as a good beginning in their relationship with Christ. They had gone to Sunday School and attended church. They had been taught the faith, and had confessed Jesus as their Lord. They had been baptized and confirmed.

But now, for one reason or another, they might seem to be drifting away from God - or at least not to be moving forward in their Christian life, with a maturing and resilient faith. There could be a concern that they might lose their faith altogether, as they come under influences that are hostile to the Christian worldview, or as they are drawn away from their Savior by various unsavory allurements.

It’s often the case that when children grow up and leave home, they also leave the church. At a time in their lives when the moral and spiritual guidance of the Christian faith is most necessary, that is often when our children or grandchildren are least interested in what God has to say. The consequences of this can be tragic in the extreme.

And so, we might try to figure out some way to prompt the people we care about to get close to Jesus once again; to encourage them to approach Jesus, and to listen to what Jesus would say to them. Like John the Baptist with his beloved disciples, we might try to figure out some way to send our loved ones to the Lord, in effect to ask him, with an open mind and an open heart:

“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

Today, we cannot simply walk up to Jesus and talk to him, as was possible for the people who lived in the places where he was preaching, during the time of his earthly ministry. But he is accessible to us, and to our loved ones, in other ways - in non-spectacular yet truly marvelous ways.

On one occasion, Jesus said to his disciples: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” To be gathered as the church in the “name” of Jesus, is to be gathered around that by which Jesus makes himself known. And that, for us, is his Word.

Jesus says elsewhere: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” He also says: “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”

This mode of access to Jesus may not be as tangible as walking up to him and talking to him, as was done by John the Baptist’s disciples in today’s text. But it is a mode of access that is well-suited to the needs of Christ’s people today, after his ascension to the right hand of the majesty of God, because it makes him available, not just to a few individuals at a time, but to hundreds of millions of people, all around the world, simultaneously.

You can pray to Jesus anywhere, at any time, and be confident that he hears you, and cares about what you are asking him. And you can read and ponder the Scriptures anywhere, at any time, and be confident that Jesus will speak to your heart, mind, and conscience in his Word.

But the best place to be renewed in your faith - if your faith is wavering, or is under attack - is the gathering of Christ’s people around sermon and Supper, within the fellowship of his church.

We need each other. And together, as a congregation of weak yet hopeful believers in Christ, we need him. And we have him.

When his mandate, “Do this in remembrance of me,” is fulfilled among us, he himself comes among us under the form of bread and wine, to renew to us the gift of his Spirit and the forgiveness of our sins; and to re-instill in us a deep confidence and conviction that all of his promises are true, and will come to pass.

And this strengthening of our spiritual life takes place also through the other things that are going on as we gather in Christ’s name - things that are permeated by his Word, and that put his Word into us, as we speak it, sing it, listen to it, and meditate upon it.

On the Lord’s Day, in the Lord’s house - as we come to this place on our own initiative, for our own needs; or as we come to this place by the prompting of others, who are concerned about us - we all humbly ask Jesus:

“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

And in the gospel of God’s Son crucified and risen, through Word and Sacrament, we get an answer. We get the answer that John’s disciples got; and that John, through his disciples, got:

“The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”

Yes, Jesus did all these things. He was who he had claimed to be. He did what he was sent into the world to do.

And Jesus is still doing these things, and greater and deeper things. He is who he claims to be now.

Those whose minds have been darkened by the spiritual blindness of sin, are given the sight of faith in the light of Christ. Those whose consciences have been deadened to the voice of God by the spiritual deafness that sin brings, hear and follow the call of their Savior.

Those who have been hampered by sin from living out a purposeful and fruitful life, are rejuvenated by the indwelling of Christ, and receive a vocation of service and love by which Christ is glorified in them. Those whose souls have been scarred and disfigured by the leprosy of sin, are healed, and restored to spiritual health, by the touch of Christ’s pardon and peace, and by the washing of regeneration.

Where there is spiritual death, Jesus gently but powerfully speaks into us his divine life. Where there is spiritual impoverishment, Jesus gently but powerfully speaks into us the heavenly riches of his grace.

This is what Jesus is doing here. This is what Jesus is doing here for you, and for those you care about who are here with you.

The day of final judgment - about which John the Baptist accurately preached - will indeed come someday, according to the Lord’s own timetable. We await that day patiently, as the Lord helps us to be patient.

But we also await that day joyfully, because Jesus encourages us as we wait. He fortifies our faith as we wait. He brings us to ever greater spiritual maturity, understanding, wisdom, and commitment, as we wait.

“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

We shall not look for another. He is the one who came, who comes to us now, and who is to come. We are his. And as he has given himself to us, he is ours. Amen.

18 December 2016 - Advent 4 - Matthew 1:18-25

“Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife.” That’s the first thing the angel said to Joseph when he appeared to him in a dream - as described in today’s text from St. Matthew’s Gospel.

But why would Joseph have “feared” to take Mary as his wife? Well, let’s consider the context, and what was going on in Joseph’s life, and in his mind and heart, when the angel told him this.

Joseph was contemplating a divorce, or an annulment of his betrothal with Mary. She had been discovered to be with child, and Joseph certainly knew that he was not responsible. The only conceivable explanation - at least as far as Joseph could imagine at the time - was that Mary had cheated on him with another man.

Now, we can easily imagine the range of emotions that a person in Joseph’s situation would have experienced at a time like this. His feelings would likely have wavered back and forth between profound sadness and deep anger; between utter confusion and humiliating disgrace.

And fear would also be a part of this mix.

If he still loved Mary, in spite of everything that had happened and that he thought had happened; and if she not only declared to him that she had not actually done nothing wrong, but also pledged that she would never betray him after they were married, he may have considered going through with the marriage, even with the confusing scandal of her pregnancy.

But when he would have thought about it some more, fear may then have caused him to back away from the plan to marry her. Maybe he could forgive her for one act of unfaithfulness - as he perceived it at the time. But, he would be afraid that she would do it again, in spite of her promises.

And the fear of experiencing that kind of betrayal and embarrassment would be so strong, that he would ultimately back away from the idea. In this fear, then - this fear of being hurt again - he ultimately made the decision to back away from Mary, to divorce her, and to break off the relationship for good.

Another thing that Joseph would likely have been afraid of, is that if he had gone ahead and married Mary, his own personal reputation in his community would have been severely damaged. When it became known that Mary was pregnant before the time when she and Joseph were supposed to have started living together as husband and wife, everyone in the town would have looked at Joseph, to see what he would do.

If he broke off his engagement with Mary and repudiated her, that would show in their minds that he was not responsible for the out-of-wedlock pregnancy. And his reputation among them, as a God-fearing and moral man, would have remained intact.

But if he went ahead with the marriage, then this would be taken by the townspeople as a tacit admission that he was the one who had sinned with her, and that he was the father of the baby. In a Jewish culture that revered the Mosaic Law, and that honored those who obeyed that Law, Joseph would have been dishonored in the eyes of the community through a marriage with Mary - who herself was already dishonored.

And he would have been afraid of this. Most men don’t want to be publicly shamed among others even for wrong things that they have done. Joseph certainly would not want to be shamed in the eyes of his neighbors for something that he had not done.

So, this fearful pride, and this desire not to be looked down on by his friends and neighbors, would have been another reason why Joseph might have been unwilling to take Mary as his wife. This would have been another reason why he would instead resolve to divorce her quietly, and walk away from the whole situation.

Joseph was afraid of what would happen to him - in his own emotions, and in his standing with other people - if he did not divorce her. In his decision to end the betrothal, he was - at least in part - governed by that fear.

But in the midst of these fears - the fear of being hurt personally, and the fear of being embarrassed publicly - the angel came to Joseph in a dream, and in God’s name spoke to him: “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife.”

In effect, the angel is saying: Do not be governed by your fear, in the way you deal with this problem, and in the way you deal with your perception of what you think Mary has done.

Do not be governed by a desire for emotional self-preservation, by fearfully insulating yourself from the possibility of future pain and disappointment. Do not be governed by your pride, by fearfully guarding yourself from the possibility of future embarrassment.

Joseph, don’t let your decision of whether or not to marry this girl, be determined by fear. Instead, let it be determined by faith: faith in God’s word to you right now, that it is his will for you to go ahead and marry her, in spite of your fear.

How often are our decisions governed by fear, rather than by faith? None of us has ever been in exactly the same situation in which Joseph found himself.

But there have been plenty of times when we, in our own lives, have not done what God would have wanted us to do; or have not said what God would have wanted us to say, because of our fear of the possible negative consequences.

So many of our decisions are made on the basis of our desire to avoid emotional distress, or to avoid a lowering of the estimation that other people have of us. We want to be happy and secure, and we want to be accepted and well-thought-of.

We are not as concerned as we should be, that our decisions should be made on the basis of a desire to honor God and God’s calling in our lives, and from a desire to submit to God’s will for us, rather than on the basis of a fearful desire to keep ourselves safe - as we, in our human insecurity, would define safety.

But sometimes, God wants us to do things that might be a little scary - at least at first. Sometimes he calls us to do things that are different, and more daring and emotionally risky, than what we have done before.

Sometimes he sends us into relationships, and into vocations, where we will not necessarily feel safe and secure at the level of our human emotions. There are times when it is God’s will for us to go to places in life where we will lose our sense of security; where we will become vulnerable, and uncertain of our future.

When our general Christian calling would send us in such scary directions, or when our specific vocation in life would place potentially frightening obligations on us, we are nevertheless to obey the Lord’s will. We are not to second-guess the Lord’s wisdom.

God calls us, in faith, to follow where he leads. And if we do suffer, humanly speaking, for our faithfulness to him, so be it.

If we are humiliated in the eyes of the world because of our fulfilment of the duties that God has placed on us, that will just have to be the way it is.

If Jesus was willing to suffer and die on the cross in our place, and to be executed in the most humiliating of ways in a public crucifixion, who are we to complain if God permits seemingly undeserved emotional trials and physical dangers to come upon us?

God is God. We are not. He gets to decide such things, not us. As Job declares: “Though he slay me, I will hope in him.”

But let’s listen again to the angel’s encouragement to Joseph not to be fearful in his situation. And let’s listen also to the reason the angel gives, for why Joseph should not be afraid to do what God wants him to do:

“Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

When the angel indicates that the growing baby in Mary is actually divine - conceived by the Holy Spirit - we might think that this information would make Joseph even more afraid.

For a weak and frail sinful mortal, like Joseph, an encounter with the holy and eternal God would be even more frightening than the problem Joseph thought he was dealing with. And this information about who that baby really was would be frightening, if it were not contextualized in the way that the angel does contextualize it for Joseph.

God himself was coming among men - beginning with Joseph’s own little family - not in all of his terrifying glory, but hidden under the humble form of a flesh-and-blood human baby. And he was not coming - at least not yet - to judge the world, or to judge Joseph for his fear and lack of faith.

Jesus himself later said: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

In Jesus, God was coming among men - and into Joseph’s life - in forgiveness, to save his people from their sins. He was coming to save Joseph from his sins.

That’s what really took Joseph’s fear away. Yes, he did now know what God had called him to do - to go ahead and marry this girl Mary, to whom he was pledged. But Joseph’s assurance that God, in his mercy, was going to be right in the middle of all of it, every step of the way, gave him a peaceful confidence in the fulfilling of his divine vocation - a confidence that could not have come from any other source.

And so, Joseph did as God asked him to do - joyfully and eagerly - in faith, and not in fear. In faith, and not in fear, Joseph embraced his calling to be the husband of Mary, and the guardian of Jesus. He embraced this calling, because he knew that in Christ God had lovingly embraced him, and would take away his fears.

Mary would never betray him, but would be devoted and loyal to him for as long as he lived. And whether his neighbors thought ill of him, or not, no longer mattered to Joseph.

God’s Son was now a part of his life. That’s what mattered. The forgiveness and strength of God’s Son, and the hope for eternity that God’s Son gives, was now his, and would always be his.

Dear friends: The way in which God causes his Son Jesus to be a part of your life is, of course, different, in some significant ways, from the way in which God caused Jesus to be a part of Joseph’s life. But it is not different in every way.

What you and Joseph have in common is the pledge that God, in his mercy, is right there with you, in the middle of everything he has called you to be and to do. Jesus does not come to you in his uncloaked divine glory, either. Jesus comes into your life hidden in his gospel and sacraments.

And as you live in him by faith, he lives and abides in you. When Jesus speaks his words of hope and salvation to you, he thereby embeds himself in your life, and in your Christian vocation: to forgive your sins; to give you the fortitude you need to serve him and your neighbor as he has called you to do; and to be your companion, protector, and guide.

And by the gentle, sustaining power of his Spirit, he remains as your companion, protector, and guide, even in those areas of your life and calling that might otherwise frighten you.

According to the new nature that Christ gives to you in your baptism, and that Christ nurtures in you by the sacrament of his body and blood, you now do not turn back from your divine calling, in fear. Instead, according to your new nature, you press forward into your divine calling, in faith, as God helps you and leads you.

That confident faith is in a God who miraculously sent his Son into the womb of the virgin Mary, to save his people from their sins. That courageous faith is in a God who lovingly caused his Son to become a part of our humanity, to save us from our sins.

As you continue to wrestle with your human fears, and with temptations toward pride and unbelief, God does not say to you exactly what he sent the angel to say to Joseph. But what he does say to you in his Word has the same effect.

In view of the unique struggles of your own situation, whatever they might be; and with Fatherly sensitivity to whatever it is that is scary to you, God assures you that in Jesus he has come to save you from your sins.

He promises you, that through Jesus he is with you, and will remain with you - as he overcomes your fears, and as he leads you forward in faith.

“Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Amen.

24 December 2016 - Christmas Eve - Luke 2:1

“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.”

Important people do important things for important reasons.

Two-thousand years ago it was generally perceived that the most important person in the world was Caesar Augustus. He ruled over an empire that stretched from Britain to Egypt, from Armenia to Gibralter.

The Roman Empire, like all governments, needed to collect taxes. It was important that there be enough money to keep the army in the field, to build and maintain the public infrastructure, and to pay the salaries of government workers.

In their planning, the officials of the Roman government needed to know how much money they could expect to come in from the various regions of the empire. Therefore, it was important that a census of the population be taken from time to time.

It was the duty of Caesar Augustus, as the supreme leader of the empire, to make sure these things happened. And when Caesar decided that it was time for a census, the grinding administrative machinery of the empire was thereby set irreversibly in motion.

Important people do important things for important reasons.

This is a true statement, as far as it goes - that is, in terms of the affairs of this world that we perceive to be taking place around us.

But tonight, as we once again hear the familiar Christmas Gospel, we are reminded that in the bigger picture, from God’s perspective, there’s more to what is happening in this world than what meets the eye.

God is more important than the most important of men - and that includes Caesar Augustus. The things that God wants to happen are more important than the events that man sets in motion - and that includes the taxation of a massive empire.

The reasons God has for the things he does are more important than the purposes and plans of man - and that includes paying the expenses of the largest government in the world.

God, in his sovereignty, always brings about the fulfillment of all his plans. But in the mystery of his gracious will, he usually hides his works and his purposes in and under the works and purposes of men.

When God acts in this way, the people through whom he accomplishes his will usually have no idea that a plan bigger and more glorious than their own is being unfolded through the things they are doing.

In his important decree concerning a census for taxation, Caesar Augustus had no idea that God was working out a much more important plan, by means of his actions. God was using the census to accomplish something that Caesar never knew about, but which was of eternal significance.

Caesar, without knowing it, was simply an instrument in the hands of the Almighty. By means of Caesar’s imperial decree, God brought the mother of Jesus to the place where Jesus was supposed to be born - to be hailed by angels, and worshiped by shepherds.

As the Prophet Micah had declared centuries earlier: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.”

By means of Caesar’s plan to levy a tax on his subjects, God fulfilled the plan of the ages. For the salvation of the world, God became a part of the world, in the city of David the king.

For the redemption of humanity, and for the deliverance of humanity from the power and guilt of human sin, God in the person of his Son became a human being - a sinless human being - born of the virgin Mary in humility and obscurity.

Caesar had important reasons for what he did. God had much more important reasons for what Caesar did - reasons that were hidden from Caesar at the time, but that have been made known to us.

We read in the Prophet Isaiah: “The Lord of hosts has sworn: ‘As I have planned, so shall it be, and as I have purposed, so shall it stand...’”

God’s plans - hidden though they may be from the prying eyes and proud reason of man - always work toward one fundamental goal: the spreading of his kingdom to human hearts, and the eternal salvation of human souls.

That’s why Jesus was born. That’s why he was placed on a pathway in life that would lead him eventually to the cross.

The angel told the shepherds about the important thing that God had caused to happen, and he also told them the important reason why God had caused it to happen:

“And the angel said to them, ‘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.’”

Their own Savior from sin had been born. The divine-human Redeemer had become a part of the human story. God had made his entrance into the world, so that the world could be saved through him.

Important people do important things for important reasons. Or so they think.

Why are you here tonight, in this place? What chain of events has resulted in the fact that you are sitting where you are right now, listening to this message? What are the reasons for the events that have caused you to be here?

I suppose each of us would answer these questions in a different way. If we are honest, some of us might admit that our reason for being here is to please a spouse, or out of force of habit, or maybe for the sake of curiosity. Maybe some of us are here because we want to hear the special music, and sing the familiar carols.

But regardless of what your reasons for being here may be, God is the one who actually brought you here, by means of those various human influences. And God has his own very important reason for wanting you to be here.

He brought you here for the sake of your soul. He brought you here to forgive your sins by the cleansing power of his Word. God caused you to be here so that he can fill you with the regenerating grace of his Spirit.

In the midst of our celebration of the beginning of Christ’s earthly life, God wants to give your life a fresh and new beginning. In our rejoicing over Jesus’ human birth, God wants his Son, in a sense, to be born again in you, and to live in you, now and forever.

In the mystery of his love for you, your heavenly Father has caused a chain of events that reaches back for years - and even for a lifetime - to find its culmination in this moment, and in this place, where the message of Christ - your brother and your Savior - is preached into your ear, and imbedded into your mind and spirit.

And this is true every time you are brought into the presence of God’s Holy Word. God is the one who makes that happen: so that you can know and receive the salvation that he has prepared for you; and so that your heart can be transformed into a heart that loves him, by the power of his love for you.

And as St. Paul tells us, “we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

That’s why you’re here tonight. And that’s why Caesar issued his decree two-thousand years ago. Ultimately, it’s not because important people do important things for important reasons.

It’s because “God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” Amen.

25 December 2016 - Christmas Day - Luke 2:10-11

On the night when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the angel declared to the shepherds:

“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.”

During the Christmas season, nativity creches are often put on display in homes and in churches. We have one in the main hallway of our church. Figurines or statues of the animals and people who were at the stable on the night of Jesus’ birth are set up in these displays.

A donkey, a cow, and a sheep or two, are pretty much always included. Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds are also always represented.

Quite often, the wise men from the east, who brought gifts to the Christ-child, are also portrayed in these Christmas creches. Those who are familiar with the chronology of the Biblical events surrounding the birth and childhood of Jesus know, however, that the wise men were not there on the night when Jesus was born.

Probably about two years had passed between the birth of Christ, and the visit of the wise men. This is why the church, historically, has observed a separate festival that recalls the occasion of their visit.

The physical presence of the wise men with Jesus, is not a part of the story that is told on Christmas. It’s the story that is told on Epiphany.

So, in spite of the warm sentiment that may be attached to the imagery of the wise men coming to worship the baby Jesus as he lay in a manger, that really didn’t happen. The wise men should not actually be in a nativity scene.

In this sense, they are not a part of the Christmas story. But in another sense, they are.

When the wise men did finally come to kneel before the Son of God, they came from a distant land - from a non-Jewish land. They were Gentiles.

But they came to Bethlehem to worship the divine child who had been born to be a king for all nations, and to be the Savior for all people. And that’s what the angel said to the shepherds, 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.”

The good news of Jesus’ birth is good news for everyone - Jew and Gentile alike. The wise men, who were later drawn by the star to come in person to worship their Savior, were therefore already included, in this way, in the Christmas story.

They were not physically there yet. But they were already there in the mind and heart of God.

Their names were written “between the lines” of the message that the angel was sent from heaven to proclaim. “All the people” included them.

And, “all the people” includes you as well. A figurine or statue in your image has never been included in any nativity creche. But by means of the proclamation of the angel, you, too, are a part of the Christmas story.

The Christmas story is, of course, not about you. It is about Jesus. But it is about Jesus for you.

Jesus came to be the Savior for all people - because all people, trapped in the darkness and corruption of spiritual death, needed a Savior. And God loved those who needed a Savior so much as to send them the Savior they needed.

Jesus came to be your Savior - because you need a Savior, and because God loves you so much as to send you the Savior you need.

This is why the birth of Christ is “good news” for “all the people.” This is why the birth of Christ is good news for you.

Jesus came to redeem us all, and to buy us back from the power and guilt of sin, with the price of his own blood. He came to redeem you, and to claim you as his own.

He came to restore you to fellowship with God, through the forgiveness of your sins. By faith in the righteous and holy Babe of Bethlehem, you are now justified before God.

“For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God; and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” St. Paul tells us.

All of us, in ourselves, do fall short of the glory of God. But the glory of God was still proclaimed by the angels on that night, because Jesus, and all the promises connected with Jesus, do not fall short.

On the night of Christ’s birth, the world became a different kind of place than it had been. And the world will never be the same again.

It is now a world where God’s real but hidden glory is present through the enduring presence of his Son, who mystically abides with his people. It is now a world where God’s real but hidden grace is at work, to bestow forgiveness, and to create and strengthen faith, in the Word and Sacraments that his Son has entrusted to his church on earth.

It is now a world where God’s mercy is always available to everyone, through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

If anyone with a troubled conscience ever asks: “Is there a Savior for me, who can set my heart and mind at peace?” - the answer of the Christmas story is always “Yes!”

If anyone, in fear and doubt, ever asks: “Is there a Savior for me, who can assure me that God knows about me, and cares about me?” - the answer of the Christmas story is always “Yes!”

If your conscience is telling you that you need the Lord’s mercy; and if you know that your sins have created a barrier between you and God that needs to be broken down, then be of good cheer! God, in his infinite compassion, was thinking about you, when he sent his Son to this earth.

If you sense today that you are distant from God, and alienated from him; then rejoice in the good news that is proclaimed to you! You have been redeemed by Christ. And you are acceptable to God through Christ, as his forgiveness embraces you.

The Savior who was born in Bethlehem, was born to live a perfect life for you; and then to offer that life, in sacrifice to God, for you. He was born to win you back to God from the clutches of sin, death, and the devil; and to restore your fellowship with God.

Your sins are forgiven in Christ. You are clean, and God is at peace with you.

When the angel spoke to the shepherds of the “Savior” who had been born, all of these things were included in what he said. All of this is a part of what it means for Jesus to be someone who saves people from the misery and hopelessness of an existence without God.

And when the angel spoke to the shepherds of the good news of this salvation that would go forth to “all the people,” you were included in what he said. “All the people” includes you: whoever you are, whatever you have done, and wherever you are in your relationship with God right now.

You were not physically there 2,000 years ago, on the night Jesus was born in Bethlehem. As with the wise men, you were not a part of the Christmas story in that way.

But in God’s mind and heart, you were there. You were and are included in the angel’s proclamation.

In this way, you are in the Christmas story. And in this way, the Christmas story, today, is in you.

“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.” Amen.