SERMONS - DECEMBER 2017
3 December 2017 - Advent 1 - Psalm 118:26
Today we are entering into the season of Advent. The word “advent” comes from the Latin language, and means “coming.” It refers to the coming of Christ.
The Gradual for the Season of Advent includes these words from Psalm 118: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” The crowd on the first Palm Sunday, as the Gospels report the events of that day, also sang those words. And in our Communion Liturgy, we too sing them.
The phrase “he who comes” in our English versions of Psalm 118 and the Gospels, is a translation of just one word in the original Hebrew and Greek: “bo” in Hebrew; “erchomai” in Greek.
The “coming” of Jesus is not incidental to who he is as the incarnate Son of God. We would not say that it doesn’t really matter whether he comes, or doesn’t come, as far as his status as the Messiah is concerned. It matters a great deal.
Jesus doesn’t just exist in a stationary position, still and unmoving. In his office and calling as the Christ of God, he is always the coming one. He is always “on the move,” as it were, toward us.
The God of Israel in general, is a God who comes to humanity. This is an important point, because the imagined gods of various humanly-devised religions are not gods who are thought to “come” to their devotees in such a way.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that God sent the angel Michael to earth, to be humanity’s Savior. God himself did not come.
Islam teaches that God sent the prophet Muhammad into the world, to teach people how to be submissive to his authority. God himself did not come.
Much of the popular spirituality of our time doesn’t conceive of a God who comes to us, either. Rather, it is we who search for God, and who rise up to God, and who come to God.
But the only God who actually exists, is not a God who stays in place, waiting for us to come to him. He is not a God who limits himself to sending intermediaries to us, while he remains remote and distant.
The God of Israel comes to us. And Jesus, as the Son of God and the son of David, comes to us.
But the question of whether God, in effect, stays where he is, or comes to us, is not the only question to be asked. We also need to ask why he is coming.
What is the purpose of his movement toward us? What is he going to do when he gets here?
The Tim Burton movie “Mars Attacks” is a humorous and silly film. But even with its silliness, it can teach us a couple things.
In the film, after the Martians had arrived at the earth, but while they were still in orbit, the somewhat spacey “New Age” character “Barbara,” played by Annette Bening, was excited and gleeful over their appearance. She exclaimed, “the Martians heard our global common call for help. ... I think they’ve come to show us the way.”
In her naivete, she could not imagine that these extraterrestrial visitors had actually come to bring destruction and death. But if you’ve ever seen this film, you know how wrong she was.
In regard to the coming of God - which is reality, and not the stuff of comedic science fiction movies - should we be like the “Barbara” character, and simply assume that the Lord’s various comings among us will always be pleasant and happy occasions for all concerned? When the Lord appeared to Moses in the burning bush, he said this:
“I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. ... I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
This coming of God to the people of Israel would be a good thing - for the people of Israel. God was coming to deliver them from slavery in Egypt, and to bring them to their own country.
But what would the Lord’s coming be like for the Egyptians, who would suffer from many plagues, and whose army would be drowned in the sea, before this was all over? And what would the Lord’s coming be like for the Canaanites, who were then living in the promised land, and who at God’s command would be either killed or expelled when the Israelites entered that land?
As you consider the various ways in which God may come to you, will you encounter him in the way that the Israelites encountered him, to your blessing and salvation? Or will you encounter him in the way that the Egyptians and Canaanites encountered him, to your judgment and destruction?
Sometimes God comes to bring his salvation and deliverance. And sometimes he doesn’t. The Prophet Isaiah says:
“For behold, the Lord is coming out from his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity, and the earth will disclose the blood shed on it, and will no more cover its slain.”
The theme of Jesus “coming” to the world, and of his coming to us, is a recurring theme in Scripture. His comings are repeated, deepened, and compounded, as the sequence of his comings progressively moves forward to his final coming again on the Last Day, to judge the living and the dead.
In the season of Advent - serving as it does as a preparation for Christmas - we think chiefly of Christ’s first coming, in Bethlehem. The eternal Son of the Father - the Second Person of the Holy Trinity - came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man.
But during this season we also think of the other comings of Christ: his past and future comings, in history and at the end of history; and his comings among us now, in his law and in his gospel. And we say now, as the church will say for as long as this world endures: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Jesus is indeed blessed as he comes. He is blessed by his Father in heaven, as he fulfills his Father’s will on earth. And he is blessed, and praised, by those who in faith receive him into their midst.
But does this blessed one come so that you too will be blessed through him? Or does he come to curse and punish you?
It is not simply a rhetorical question that we ask, when we sing the hymn, “O Lord, how shall I meet thee, how welcome thee aright?” How indeed?
When Jesus was on trial, he said to Pontius Pilate: “For this purpose I was born, and for this purpose I have come into the world - to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”
And the truthful voice of Christ is saying to you right now: “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Are you listening? Are you repenting?
If you admit that you are a sinner - if you look around yourself, and see the people you have hurt; if you consider the promises you have broken, and the obligations you have neglected - then you are partly ready to meet Christ, as he comes to you.
But the Lord has not come just to make sinners admit that they are sinners, perhaps with an indifferent shrug of the shoulders. As Jesus says, he has come to call sinners “to repentance.” Jesus comes to you, to call you to regret your sins, to renounce your sins, and to turn away from your sins.
Now, if you do not heed his voice and repent, that doesn’t mean he will not come. He will still come. That’s what the God of Israel does. He comes.
But he will come to judge, and not to pardon. He will come to condemn, and not to save. And so, please do listen to him.
And listen to what his beloved disciple John writes in his First Epistle. Listen now, during Advent. And listen always, in all times and seasons:
“If we say we have fellowship with [God] while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Jesus himself says: “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.” He also says - of himself - that “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
If you confess your sins, Jesus comes to you in the name of the Lord to forgive your sins, and to cleanse you from all unrighteousness. He comes in his liberating and life-giving Word.
He comes in the Sacrament of his body and blood, given and shed for the remission of sins. And when he comes, you welcome him: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
He comes, and he comes again. And when he comes, you are clean. Your peace and fellowship with God is renewed and restored.
Blessed is he who comes, to make you blessed: to set you free from bondage to sin, and from the devil’s captivity. Blessed is he who comes, to bless you with the promise of a new homeland: an eternal dwelling place with God in the heavens.
Blessed is he who comes to live and abide with you now, as your companion and friend; your teacher and guide; your guardian and protector. Jesus says, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
He came, and he comes now, that you may have life in the midst of death; hope in the midst of despair; light in the midst of darkness.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Amen.
10 December 2017 - Advent 2 - Isaiah 40:1-11
There is something inside every human being that gives him or her a desire to live, and to avoid death for as long as possible. The quest for immortality is one of the recurring themes of the human imagination.
It is reflected in history. In the sixteenth century, Ponce de Leon engaged in a serious search for the mythical fountain of youth, which he thought might be in Florida. The quest for immortality has also been an oft-repeated subject dealt with in science fiction books and movies.
All of this resonates with the deep human instinct to stay alive. That’s why people run away from mortal danger.
That’s why people who are drowning or suffocating struggle for air. That’s why those who are dying, on the battlefield or in a bed, often cry out in anguish and fear when they know that the end of their bodily life is at hand.
And even when people do acquiesce to the fact that they will have to die someday, they still try to put that inevitability off for as long as they can. Huge amounts of money and effort are invested in medical research and medical treatment, so that many diseases that used to kill people, today no longer do so, and people do live longer.
That’s not a bad thing. But even with the best of medical science, people do not live forever.
That being the case, people very often try to achieve at least a symbolic kind of “immortality,” through leaving a mark of influence on other people, on institutions, or on the larger society, that will endure beyond their mortal lives. Authors and composers hope that people will still be reading their books, and listening to and performing their music, after they have died.
Artists hope that people will still be admiring their paintings and sculptures after they have departed from this life. And how often do we hear about the “legacy” that a president or political leader wants to leave - in the country and in the world - especially as his time in office is winding down?
And who does not find some satisfaction is the thought that after I have passed away, my existence as a human being will not be forgotten, because a monument will be erected in my honor; a plaque on the wall will bear my name; or a street, a building, or a ship will be named after me?
In today’s Old Testament lesson, through the Prophet Isaiah, God has something to say to all of this - to all of these fears and insecurities; to all of these proud aspirations and desperate efforts. And as you, too, in your own way, share in these fears and insecurities; and in your own life imitate these aspirations and efforts, God has something to say also to you:
“All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass.”
When is the last time someone told you that you are like grass - here today, gone and forgotten tomorrow? That would be taken as an insult, if another human being told you this.
But when God tells you this, you need to listen. And you need to understand why this is so.
Adam, our earliest ancestor, was created to live forever. He was given ongoing access to the tree of life, which would continually rejuvenate and preserve his life and health.
But Adam was also warned by the Lord that if he ever ate from a certain forbidden tree - the tree of the knowledge of good and evil - he would die. We know what happened. He ate from this tree, and he died.
In him, and in his death, we, too, died. And because of him, we die now. We all die.
The wages of sin is death, as St. Paul soberly teaches. The wages of Adam’s sin is human death - human suffering, human disease, human mortality. The wages of your sin - your own willful concurrence in your ancestor’s rebellion and disobedience - is your own death.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way. But it is that way. Humanity was not supposed to be like grass - fading and withering, dying and perishing, gone and forgotten after only a few decades of toil and struggle on this earth.
But humanity is like grass. You, as a child of Adam, in your sinful nature, are grass. And nothing you do - none of your immortality projects - will change that.
Someday your heart will stop, and your lungs will be emptied of breath. Your flesh will rot, and your bones will disintegrate. And, your monuments will crumble, your books will gather dust, your music will go silent, and your name will be forgotten in this world.
Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away;
they fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day.
We go on to read in Isaiah: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.”
Unlike fallen human nature, the Word of God will never falter or fail. God’s Word will never perish, crumble, or come to an end.
It might almost seem that in this passage, God is cruelly amplifying our misery, “rubbing in” our mortality and pushing our faces in it. But that’s not why God presents this contrast, between the death of sinful human existence, and the life of his eternal truth.
God’s Word is true and alive forever not just in itself, or for itself, but God’s Word is true and alive for you. And when his Word - his life-giving message of regeneration and resurrection - touches you, enters you, and fills you, it makes you alive forever. You become immortal, not of yourself, or from your own proud designs, but in God.
In particular, when God’s Word connects your mind, heart, and soul to Christ - the divine Word made flesh, through whose death and resurrection the world has been reconciled to God - you become reconciled to God personally. And in Christ you become alive personally.
Jesus once said: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”
Indeed, the whole thought expressed by St. Paul is this: “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
And St. Paul also writes these words, to Timothy:
“God...saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”
In the passage from Isaiah that we have been pondering, the Lord goes on to say:
“Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!”
In the prophetic poetry of the Old Testament, “Mount Zion,” and the holy city “Jerusalem,” generally represent the Messianic church that is to come. In Christ, this holy community, and dwelling place of the Lord, has been established. And we have been baptized into it.
And it is this church - this confessing and worshiping body and bride of Jesus Christ, indwelt by the Spirit of Jesus Christ - that God here addresses, and exhorts to be the herald of the good news that he wants the whole fallen world to hear.
It is not just the ministers of the church who proclaim the reality of Christ and his life, to a dead and dying world. The church as a whole - in what we together sing and pray, declare and share - bears witness to the Word of God, and to the hope that God’s Word brings to those who believe it.
The church, as it proclaims the message of the life and immortality that God gives through his Son, thereby offers true comfort to those who fear death, and who fear what comes on the other side of death.
The conscience does correctly impress upon people who listen to their conscience, that what they should expect is divine judgment, on account of their sins. But the inviting message that the church proclaims to those whom it thereby seeks to draw to itself - which is the message that the church has itself first received from God - is a message of pardon, forgiveness, and justification in Christ.
When God’s Word of peace envelopes you, and soothes your conscience, the judgment that is deserved, will not be the judgment that is pronounced and poured out. The death that is deserved, will not be the death that is experienced. As we read in Isaiah:
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”
The wages of sin is death. But when the sin is gone, washed away by the blood of the Lamb, and absolved away by the atonement of Christ, then the death - the deeper death - is also gone.
And those traces of death that do remain, and that even Christians still taste at the end of their earthly life, will eventually be undone and vanquished in the general resurrection, of which the risen Christ is the firstfruits; and in the new heavens and the new earth that God will establish for his saints, where only righteousness will dwell.
The crucified Savior whose coming is anticipated in the season of Advent, is the Savior who comes to bring life out of death. The risen Savior who comes here and now, whenever the Word of God comes here and now, is the Savior who offers this life to you, in the midst of your death.
This life - this immortality - cannot be known unless you know him. But when you do know him, through his ever-standing Word, you know this life. Jesus says:
“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”
Our God, our Help in ages past, our Hope for years to come,
be Thou our Guide while life shall last, and our eternal Home!
“All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” Amen.
12 December 2017 - Wednesday in Advent 2 - Psalm 2
Our text is Psalm 2, which we have already sung, especially verse 7: “I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you.’”
Advent is a season in which we reflect upon the coming of Jesus. In Psalm 2, by way of prophecy, two significant aspects of the coming of Christ are described, and are impressed upon us.
Regarding the first that we will consider, Christ speaks these words, in the first person, through the lips of his ancestor David:
“I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.’”
Israelite kings were sometimes thought of as “sons” of the God of Israel. In some ways, Psalm 2 can also be applied to David, to Solomon, or to other rulers over the nation. But it points ultimately to something else, and to someone else.
The phrase “Today I have begotten you” cannot really be said by God, in the most strict and literal sense, of any merely human king.
The Epistle to the Hebrews teaches us that “Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you’.” And while the territory that David and Solomon controlled during their reigns was significant, they did not rule to “the ends of the earth.”
From within the eternal “today” of God’s infinite and timeless existence, before all worlds and aeons, the First Person of the Holy Trinity says to the Second Person of the Holy Trinity: “I have begotten you.” This divinely-begotten king, who in his humanity is indeed an heir and son of David, is also more than this.
Much more. He is, from eternity, God of God, Light of Light, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father. And he comes.
He comes to this earth from his heavenly glory. He comes into the human race and becomes our brother according to the flesh. He comes into the timeline of human history, and in real history he does what only God can do. He dies for the sins of the whole world, and rises again by his divine power.
St. Paul preaches about this coming in a sermon recorded in the Books of Acts:
“We bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the Second Psalm, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you.’ ... Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you.”
But before Jesus forgives sins, he exposes and condemns sins. And that’s the second aspect of the coming of Christ that Psalm 2 touches on.
Humanity’s inherited sinfulness does not just cause us, in our natural state, to be separated from God, and spiritually dead. We are also by nature active opponents of God, at enmity with him, rebelling against him, and defying him. According to our Adamic sinful flesh, we exult in our own proud will; and in a selfish desire to be the god of our own lives, and the master of our own destinies.
Also according to this inborn sinful condition, we do not truly respect or admire Jesus. Deep down - in the darkest recesses of our twisted old nature - we despise him and what he stands for.
The true God - the one who made us - notices this. And he does not like this, or tolerate this. And so we read in Psalm 2:
“Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.’”
“He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, ‘As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.’”
Believing in a God of wrath against evil and wickedness - including the evil and wickedness that are within us - is not popular today. But God laughs at humanity’s popular religions and self-made spiritualities. And he derides the indulgent and non-threatening false gods that fallen humanity has manufactured for itself.
The coming of Christ - at Advent and always - includes a coming for judgment of all this. And it is a coming for judgment of us - of you and me - insofar as we, too, turn away from the goodness of God, rage against his demands, plot against his plans, and resist his authority over us.
This is what we are doing, every time we do what we know is forbidden, or refuse to do what we know is commanded.
And so, Psalm 2 goes on to describe what Christ as divine judge will do when he comes into the sinful world that we inhabit - and into the sinful lives that we lead. The Psalm quotes God the Father speaking these words to his Son:
“Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
The Epistle to the Hebrews expands on these warnings:
“We know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
The weight of the law does crush us, and convict us, because we have sinned against the Lord, and deserve his punishment. But a warning of divine punishment at the hands of the Lord’s Anointed is not the last thing that God wants to tell us through Psalm 2.
The Psalm concludes with an invitation. And it is an invitation that is directed also to you and me, as we stand guilty before God; but as we also yearn to be delivered from our guilt, to have a clear conscience before God, and to be restored to our fellowship with God:
“Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”
In one of the liturgical prayers of confession that is commonly used among us, we say:
“Almighty God, our Maker and Redeemer, we poor sinners confess unto you that we are by nature sinful and unclean, and that we have sinned against you by thought, word, and deed. Therefore we flee for refuge to your infinite mercy, seeking and imploring your grace for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
So, we acknowledge that we have sinned against God, and have thereby kindled his wrath. And we flee from this wrath, for protection and help.
But we do not flee from God. We flee back to God. In Christ, and because of the death and resurrection of Christ for our salvation, we flee from God’s wrath, to God’s mercy; from God’s condemnation, to God’s justification in his Son.
We flee from the one whom we have offended by our sins, to the one who has lovingly atoned for our sins. We take refuge in him, and in his promises of peace and pardon - in the season of Advent, and in every time and season.
We humbly rejoice to hear the absolving announcement that our sins are washed away and will not be held against us. And with fear and reverence we do indeed “kiss the Son,” when the Son comes to us in the sacrament of his body and blood, and mystically unites himself to us.
In his Epistle to the Colossians, St. Paul comforts us in our penitence: “And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.”
In his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul comforts us in our humility: “If while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.”
The Epistle to the Hebrews correctly states: “We know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay.’” But in faith we also know him who says today:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only 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. Whoever believes in him is not condemned.”
And so we sing and pray:
O come, thou Key of David, come, And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high, And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel. Amen.
17 December 2017 - Advent 3 - Isaiah 61:1-4
When I lived in Ukraine, I noticed that people there were much less likely to throw away something that was old and broken, in comparison to people in America. For Americans, if it’s broken, we replace it. Indeed, it is often more expensive to repair an appliance that has stopped working, or to fix a broken-down automobile, than just to go out and buy another one.
But in Ukraine, where money was in shorter supply for most families, they found ways to fix old things - old appliances, old automobiles - and keep them going. They were not always clamoring for something new.
They stuck with what was old and familiar. And if what was old and familiar wasn’t working any more, they made it work.
Sometimes the Bible does use the imagery of something “new” being better than something “old.” St. Paul writes in his First Epistle to the Corinthians: “Cleanse out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.”
In his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, he says this: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
But at other times the Scriptures present the message of salvation to us in terms of repairing, restoring, and reclaiming something old, and not replacing it with something new. One of the Bible’s names for God is “Ancient of Days.” And God’s ancient, revealed truth does not change.
Through the Prophet Jeremiah, the Lord accordingly says: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.”
And in today’s reading from Isaiah, where we are told of the Messianic age, and of what will happen among the people of God when the Messiah comes, we hear these words: “They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.”
The Season of Advent marks for us a new beginning of a new church year. As a worshiping and learning congregation we are now beginning to hear the story of God and his salvation all over again.
But even though the church year is new, the story that we are telling and hearing once again is not new. The gospel that is preached and heard among us is valuable and precious to us precisely because it is the old gospel that we have always known. We are not looking for a new doctrine of God and of salvation, or for a new code of morality - or at least we should not be.
This past year has been an important anniversary year for us. Five-hundred years ago the Lutheran Reformation began.
The ancient story of God, and of God’s salvation in Christ, had, in a sense, become “broken” in the Middle Ages. That story needed to be “repaired,” as it were, and re-calibrated according to the divine rule and norm of Holy Scripture: so that the message of God’s mercy and forgiveness in his Son would once again have its proper, central place in the teaching and practice of the church; and so that penitent sinners would be directed to the death and resurrection of Jesus for their certainty of God’s acceptance, and not to their penances and works.
By the grace of God, the Biblical gospel of Christ, and the preaching of repentance and forgiveness of sins that Christ commanded for his church, have been preserved among us. We are glad that we have a gospel to believe.
But have you believed it? During the past year, has your faith remained fixed on Christ and his Word? Have you honored God in the way that you have lived, and in the priorities you have set and followed?
As you reflect on your spiritual state, and examine what is in your soul, can you honestly say that everything is as it should be? Or to one extent or another, and to one degree or another, do you see “ruin” and “devastation,” where you should see piety and faithfulness, humble devotion to the Lord, and selfless compassion for your needy neighbor?
What St. Paul writes in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians can and should be applied also to us, as we ponder the condition of our hearts:
“Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? - unless indeed you fail to meet the test!”
And maybe what Jesus says to the church at Ephesus, in the Book of Revelation, he is saying to you and me, too:
“I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.”
We don’t want a new faith, in a new Savior. We want our old faith back. But because of the weakness of our flesh, and through our many sins of thought, word, and deed, we have damaged our faith.
Our faith needs to be repaired, restored, and reclaimed. It needs to be refocused and renewed.
At this new beginning of a new church year, who will do this for us? Who will help us?
In today’s lesson from Isaiah, we hear the voice of someone who can do this for us. We hear the voice of someone who will help us:
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion – to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.”
It is Jesus who is prophetically speaking here. As the Messiah, he was anointed by his Father with the Holy Spirit, to bring the good news of God’s favor to all who were around him. As Jesus walked the highways of Judea and the byways of Galilee, he bound up the hearts of hurting people, with words of hope.
He gladdened the hearts of those who mourned, with words of comfort. He liberated the minds and hearts of those who had been enslaved by the power of sin and death, with words of redemption.
As a result of Jesus’ life-giving and faith-renewing ministry - and especially as a consequence of his atoning death for the sins of the world, and his glorious resurrection-victory over death - those who were touched and transformed by his words, and who were brought together by his Spirit to be his holy people and his church, did indeed build up the ancient ruins, raise up the former devastations, and repair the ruined cities.
Jesus did this, through them and for them. And Jesus does this today, through us, and for us. The words of hope, comfort, and redemption that Jesus spoke, he still speaks.
People who don’t go to church are often curious about why people like us do. They don’t really get what goes on here.
But extraordinary and supernatural things happen in this place. And that’s what draws us to this place.
The unchanging story of Jesus is told here. Jesus himself speaks here. He baptizes and absolves. He consecrates and blesses.
And when he speaks - and when people listen to his words, and absorb them - broken hearts and broken relationships are healed. Grieving minds are filled with joy.
Penitent sinners are forgiven and justified - that is, guilt before God is removed, and the righteousness of Christ is bestowed in its place. And the ancient ruins, the former devastations, and the ruined cities are built up, raised up, and repaired.
What you lost - in your relationship with God - you get back. What had crumbled and collapsed is rebuilt.
What had been stained and soiled through sin and iniquity, is washed clean by the blood of the lamb. What had been dried up and hardened like a potsherd, is rejuvenated and revived by the water of life that Christ pours out upon you and into you.
All of this is a part of what we appreciate about our Savior’s unchanging patience and dependability, as we reflect on what the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us:
“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings.”
When we are weak, he is strong. When we fluctuate and waver, and are confused and unreliable, he remains firm and constant, and is an ever-present help in trouble.
The people of Athens were not being complimented in the Book of Acts, when St. Luke said of them that “all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”
Do not imitate these people. Instead, imitate those who soberly pray, in the words of this hymn:
The haughty spirits, Lord, restrain, Who over Thy Church with might would reign
And always set forth something new, Devised to change Thy doctrine true.
Oh, keep us in Thy Word, we pray; The guile and rage of Satan stay!
Oh, may Thy mercy never cease! Give concord, patience, courage, peace.
And, imitate those who celebrate the goodness and faithfulness of God, in the words of this hymn:
I love to tell the story, for those who know it best
Seem hungering and thirsting to hear it, like the rest.
And when, in scenes of glory, I sing the new, new song,
‘Twill be the old, old story that I have loved so long. Amen.
24 December 2017 - Advent 4 - Luke 1:26-38
Today’s Gospel from St. Luke begins with this sentence: “In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.”
The reference to “the sixth month” is not a reference to the month of June - or to whatever the sixth month would have been in the Jewish calendar. Rather, it means the sixth month after the earlier visit of the angel Gabriel to Zechariah the priest, when Zechariah was told: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.”
As we know, the baby in that story grew up to be John the Baptist. There are some similarities between this announcement to Zechariah, and the announcement that Mary received in today’s text. In both cases Gabriel was sent from heaven, to foretell a miraculous birth.
Of course, John was not conceived without a human father, as Jesus was. But his conception was nevertheless miraculous, since, as we are told, his mother Elizabeth was barren, and both she and her husband Zechariah were advanced in age.
The recipient of each announcement also hesitated to believe it right away. Zechariah said, “How shall I know this?” And Mary said, “How will this be?”
One major difference between these two accounts, however, is that Zechariah was punished with temporary muteness because of his lack of faith. But Mary was not punished for her questioning of the angel. Why was this?
In the case of Zechariah, the angel Gabriel said to him: “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. ... Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.’”
“And the angel answered him, ‘I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.’”
In Mary’s case, the conversation went like this: Gabriel said to her, “‘you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.’ ...”
“And Mary said to the angel, ‘How will this be, since I am a virgin?’ And the angel answered her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy – the Son of God.’”
Why was Mary not punished or chastised for her questioning of what the angel had said, as Zechariah was? What was the difference between her hesitancy in accepting Gabriel’s message to her about the miraculous conception of her son, and Zechariah’s hesitancy in believing Gabriel’s message to him about the miraculous conception of his son?
Well, this is the difference: In the case of Zechariah, the angel had told him not only that God was giving him a son, but he had also told him the means by which God was going to do this. He said, “your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.” In other words, John the Baptist would be conceived by means of the marital union of Zechariah and Elizabeth.
A special intervention by God was necessary, of course, since Elizabeth was too old to have a baby without such divine intervention. But the mechanism that God was going to use, was the procreative mechanism of the husband-wife relationship that Zechariah and Elizabeth shared.
And yet, even though the angel had told Zechariah what God was going to give him, and how he was going to give it to him, Zechariah did not believe it. He asked, “How shall I know this?”
How shall I know that the message that God told you to deliver to me is actually true? How shall I know that God will actually use the means that he has said he will use, to bless me and my wife in this way?
That was unbelief. That was an improper doubting of God, even in the face of God having specified to him not only what the gift would be, but also how and in what way he would give that gift to him.
It was different with Mary. Gabriel started out by telling her that she would have a son. That was the wonderful gift that God was sending to her.
Mary’s question, in response to this announcement, was not a query as to whether this was really going to happen. Rather, she wanted to know how this would happen.
What means or mechanism would God use to give her the gift of Jesus? “How will this be, since I am a virgin?,” she asked.
The angel was not offended by this question at all. God was not offended by this question. God welcomed such a question, in fact.
God is willing to reveal to us, not only what his promised gifts will be, but also the means that he will use to fulfill his promises. Since Mary was not married, God was not going to use the normal husband-wife relationship as the mechanism for bringing her this gift.
Indeed, since Mary’s son would be the Son of the Most High, and not just an ordinary human baby, the means that God would use to bring about the conception and birth of this baby would be something truly extraordinary. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you,” Gabriel said.
Now Mary knew. She knew about the gift - the gift of Jesus. She knew about the means through which this gift would come - a special, miraculous operation of the Holy Spirit.
And so she believed what the Lord had directed the angel to tell her, and she humbly accepted the Lord’s gracious gift to her. “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
The gift that Mary received - Jesus, the Son of God - is a gift that God also wants us to receive. To be sure, with us this giving of Christ will not be in the same way as it was with Mary, or for the same purpose.
The incarnation - the entrance of the eternal Son of God into human flesh - needed to happen only once. And it has happened once and for all time.
But for the sake of your salvation from sin and death, and for the sake of your enjoyment of a wonderful and peace-filled fellowship with God, God wants to give his Son to you too.
God, in his Word, announces the offering of this gift. The apostle Paul preaches that “God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised.”
Jesus is the Savior for whom we long in the season of Advent. Jesus is the heavenly gift whose arrival we celebrate in the season of Christmas.
But, as wonderful as it is to hear from God about the reality of the gift of Christ, that’s not all we need to know. God wants us to know - and he wants us to ask - precisely how this gift is bestowed upon us. What means will God use to bring Jesus, and the blessings of Jesus, into our lives?
Without a description of the mechanism that God will employ to connect us to Christ, we would be left guessing and confused, disappointed and discouraged. It would be as if God gave us a treasure map, but without an “x” marked on it.
But God does not simply tell us about the existence of this wonderful treasure, without also telling us where and how to find it. He does not only announce to us that Christ is our Redeemer. He also announces the means by which we can know this Redeemer, and experience personally the blessings of his redeeming work.
St. John’s Gospel reports these words of Jesus: “Whoever hears my word, and believes him who sent me, has eternal life.” “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him, and make our home with him.”
St. Paul writes: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” And we read in St. Luke that, when the risen Christ was sitting at table with the disciples at Emmaus, “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him,” and “he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
Christ and his blessings are delivered to us by means of the Word and Sacraments of Christ. That is where the gift of God for you is to be received: not through exotic spiritual exercises or esoteric meditative methods; questionable claims of miracles or emotional manipulations, but through faith in the preached and sacramentally-enacted gospel.
The question that remains, then, is this: Do you believe this? God has told you what the gift is - his Son Jesus Christ, and the forgiveness and eternal life that accompany Christ. God has also told you that Christ is brought to you in the means of grace that Jesus himself instituted for his church.
Having been told this, will you be like Mary? Will you say in humble faith, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word”?
Or will you be like Zechariah? Will you say with skeptical doubt, “How shall I know this?”
It is understandable, humanly speaking, why Zechariah might doubt God’s word. He and his wife were too old to have a baby, by any normal expectation.
It is also understandable, humanly speaking, why you might doubt God’s word. You can’t see Jesus coming to you in the pastor’s sermon, or from the pages of a Bible, or in the blessed bread and wine of the Sacrament.
And it is understandable, humanly speaking, why you might doubt God’s willingness to give his Son to you - and to embrace you, and establish spiritual fellowship with you, through his Son.
Your conscience tells you that God is holy. Your conscience also tells you that you are not holy, and therefore that God should not be expected to want to be associated with you. Instead, he should really be expected to turn away from you, and to condemn you for your sins.
The knowledge that God forgives sin through Christ, and that God forgives your sin through Christ, is always a supernaturally-bestowed knowledge. The faith that your sins are forgiven, and that God is at peace with you, is always a divinely-wrought faith. It’s something you would never have figured out on your own.
But, you do have a Savior from sin - a Savior who lived for you, who died for you, and who now lives again for you in his victory over sin and death. And God creates and strengthens within you a faith in this Savior, by bringing that Savior to you in his appointed means of grace.
If you were to rely on empirical observation and human reason, you would not believe what God tells you - about the gift of Christ, or about the way in which he delivers that gift to you. You would be like Zechariah.
But when God’s Word is recognized, through the working of the Holy Spirit, to be the word of the almighty Creator of all things - with whom nothing is impossible - then that word will, miraculously, be believed.
The gift of Christ will be acknowledged. The salvation of Christ will be received.
There are many things with respect to which God has not revealed his purposes and methods, his plans, or the meaning of his actions. We should not presume to create a contrived “faith” within ourselves - through wishful thinking, or through a sequence of logical deductions - that would give us a feeling of security or confidence regarding such things, apart from what God has revealed in the Scriptures.
But when God has spoken, and has told us not only what he is doing, but where and how he is doing it, then we cannot doubt. We must humbly believe him. “Let God be true, and every man a liar.”
In the angel’s annunciation of Christ’s conception and birth, Mary knew that what the angel said would happen, was humanly impossible. But Mary also knew that if God had a way of making it happen, it would happen, because nothing is impossible with God.
And God did have a way - a way which was made known to her. The Holy Spirit would come upon her, and the power of the Most High would overshadow her. In faith, therefore, she accepted and embraced what the angel told her.
In the message of the gospel that you hear, and in the promise that all sins can be and are washed away in Christ, you likewise know that this is humanly impossible. But you also know that if God has a way of making it happen, it will happen.
And God does have a way - a way that is made known to you. The gospel is not just “information” about the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The gospel carries the living Christ to us.
Baptism mystically unites us to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. And the Lord’s Supper does not only remind us of the Lord. It brings the Lord to our lips, and to our hearts.
In faith, therefore, we accept and embrace these means of grace. We are embraced by the means of grace. And we are indwelt by the Savior who comes to us, and abides with us, through the means of grace.
“Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Amen.
24 December 2017 - Christmas Eve
Phillips Brooks was a well-known Episcopal clergyman in Boston, Massachusetts, in the nineteenth century. At one point in his life he had the opportunity to visit the Holy Land. The little town of Bethlehem was one of the places he saw on that trip.
Later, as Brooks reflected on the impressions that were left on him from this visit, on the story of Jesus’ birth as recorded in St. Luke’s Gospel, and on the deeper meaning of the Christian faith in general, he penned the song “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” This hymn has become one of the standard and beloved carols sung at Christmastime by English-speaking people all around the world.
We have sung it here every Christmas Eve for as long as I have been the pastor of this church. And I imagine that before I came here, it was sung in years past as well. Let’s take a few minutes this evening to reflect on the words of this hymn, and on the eternal Biblical truth that those words reflect and convey.
O little town of Bethlehem, How still we see thee lie;
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep The silent stars go by;
? Yet in thy dark streets shineth The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years Are met in thee tonight.
The poetic imagery of the hymn paints a picture in our mind’s eye of a calm and peaceful place where nothing unusual would have been noticed by the average passerby, not even on that night of Jesus’ birth. Women give birth to babies all the time. And so, Jesus’ entry into this world, in a stable of this outwardly unremarkable town, was - according to all outward appearances - an unremarkable and barely noticed event.
In Christ, on that first Christmas in Bethlehem, God came into this world, and became a part of the human race. He did not come in splendor and glory, so as to unsettle any who might see him, and drive them to their knees in fear. He came instead in the most unassuming of ways, as a baby, beginning his human life among us as everyone else begins life.
In his Epistle to the Philippians, St. Paul explains that Christ Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” That is, for the sake of fulfilling his mission on earth, and among men, he did not cling to his divine powers, and refuse to let go of them. But, as Paul continues, he “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”
He was born as a man so that he could live as a man, growing up under the law in obedience to all of the law’s requirements. He always loved God his Father with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength.
He always loved the human race, whose Savior he had come to be, more than he loved his own life. He was a perfect man, by every divine standard.
In this way Jesus established, during his lifetime, a fully-formed and fully lived-out human existence that was without sin; and a real human righteousness before God, as measured by every divine standard. At the end of his life on earth, he was therefore an acceptable sacrifice for all other humans, spotless and without blemish.
Indeed, he was born as a man so that he could then also die as a man - as a man for all other men; for all sinful, alienated, and lost men. And so St. Paul goes on to write that, “being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
In the centuries preceding Jesus’ birth, those of tender conscience who yearned for their redemption from sin and death, and for forgiveness and mercy from God, eagerly looked forward to that day - that day when the Savior would come. There was much hope associated with that future, longed-for day.
But there was also fear. The heart of man fears what it does not understand. And there is much about Christ, and the mystery of the incarnation, that the finite mind of man does not understand.
And, for those who know that their lives have not measured up to God’s standards - or to their own - they fear what they do understand. They, in a sense, fear the arrival of God - a God whom they know to be a God of holiness, who judges sin and sinners - because they know that they are sinners. We know that we are sinners.
But when God does arrive - when he arrives in the person of his Son Jesus, in Bethlehem - he arrived to sooth our fears, not to deepen them. What the angel says to the shepherds on this holy night, he says to all of us:
“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
How silently, how silently, The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming, But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still, The dear Christ enters in.
A lot of the religious stuff that goes on today is very noisy. The modern gospel of material prosperity and earthly success - heard from countless TV preachers, and from the stages of countless big-box megachurches - is often accompanied by a lot of excitement: miracles, or at least the claim of miracles; boisterous songs and sermons; blaring metallic music.
But that’s not what is happening in the stable at Bethlehem on this night. The Redeemer who comes into a world that is already full of upheavals and chaos, does not come to add his own chaos. What Jesus later said, was already true of him, and of his reason for coming, even when he was born:
“My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”
God’s Son comes to bring peace, and to calm troubled hearts. He comes to heal, and not to harm. And so he comes quietly.
It is true, of course, that the Lord works faith through words, and not through feelings and sensations. God is not totally silent.
But he works faith through calm and peaceful words, not yelling and screaming. It’s similar to the experience that the Prophet Elijah had:
“A great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.”
With the babe of Bethlehem, comes a low whisper. But it is indeed God’s whisper, and God’s word - a soft yet powerful word of pardon and reconciliation for a lost and lonely world, which comes through that baby.
God’s calming words sink in over time, and - eventually - they bubble over. St. Luke tells us that “Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” And he tells us that the shepherds “made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.”
The events surrounding the birth of Jesus as described in St. Luke’s Gospel are events that really happened, for the sake of the world’s salvation. But this story of the coming of Christ into the world serves also as a picture of, and as a prelude to, the coming of Christ into your life.
The message of God, in Christ, miraculously becoming a part of the human story, prepares the way for the personal miracle of God, in Christ, becoming a part of your story. We are all a part of the larger human race, and of the larger human story. But we each also have our own story to tell - or perhaps, not to tell.
Sin is in all of us. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But sin is in each of us, and has scarred each of us, in uniquely different ways, and in uniquely painful ways.
We all have shame, as we ponder our human failures. But we each have our own shame - our own secret shame before God - for failures of our personal past that few if any other people are aware of.
Those are the sins that are hardest to deal with, because those are the sins that are hardest to think about and admit. But they can be dealt with tonight, as we humbly repent of all of them, and turn away from all of them, tonight; and as we pray the prayer - the very personal prayer - with which the hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem” ends, tonight.
O holy Child of Bethlehem, Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in, Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel!
Jesus, the shepherd and guardian of our souls, tells us: “A thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
Jesus is certainly not a thief. By his sacrificial death in your place, he has redeemed and purchased you, to be his very own.
You were bought with a price: a very precious price; the price of the life of that baby lying in a manger, grown to manhood, but never outgrowing his love for you.
And by his word of forgiveness and eternal life, echoing through the centuries from his manger and from his cross, you are clean tonight. Christ is born in you tonight. God’s Son will live in you tonight.
In his Epistle to the Colossians, St. Paul writes that “the mystery hidden for ages and generations” is, in the coming of Christ, and in the ministry of the Christian church, “now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
Christ fills our lives with God’s own presence, because Christ himself is God’s presence: God’s presence in the world, and God’s presence in you. In his person, the Son of Mary is Emmanuel - “God with us” - as the Prophet Isaiah named the future divine-human Messiah, centuries before the events that we celebrate tonight.
Through faith in the gospel, and through the Lord’s forgiveness of all your trespasses, you are restored to fellowship with the holy and eternal God who designed you and created you. St. Peter writes that Christ “suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.”
And when that happens, your life starts to make more sense than it ever made before. Your existence starts to take on a meaning and a purpose deeper than it ever had before. And you begin to grow into an understanding of who you really are in God’s universe, and in God’s kingdom, that you never had before.
As Jesus died and rose again, so too do you daily die to the old self that you used to be, but never want to be again; and so too do you daily rise in the confidence of Christ, and into the present grace and future hope that he gives you. With the Lord’s help, every day, you joyfully heed the encouragement that St. Paul gives in his Epistle to the Colossians:
“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”
That is the new reality that the Christchild can create for you tonight. That is the new reality that will now define who you are, as you leave here tonight, and step back out into the world.
This is a world that you now know God entered, through the Babe of Bethlehem, 2,000 years ago. You will never look at this world - or at the people in it, whom that baby came to save - in the same way ever again.
Thus says the Lord:
“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. ... He shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace.” Amen.
25 December 2017 - Christmas Day
During the Christmas season, nativity scenes are often put on display in homes, in churches, and also outdoors and in public spaces. 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 or two, a cow or two, and a sheep or two, are 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 Christchild, are also portrayed in figurines or statues 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 passed between the birth of Christ, and the visit of the wise men.
So, in spite of the sentimental familiarity that is attached to statues and figurines of the wise men being included in a nativity scene, the wise men were not really there on that blessed night. For the sake of historical accuracy, 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. That’s what the angel said to the shepherds, when he appeared to them on the night of Jesus’ birth, as St. Luke’s Gospel reports those events:
“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 drawn by the star to come, eventually, 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 representing you has never been included in any nativity display. As a matter of history, you were not in Bethlehem on the first Christmas, at the stable where Mary laid her baby in a manger.
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 a universally-inherited 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 is still proclaimed by the angels in this Christmas celebration, because Jesus, and all the promises connected with Jesus, do not fall short of that glory.
On the night of Christ’s birth, the world became a different kind of place than it had been. And it will never be the same again.
It is now a world where God’s real but hidden glory is present in the person and work of his Son; and in the Word and Sacraments that his Son has entrusted perpetually to his church. 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 angels in 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 angels in 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.
The Savior who was born in Bethlehem, was born to live for you, and to die for you; to win you back to God, and to restore your fellowship with God through the forgiveness of your sins.
Your sins are forgiven in Christ. You are clean, and God is at peace with you.
In particular - for those of you who are communicants - the divine Savior who came for the reconciliation of the world with God, and who entered into the world in the stable of Bethlehem, is the same Savior who comes today for your reconciliation with God, and who mystically enters into you, in his Holy Supper.
He who came as a Savior on that holy night, and whose coming was announced by heavenly messengers, still comes today as a Savior. And the earthly messengers whom God has called to be his ministers here and now, likewise announce his coming, here and now:
“This is the true body of Christ, given for you.” “This is the true blood of Christ, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”
And more broadly speaking, when the angel spoke to the shepherds of the good news that would go forth to “all the people,” all of you were included. “All the people” includes you: whoever you are, whatever you have done, and wherever you are in your relationship with God right now.
In the Christmas story, God gives you a new chance for a new beginning. God offers you a new life, and a new hope.
You were not physically there 2,000 years ago. But you were there in God’s mind, and in God’s heart. In this sense, therefore, You were in the Christmas story. And 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.
31 December 2017 - Christmas 1 - Luke 2:22-40
Forty days after the birth of Jesus, the holy family went to the temple in Jerusalem for two important rituals. First, they were there to fulfill an obligation laid down in the Book of Leviticus.
Every woman who had given birth to a child needed to be purified. For those who could afford it, a lamb was to be sacrificed as a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove was to be sacrificed as a sin offering.
Poorer people who could not afford to bring a lamb, could use as a substitute an additional turtledove or an additional pigeon. We know from today’s text, from St. Luke, that Jesus’ family was on the poor side, since they brought two birds, and not a lamb and a bird.
The second reason why Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were at the temple on this day, was to fulfill an obligation that was attached specifically to the birth of a firstborn male child. We read about this in the Book of Exodus, where the Lord said to Moses:
“Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine.”
Moses then explained to the people what this would mean:
“You shall set apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your animals that are males shall be the Lord’s. ... Every firstborn of man among your sons you shall redeem.”
“And when in time to come your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘By a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all the males that first open the womb, but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem.’”
As a punishment for their hardness of heart, and for their refusal to do as the Lord had commanded, Egypt was punished by the Lord - at the time of the Exodus - through the slaying of the firstborn of every family. On the night of the Passover, this punishment was inflicted on every Egyptian family in the land - not just on Pharoah’s family - because the whole country shared in the guilt of Pharoah’s defiance of God’s will for the liberation of the Israelites.
The only way of escape was to be in a house that was covered by the blood of the Passover lamb, which God told the Hebrews to smear on their doorposts. In principle, any Hebrew family that would have neglected to do this, would have received the punishment that was meted out to the Egyptians.
And any Egyptian family that may have been guests in a Hebrew home that was protected by the lamb’s blood that night, would have been spared. The salvation that God offered that night was not based on ethnicity per se, but on faithful obedience to the directions that God had given regarding the Passover lamb and its blood.
This event gives meaning to the enduring principle that the Lord later articulated, when he said: “Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine.”
The context shows that this divine claim on the firstborn is not like a young woman at a dance, who sees a handsome young man on the other side of the dance floor with whom she wants to dance, and who says to herself, “He is mine.” Rather, this divine claim is like a sniper in a war zone, who spies an enemy officer in the distance and takes aim at him, and who says to himself, “He is mine.”
The claim that God makes on the firstborn, before it is anything else, is a claim that is made for the sake of punishing sin - the sin of the firstborn himself, and the sin of his family. Because God is God, he gets to do this.
And it’s not as if he is being unfair in making this claim. If he was being fair, he would bring death to the firstborn, the lastborn, and every child born in between - since “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
God’s judgment in the flood on everyone in the world - except for Noah’s family - was fair. God’s judgment on all the inhabitants of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah - except for Lot’s family - was fair.
God’s judgment on the Egyptians, while it was a profound and humbling judgment, was actually not as fair, because it was only a representative of each family that bore the wrath which every member of each pagan family of the land had deserved.
And all the families, of all nations, are equally deserving of this kind of divine punishment, on account of their idolatries, their rebellions, and their abuses. If you don’t think so, then you are underestimating either the holiness of God or the sinfulness of man. Indeed, as we read in Psalm 14:
“They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good. The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.”
This is a severe appraisal - of human nature, and of each human being. But it is an accurate appraisal.
But God, in his mercy, does not demand that his wrathful claim on all the firstborn of Israel be carried through and implemented. He allows the firstborn to be redeemed. More precisely, he requires that the firstborn of Israel be redeemed.
From the other “side” of God - the side of his mercy and not his wrath - God declares, through Ezekiel the Prophet: “As I live, ... I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked.” Also in the Book of Ezekiel, we see a prayer like this, from God’s grateful people:
“After all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, ... you, our God, have punished us less than our iniquities deserved.”
God’s patience, forgiveness, and mercy, and his willingness to give his penitent people another chance, are wide and sweeping. His mercy is what ultimately defines him, not his wrath.
But his mercy cannot be properly appreciated unless we always remember that his mercy is undeserved. And so there have been times when God did not hold back the punishment that human sin always deserves - times like the flood of Noah, like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and like the slaying of the firstborn in Egypt.
And these times of righteous wrath against human wickedness give us a frame of reference for never taking God’s mercy for granted; and for never complaining, and shaking our little fists at God, when he justly chastises us.
And so, when the Lord states, “Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine,” the first meaning does indeed pertain to judgment and punishment. But the second meaning - the meaning that actually applied to all the firstborn sons of Israel - pertains to grace and life.
God never required his people to sacrifice their firstborn children to him, as the Canaanite worshipers of Molech did. That practice was actually an abomination to the Lord, and was among the reasons why he ordered the destruction of the Canaanites.
And when the Israelites in the northern kingdom actually began to burn their own children on the altars of Molech, that sealed their fate. Under God’s judgment they were permanently destroyed as a people. Psalm 106 describes these dark deeds, and also describes what God thought about them:
“They mixed with the nations and learned to do as they did. ... They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons; they poured out innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan, and the land was polluted with blood. ... Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against his people, and he abhorred his heritage; he gave them into the hand of the nations, so that those who hated them ruled over them.”
This gives us pause to consider what kind of divine retribution our nation is calling down upon itself, due to the disgrace and horror of unrestrained abortion in our land. It is sadly the case, that a large number of the abortions that are performed do involve a young woman’s first pregnancy, and a child who was supposed to be her firstborn.
But these children are sacrificed to the “gods” of hedonism and selfishness, which our re-paganized nation ardently worships, within the culture of death that enshrouds our nation. And we are all complicit in this.
Our collective callousness and indifference to the plight of the scared and confused young women who are often pushed into abortion, contrary to the voice of their conscience, does indeed spread the guilt of this sin also onto us.
In Israel, God would have had a right to demand that each firstborn die for the Lord, as a just punishment for the sins that his family - and the whole nation - had committed against the Lord. But instead, God returned each redeemed firstborn to his family, and to the nation, so that he could live for the Lord.
Among the firstborn sons of Israel, there was, however, one exception to this rule. And on the day when that exceptional firstborn son was brought to the temple to be presented to the Lord, and to be redeemed by his parents, all the many presentations and redemptions that had taken place, at the Lord’s command, through the centuries, found their completion and their fulfillment in him.
Today’s text from St. Luke recounts the events of that day. It was the day when God’s own Son - the Virgin Mary’s firstborn son - was presented and redeemed:
“When the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, [Joseph and Mary] brought [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord’) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.’”
Jesus - fully and at the deepest level - was claimed as God’s very own, by his Father in heaven. The life of Jesus on earth would now be profoundly lived out for God, and for the fulfilling of God’s will.
But this time, at the end of Jesus’ earthly life - a life of complete righteousness and perfect obedience - God finally did make good his claim on Jesus the firstborn - the ultimate firstborn - in such a way as to require his death.
God had never done that before, in the whole history of Israel. But Jesus was different from all the other firstborn sons, in the whole history of Israel.
They were not punished for their sins, for the sins of their families, or for the sins of the nation - as they might have expected. They were all given a reprieve. But Jesus was so punished.
Now, Jesus had no sins of his own for which he deserved to die, under the condemnation of God. But as the firstborn son - the true and final firstborn son - he did represent the rest of the people, and did die, for the sins for which the rest of the people deserved to die.
And in his case, it was not just the nation of Israel for which he was the designated representative. He died for the sins of the whole world. On the cross of Calvary God the Father claimed humanity’s firstborn, and poured out his wrath upon him.
Jesus was punished for the sins of all human families, as the firstborn of Egypt were punished for the sins of their respective families. But in Jesus’ case there was and is a cosmic significance to this.
St. Peter writes that “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.”
And as St. Paul explains it, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
And let’s not forget that Jesus was not only the firstborn son of Mary, according to his humanity. From eternity he was also the only-begotten Son of God, being of one substance with the Father.
So, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. In the person of Christ - the Second Person of the Holy Trinity in human flesh - God himself was on the cross, absorbing into himself the just judgment of his own law against all human sin, which he had taken upon himself as humanity’s substitute.
In this way he deflected that judgment from us, who now in repentance turn away from sin, and in faith cling to Christ and to everything he has done for us. Jesus actively wanted this to happen. According to his divine will and self-giving love, he made this happen.
And after Jesus died for the Lord, he rose again, and resumed living for the Lord. St. Paul explains that Jesus, as the firstborn in every other sense, is now also “the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.”
As the risen Savior - who will never die again - Jesus reaches out to you. As the firstborn - the living firstborn who belongs to God, and speaks for God - he absolves you of all the sins you have committed. He forgives all of your personal callousness and indifference; all of your personal idolatries, rebellions, and abuses.
And, he then also draws you into his resurrection life. And that changes you. As Jesus covers and cloaks you with his righteousness, in him you too are a beloved and redeemed “firstborn” child of God, who is claimed by God because of Christ and in Christ.
You, too, now live for the Lord, in Christ. And in Christ you will live forever.
At the beginning of the Book of Revelation - which is written for the comfort of Christians in all generations - we are blessed with these words concerning our risen Savior and King:
“Grace to you and peace...from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us, and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.” Amen.