1 January 2017 - The Name of Jesus - Luke 2:21

In American society, the people with the best-known names tend to be Hollywood celebrities. If someone has been a successful actor, and has appeared in many movies, everybody knows that person’s name.

The names of two very well-known celebrities have been in the news over the past few days. When fans heard the name “Carrie Fisher,” they thought of the Princess Leia character from the film “Star Wars.” When fans heard the name “Debbie Reynolds,” they thought of the Kathy Selden character from the film “Singin’ in the Rain,” or of the Tammy Tyree character from the film “Tammy and the Bachelor.”

We became familiar with these women through their “larger than life” presence on the silver screen, in these and other movies. With their celebrity status, it was almost as if they were living in another world, unapproachable as far as ordinary people like us are concerned, and very distant from the ordinary world in which we live.

Because their names were so well-known in this way, it was a double shock to everyone when first one, and then the other, passed away.

At the age of 60, Carrie Fisher died of an unexpected heart attack. The grief and distress experienced by her 84-year-old mother Debbie Reynolds was so severe, that it seems to have brought on some kind of cardiac episode in her as well, so that she also died, one day later.

Their fame had elevated these women to stardom. In that sense they seemed not to be like us. But their fame certainly had not elevated these women above the kind of trials and sadnesses that people in general experience in this life.

In the final analysis, the double tragedy that we all saw with Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds in the past week reminded us, very poignantly, that they were actually like us after all - with all of the human frailties and weaknesses that afflict ordinary people.

Carrie Fisher was not immune from an early and untimely death - as we have all seen with people we cared about. Debbie Reynolds was not immune from an unspeakable and incapacitating grief - as we have seen in friends who experienced a shocking loss, or perhaps as we have seen, to a certain degree, in our own lives, when we experienced such a loss.

Today, on the Feast of the Name of Jesus, we are thinking of another famous name, borne by another famous person. Jesus is indeed famous. And his fame is of such a nature, that people recognize him to be a person who truly does exists on a higher plane than the rest of us - much more so than Hollywood celebrities.

When we hear the name of Jesus, we think of the extraordinary feats that he performed during his earthly ministry. And we think of the extraordinary status that he now has, seated in power and majesty at the right hand of God the Father almighty.

We all know who he is. And we all know that he is greater and more important than we are.

He really is in another world, far above the world of trouble and evil in which we dwell. And when we compare our human frailties and weaknesses, and our human sins, to his holiness and purity, we can begin to feel that he is unapproachable.

Truly, because Jesus is himself divine - the Second Person of the Holy Trinity - according to his divine nature, he is indeed unapproachable. That’s the exact word St. Paul uses when he writes in his First Epistle to Timothy that “our Lord Jesus Christ” is “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light.”

But Jesus does not exist only in his eternal divine nature, with its frightening glory. At the right time, according to God’s plan for the redemption of his fallen creation, God’s Son came to the earth, took to himself a human nature from his mother Mary, and made himself approachable to weak and frail humans like us.

On Christmas, we celebrated his entry into human history as the Babe of Bethlehem. Today, as we recall his circumcision and his naming, we celebrate his formal entry into the specific community of Israel. St. Luke, with little fanfare, reports:

“And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”

On the day of his circumcision, Jesus personally became an heir of the covenant by the same means through which all Jewish males, on the eighth day after their birth, had become members of that special community and nation. This was the nation to which the oracles of God had been entrusted, and from which God’s salvation was destined to go out to all other nations.

When Jesus was circumcised, he underwent when had become a very common human experience. His receiving of this sign of the covenant of God in his body put him in solidarity, and into a fraternal relationship, with all other Jewish men.

He is like them. And as the story of his Nativity at Christmas reminds us - born as he was as all human babies are born, Jew and Gentile alike - he is like us.

In his participation in the ordinary experiences of human life - knowing times of happiness and times of disappointment, times of joy and times of sorrow - Jesus is one of us. Even with respect to our common human mortality, Jesus is one of us.

He tasted death as we all eventually will. But, he also emerged from the other side of death as a victor over the grave.

On that score he did not become like us. But he did promise that we will become like him. In St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, we are told that

“In Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

Jesus comes to us, and he draws us to himself. And especially when we consider the meaning of his name - officially bestowed upon him in his circumcision - we know why he comes, and why he draws.

We are men drawn to a fellow man who is also the Savior of all men. “Jesus” means “Jehovah saves.”

So yes, his eternal divine identity is reflected in his name. He is Jehovah, or the Lord, in human flesh.

But his name also teaches us what God’s purposes for us are in the sending of his Son. He did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world - which is what we might have expected, given our multiple failures to be the kind of people we have been created to be.

But instead, “Jesus” came into the world so that the world could be saved through him. And for you personally - as you repent of your sins and turn away from them, and as you hear and believe God’s promises of pardon and acceptance - “Jehovah saves” means that Jehovah saves you - in Jesus.

In Jesus, God does not ignore our sins. He deals with them, decisively, so that they will not damn us on the Last Day.

In Jesus, he saves us from our sins. He atones for them, absolves them, and removes them from us as far as the east is from the west.

To know the name of Jesus, and truly to know Jesus as the one who bears that name, is to know him as so much more than an otherworldly religious celebrity, or as a remote and distant divine personage. It is to know him as so much more than a majestic ruler and demanding judge.

Jesus is for you. He is always for you. As your human brother, he mystically approaches you and makes himself a part of your life in his Word and Sacraments.

When they touch you, he, invisibly, is touching you. When you receive them, you are receiving him. And he can be approached by you in prayer, at any time and in any place, in full assurance of faith, and without fear.

During his time on earth, Jesus shared your human grief and pain. But he has now overcome that grief and pain, for you.

For you, Jesus became poor and weak. But as the ascended Lord he is now rich with the fulness of his divine glory. In his exaltation he now fully partakes of, and uses, all of his almighty power.

And in him, you are rich in his grace. In him, you are strong in his Spirit. Jesus, through the familiar name that he bears, brings this to you. In his love he makes this real for you.

We close with these words from St. Paul’s Second Epistle to the Thessalonians:

“We always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and may fulfill every resolve for good, and every work of faith, by his power; so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Amen.

8 January 2017 - Baptism of Our Lord - Matthew 3:13-17

In his baptism, Jesus became, in a very clear and decisive way, the friend and companion of sinners. The baptism that John the Baptist had been sent by the Lord to administer, and that Jesus also wished to receive, was a baptism for sinners.

But of course, Jesus himself, in his own person, was not a sinner. And this is why John hesitated to administer it to him. In today’s Gospel, St. Matthew reports this exchange between them:

“John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented.”

God’s Son was not sent into the world to live a sanitized existence, never having to see or deal with the pain and suffering of the world, or with the wickedness and evil of the world - which was the cause of that pain and suffering. During his time on earth, Jesus was, instead, right in the middle of all of that.

To be sure, he himself never sinned. He never partook of the wickedness that surrounded him. But he came to be the friend and companion of many who had in the past partaken of it in one way or another, and who had been victimized by it in one way or another.

He came to be their Savior: to deliver them from the judgment and condemnation that they had earned for themselves before God’s bar of justice, and to deliver them from the inner pain and grief that had been inflicted upon them by the cruelty and callousness of others.

But, while Jesus was indeed the friend and companion of sinners - which was demonstrated clearly in his willingness to receive a baptism that was for sinners - Jesus was not a friend and companion of sin. He was an enemy of sin - in fact, the most severe and deadly enemy that sin would ever encounter.

And God’s Son did not come into the world only to deliver people from the eternal consequences of sin in the next life. He came to deliver them from the power and mastery of sin in this life.

Jesus loved the human race, and therefore he hated that which had corrupted the human race and filled it with misery and death. He hated sin.

He hates sin now. He hates your sin, not just because it is an offense against his holiness, but because it is your enemy, and is harming you.

Some people misconstrue and misapply the truth that Jesus is the friend and companion of sinners, by thinking that this means that they, even as Christians, can willfully continue in sin, without trying to change or resist temptation, and without seeking to grow in faith and in the fruits of faith.

Jesus forgives all manner of wickedness, selfishness, laziness, and pride, it is thought. And so all manner of wickedness, selfishness, laziness, and pride can be freely indulged in, with impunity.

There are many who think like this, or at least they act as if this is the way they are thinking. The rhetoric of the Christian religion may be learned and repeated. But the essence of the Christian religion is absent - or nearly so.

Is this the way you act? Is this the way you think?

This kind of thinking is not actually an acknowledgment of Jesus as the friend and companion of sinners. Instead, it seeks to turn him into a friend and companion of sin. But that is not what he is.

That is not what he was for you, on the day he was baptized. And that is not what he became in you, on the day you were baptized - baptized into him, and into a relationship with him.

In his Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul both encourages and warns us and all Christians:

“Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.”

“They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!”

And further on in the same Epistle, Paul continues this thought:

“Be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

“But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.”

“For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.”

If you willfully and knowingly decide to disobey and defy God, and to embrace what God forbids, Jesus will not be your friend and companion in such a thing. You will walk that pathway, into the darkness, alone.

In your baptism - which unites you to his baptism, and to everything that his baptism means - Jesus does not become like you. But you, by his redeeming and regenerating grace, do become like him. In his Second Epistle, St. Peter writes:

“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.”

“For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.”

In the new nature that Christ’s Spirit engenders within you, you, like Jesus, become a hater of sin. You become one who hates your own sin, because of the harm it does in your relationship with God, in your relationships with other people, and inside of yourself.

According to who you are in Christ, you will always fight against sin. Now, you may not always win. Indeed, in this life, if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But you will always fight.

In your new nature, which bears the image of Christ, you will always hate your sin, even as Jesus hates it. And you will always love him, even as he loves you.

Jesus was baptized, with you and for you, because of his love for you - and indeed because of his love for all men. Because of that love, he became the friend and companion of sinners: penitent and hurting sinners; weak and struggling sinners. And he became your friend and companion.

Under the mystery of God’s righteous demands, and of God’s redeeming mercy, Jesus took your sin - your damnable and miserable sin - off of you, and allowed it to be hung upon himself. He did this in his baptism, in a way that pointed forward to his coming death and resurrection, and in a way that was mystically connected to his coming death and resurrection.

In a sermon that Martin Luther preached on today’s Gospel, the reformer offers a deep and thoughtful explanation of the saving work that was accomplished for all of us, by and through the baptism of Jesus our substitute.

He explains why it was indeed “fitting” for the righteous Jesus to be baptized with a baptism intended for unrighteous sinners, in order to fulfill all righteousness. Let us listen:

“Isaiah 53 says: ‘The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.’ For since we...‘all like sheep have gone astray,’ God found this remedy:”

“He took the sins of all human beings and hung them around the neck of Him who alone was without sin. He thus becomes a great sinner - indeed the greatest sinner of all and the only sinner on earth - so that there is no other. ...”

“Because He has become the Sinner who has all of our sin placed upon Him, He truly does need Baptism, and must be baptized for the forgiveness of sins - not with respect to His own person, which is innocent and spotless, but for the sake of us, whose sins He bears. He plunges them into His Baptism and washes them away from Himself (that is, He washes them from us, since He has stepped into our person), so that they must be drowned and die in His Baptism.”

So far Luther.

In his baptism, Jesus was humanity’s substitute and Savior - even as he was humanity’s substitute and Savior in his death and resurrection. Jesus earned, and in himself established, an objective forgiveness of all the human sins that he carried into the waters of his baptism, and that he plunged into those waters - leaving them there as he arose from those waters.

And he now distributes the blessings of that plunging and arising, and the transforming reality of that forgiveness, to the world, and to you, in his Word and Sacrament.

Jesus took upon himself the sins of the world, and therefore also your sins, and drowned them in his own baptism. And this lays the foundation for the personal drowning of sin that happens again, and at another level, every time a Christian is baptized today, is called to faith today, and becomes a new creature in Christ today.

In his own baptism, Jesus drowned your sins. In your baptism, which he administered to you through the hands and lips of one of his called servants, he drowned your sins yet again.

And he drowns them still, whenever the power of baptism - his and yours - is manifested in the daily repentance to which your conscience impels you, and in the daily faith to which God’s Spirit calls you.

From one perspective, you might think of your baptism as a “re-enactment” of Jesus’ baptism. And from another perspective, you might think of Jesus’ baptism as a “pre-enactment” of your baptism.

Through your baptism, you are drawn up into Jesus’ baptism, and into everything that was done there, for you and for everyone. And through your baptism, by God’s design, Jesus is drawn down into you. As St. Paul writes to the Galatians:

“For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”

There is a reason why the divinely-given formula of Baptism is repeated at the beginning of the Confession and Absolution in which we participate every Sunday, pretty much before we do anything else in the service. It is indeed “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” that we presume to approach God, in humility, and with sorrowful hearts to implore his forgiveness.

It is because of Baptism - the baptism that Jesus received for us, and the baptism that Jesus administered to us - that sins can be forgiven here and now, and are forgiven here and now.

This is what we yearn for, when we, in shame and fear, admit that we need Christ’s pardon and peace. And this is what we receive, when we, in joy and hope, trust in his Word, and by faith have his pardon and peace.

And then, with renewed gratitude for his compassion toward us, and for his desire to be a part of our lives, we welcome Jesus once again to be our friend and companion.

We do not welcome him as a friend and companion of our sin. But we do welcome him as the redeemer who has once again lifted from us the guilt of sin, and who has once again crushed within us the power of sin.

We together welcome him into our midst, and greet him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, also as he comes among us in his Holy Supper. As the crowds at the Jordan River welcomed him into the company of the baptized, so too do we welcome him: to be our strength and our wisdom, our teacher and our guide, our protector from Satan and our justifier before God.

Within the Jordan’s crystal flood, In meekness, stands the Lamb of God,
And, sinless, sanctifies the wave, Mankind from sin to cleanse and save. Amen.

15 January 2017 - Epiphany 2 - John 1:29-42a

Envision this scenario. Three men have been lost in a hot desert for several days, with nothing to drink. But there is an oasis out there, where a spring of water can be found.

One of the lost men then sees the oasis, and points it out to his companions. ”Look,” he says, “there is the oasis we needed to find; there is the place where we can find a spring of water.”

What response do you think he would get to this? Will the thirsty companions with whom he has shared this information just stand there, and do nothing? Or will his thirsty companions at this point actually start running away from the oasis, in the other direction, to try to get as far away from it as they can?

Would you expect either of these reactions on the part of thirsty people in a desert who have just been told by their friend where water is to be found? My guess is that you would not expect either of these reactions, unless the men had lost their sanity, and no longer realized how thirsty they were, or how desperately they needed the water that could be found at the oasis.

John the Baptist “saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ ... The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’”

What do you think happened next, in this account from St. John’s Gospel? What usually happens today, when someone is told that Jesus of Nazareth is humanity’s divine Savior from sin?

In effect, this is what usually happens: Either that person, in his spiritual indifference, just stands there, and does nothing; or in his hostility to Christ he runs as fast and as far as he can in the opposite direction.

Why is this? Why do people usually have an indifferent or even hostile reaction to what should be seen as a wonderful announcement?

It’s because most people do not think that they have a sin problem. And therefore they have no interest in a solution to such a problem. They are blinded and deceived - by their sin - regarding what their spiritual condition really is.

But what was the reaction of the two disciples of John the Baptist when their teacher pointed them to Christ, and when he told them that he was the Lamb of God? Our text tells us: “The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.”

There was no need for John to have to talk them into going to be with the Lord. As soon as they heard who he was, and what he offered to them and to all people in the world, they went - without any hesitation or delay - to join themselves to him.

The reason why their reaction was different than what the reaction of most people would have been, is because the law of God - as their master John had been preaching it - had prepared their hearts for this announcement concerning Christ.

John’s preaching of a baptism of repentance, and his warnings of divine judgment for those who are not ready for the Lord’s coming, had impressed upon these disciples a deep awareness of their sin problem, and an awareness of the fact that their sin problem was the most fundamental problem of their existence.

And so, when John told them that Jesus of Nazareth was the solution to this problem - indeed that he was God’s own unique and exclusive solution - this message reached into their heart, and grabbed hold of their conscience, and pulled them, in an instant, to Jesus’ side.

They were sinners: whose sin had separated them from God and from his holiness; and whose sin had caused them to turn in on themselves, and to turn on others.

Jesus was going to take that sin away. As the Lamb slain in their place, he was going to lift it off of them, and cleanse it out of them.

This is what John the Baptist was telling them. They didn’t need to be told twice.

And they didn’t even need to be told once to go to Christ, to be united to him by faith, and to receive from him what only he could give: the forgiveness of their sins; and a restored relationship with God.

But again, this is not the usual response among human beings, when Jesus is pointed out as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. This may not always be our response.

There are many segments of the society in which we live that seem to be doing everything that can be done, to diminish among us a sense of our sinfulness, and a sense of our need for what Jesus offers. And you and I may sometimes join ranks with those segments of our society, in order to minimize - in our own minds - the seriousness of our own personal sins, and our own need for repentance and change.

People who are honest about their personal sin problem would admit that they have perpetrated harm and pain on others, and that they need forgiveness for these failures and missteps. But the segments of the society that are opposing God’s work of bringing conviction to human hearts, want us to see ourselves as victims, and not as perpetrators.

Even criminals are really victims - victims of a poor upbringing, or victims of the influence of cable news, talk radio, or political blogs on the Internet.

To be sure, we are victims of sin - some more cruelly than others. And Jesus does come into the world to bring comfort and relief to those who suffer unjustly, and who have been hurt.

But people are not only victims. They are also perpetrators. And insofar as we all are perpetrators, we have not earned God’s pity, but instead have earned God’s judgment and anger.

When we have done what was wrong, or when we have not done what was right, the proper moral reaction to this is to feel guilty. And that’s because at such times we are guilty, and need to be pardoned for our offenses.

But again, the segments of society that contradict God’s Word on this matter, don’t want us to feel guilty. A lack of self-esteem is our real problem. And people are never to be told that their words and actions are in error. That would be intolerant.

The long and short of it, is that many people in our country have, in effect, been “brainwashed” by all of this, in such a way that they are no longer willing to listen to God’s law. They are no longer willing to listen to the warnings of John the Baptist.

They are no longer willing to listen to the convicting voice of their own conscience. The sin that does actually exist and is really there, is either ignored and deliberately not noticed; or it is redefined as something that is not sin, excused and justified, and explained away.

Sin is not taken seriously, and it is not dealt with. And so, unabated, sin runs its course in the lives of many, and ruins the lives of many - blinding them and binding them.

And maybe we have been affected by these overwhelming cultural influences, which surround us, more than we would like to admit. In our own minds, our first instinct is probably to justify our sin, and make excuses for our wrong words and deeds, and not to admit our fault, and repent.

Indeed, this is not only a problem among those who have stopped going to church. It is also often a problem among many who still want to be religious - but in a new and different way.

There is a movement underfoot to redefine American Christianity as a religion in which sin is never mentioned, guilt is never felt, and forgiveness of sin - for the alleviation of guilt - is never offered. The churches that have latched onto this dangerous fad are places where nothing negative or critical is ever heard, but only positive guidance for happiness and success.

Sermons, songs, and everything that takes place in worship, are brought into conformity with the demands of this new agenda. And the last thing that people want to hear in such a church, is that Jesus is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

But a church in which Jesus is the Lord, is also a church in which people will continually be told that Jesus is such a Lamb. The cross of Christ will remain on the wall, in the hymns, and in the sermons, as the command of Christ - that repentance and remission of sins be proclaimed in his name to all nations - is fulfilled.

And the law of God will also be proclaimed, not for its own sake, but for the sake of the gospel, which heals the disease that the law diagnoses. Guilt will be felt, not for its own sake, but for the sake of the joy that then comes when God’s very real forgiveness is proclaimed to those who admit that they need God’s help.

And in a church where Jesus is the Lord, the Supper of the Lord will be celebrated in reverence and solemnity, and received in penitence and humility.

The Communion Liturgy serves as a “stand-in,” so to speak, for John the Baptist, when it points us to Christ - miraculously present in the blessed bread and wine - and when it teaches us to sing to him: “O Christ, thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world: have mercy on us; grant us thy peace.”

Dear friends, your deepest and most fundamental problem is your sin. And God’s solution to that problem in his Son Jesus Christ, who was sacrificed on the altar of his cross for your sin.

This is something that only he could do for you. And therefore this is why God’s Word draws you to him, in his Word and Sacrament, which is where he can be found among us today.

And, this is the only legitimate reason to go to Christ.

He came into the world, not to be its therapist, or its self-help guru; and certainly not to be its entertainer. He came into the world, to take away the sin of the world. He comes to you, as the Lamb of God, to take away your sin.

In Christ, God does indeed bless you in many practical ways. He does not only forgive your sins. But he forgives your sins first.

All his other blessings - spiritual and temporal - flow out from that forgiveness. Therefore, if someone has not come to Christ in faith, first and foremost to be forgiven, that person has not come to Christ in a true faith.

A faith that presumes to claim things from Christ that Christ has not promised, and that includes no yearning for what Christ does give, is not the kind of faith that God’s Spirit instills in the human heart.

Such a faith - if it can be called “faith” - is a false and idolatrous faith. And the “Jesus” on whom such a false faith is focused, is ultimately a false and manufactured Jesus. St. Paul writes:

“For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth - as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’ - yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”

Make sure that the Jesus in whom you believe is the real Jesus: the Jesus of the gospel; the Jesus who takes away sin.

For those of you who are communicants in our church, that’s something to think about today, as you prepare to commune. That’s something to think about as you listen to the words of Jesus himself, as he tells you that his blood is shed for you “for the remission of sins.”

That’s something to think about as you join in the congregation’s prayer to the Lamb of God, asking him to have mercy on you in the sacrament, and to grant you his peace through the sacrament.

If that’s not what is really on your mind and heart, as you approach the body and blood of Christ, then please don’t approach. If you’re not coming to the Lord’s Table in repentance, for the purpose of being renewed in the Lord’s forgiveness of your sins - which you admit, and which you confess - then please don’t come at all.

There is great supernatural potency in this sacrament, to forgive those who humbly seek forgiveness. But this supernatural potency will have a different effect on those who presume to partake of this sacred meal for any purpose other than the Lord’s purpose.

Remember St. Paul’s warning to those who participate in the Supper without the necessary self-examination and discernment. He writes to the Corinthians:

“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.”

Judgment. That’s what you will receive, if you don’t take this as seriously as God does.

But judging you is not the reason why Jesus came into the world. And it’s not the reason why he comes to you now. As we read later in John’s Gospel:

“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, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

Dear friends, believe in the name of Jesus Christ. Believe in the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. Believe in him, and - like the disciples of John the Baptist in today’s text - follow him, and cling to him.

This is the wisdom that comes from God. Don’t let your deepest need - the need for God’s forgiveness - go unmet, even as you would strive, in human wisdom, for the meeting of other less important needs in your life.

“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Seek first the forgiveness of your sins, which the Lamb of God gives to you freely by grace, and all these things will be added to you.

John the Baptist “saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ ... The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.” Amen.

22 January 2017 - Epiphany 3 - 1 Cor. 1:10-18

One of the more common grounds for divorce is “irreconcilable differences.” Of course, other terms that could be used to describe that kind of marital problem might be “uncompromising stubbornness” or “inconsiderate selfishness.”

But even so, we can understand the concept of “irreconcilable differences.” All too often in this sinful world, people who have some kind of relationship with each other - in a family, in a circle of friends, or in a business - reach a point in their relationship where they have come to feel that they have “irreconcilable differences,” so that their relationship must come to an end.

And, sadly, this happens all-too-frequently also in Christian congregations and in Christian church bodies. Religious institutions are not immune from the possibility of splits and divisions that arise from the belief that there are “irreconcilable differences” among the members.

Can such disunity and divisiveness be prevented? When we look at the history of the church as a whole, and at the history of specific church bodies and congregations; and also, when we consider the fact that everyone in the church on earth is infected with a sinful nature, we might be skeptical that such problems can ever be avoided.

But St. Paul is not so pessimistic. In spite of the temptations to divisiveness and factionalism that are always there, Paul lays out for us the key to overcoming these temptations, and to preserving the unity of the church - both in regard to matters of faith and conviction, and in regard to personal relationships among Christians that continue to be characterized by mutual love, mutual respect, and mutual patience.

He writes in today’s lesson, from his First Epistle to the Corinthians: “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”

We see, first of all, that Paul does recognize the possibility of unity and peace among the members of the church. And we see what form that unity is supposed to take.

Paul is not talking simply about an external, superficial unity - characterized perhaps by mutual indifference to the deeper questions of Christian faith and life, or by an attitude of “agreeing to disagree” about what should be believed and done. Christian unity is likewise not based on a commonality in emotions, or on a shared sentimentality.

As the apostle appeals to us to agree with each other, and not to be divided, he calls on us instead to be “united in the same mind and the same judgment.” Other English translations of this passage word it in these ways: “perfectly united in mind and thought”; “united with the same understanding and the same conviction”; “united in thought and purpose”; “having the same kind of thinking and the same purpose.”

You get the general idea. The unity of the church is preserved when Christians embrace and confess the same objective teachings, and when they share a mutual commitment to the same mission and purpose.

Splits and divisions can be avoided if the members of the church adhere to the same standards of faith and practice, and if they agree to follow those standards when resolving any problems that may arise. It’s that simple. And, it’s that hard!

The next question that naturally arises, of course, is, how the church is to determine what its standards of faith and practice are supposed to be. St. Paul does not leave us guessing on that point, either.

In the verse that immediately precedes the portion of his epistle that was read as our lesson today, he had said: “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” There’s something supernatural and even miraculous in the creation and growth of the Christian church.

Ultimately, you didn’t establish your fellowship with Christ and his church by the powers of your own will and choosing. If you are a member of Christ’s body by faith, it is because God called you to this faith, and because his Spirit birthed that faith within you, and thereby made you to be a part of this living, spiritual temple.

And the preservation of the unity of the church is likewise, at the deepest level, a work of our faithful God, and not a human achievement. That’s why Paul appeals to us “by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” that we all agree, and that there be no divisions among us.

As we all learned from our catechism, in Biblical usage the Lord’s “name” is more than a particular term that is used to invoke him, or to distinguish him from other beings. Rather, the Lord’s “name” is everything by which he makes himself known to us, and by which he establishes and maintains his presence among us.

When Jesus says in Matthew 18 that where two or three are gathered in his name, he is there among them, he is referring to a gathering around his Word, by which he reveals himself and his will to his church.

And so, when St. Paul implores us to remain united, and to avoid divisions, “by the name of Jesus Christ,” he is not only testifying to the authority by which he gives us this directive, but he is also showing us the way by which this directive can be fulfilled.

When he reminds us of the one baptism instituted by Christ, by which we were all incorporated into the Lord’s church; and when he reminds us of the preaching of the cross, by which we are all forgiven and justified, he is holding up for us the only foundation on which the church, and the unity of the church, are built.

There’s a big difference between this divine plan for Christian unity, and the common human assumption that the members of a church - or of any other organization - establish their own defining principles, and define their own mission, through a process of negotiation and compromise.

The Democratic and Republican party platforms are hammered out behind closed doors every four years. Representatives of the various special interest groups and caucuses within each party vie against each other in their struggle to have the dominating influence. Like the making of hot dogs, the writing of a political party platform is something that the rank-and-file members of each party probably don’t want to see.

The church is not like this, though. Or at least it’s not supposed to be like this. The faith and practice of the church is handed down by the Lord of the church - enshrined in Scripture, and witnessed to in the church’s creeds and confessions.

Therefore, in avoiding division, and in preserving unity, we shouldn’t listen to each other, as much as we should listen together to Christ. Certainly we should always be sensitive to each other’s fears, and patiently bear with each other’s personal weaknesses. But in principle, the closer we all get to Christ - in believing his Word, and in following his ways - the closer we get to each other.

If it becomes evident that there are differences in faith among the members of a church, the response should not be to initiate a process of negotiation and compromise, in order to figure out the “least common denominator” beliefs that can keep everyone together anyway. Rather, everyone should examine his or her own thinking in the light of the Holy Scriptures, and be willing to accept the Lord’s correction and guidance from the Holy Scriptures.

As St. Paul says in Second Corinthians, in the struggle between God’s revealed truth and the deceptions of the devil, “We destroy arguments, and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.”

But Christ, through his Word, does not just educate us and shape our thinking. He also saves and heals our souls, by the redemption that he accomplished in the shedding of his blood for the sins of the world.

St. Paul says further on today’s text from First Corinthians, that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

Christ’s name, as it is placed upon us, forgives our sins, and reconciles us to God. Christ’s name, as it is placed within us, gives us a heart that is willing and able to forgive those who have hurt and offended us, and reconciles us to each other.

“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”

That’s a clear word from God, which is directed squarely at the conscience of each of us. As you consider that fact, please ask yourself these questions:

How faithful have I been to this directive? How often have I employed carnal tactics in dealing with spiritual problems, instead of relying on the name and revelation of Jesus?

How often have I ignored denials of Biblical truth by those I care about, without saying anything to encourage in them a better understanding and confession of the faith? How often have I looked the other way when the law of Christian love was violated, instead of offering a word of Biblical admonition to someone who had not shown a proper sensitivity to, and respect for, a brother or sister?

How often have my actions been motivated by a desire to be right, rather than by a desire to exalt the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and submit to his revealed will? How often have I refused to forgive those who have hurt me, thereby helping to perpetuate a spirit of disunity and alienation among God’s people?

In general, regarding the ongoing temptations to disunity that the church always faces in this world, how often have I been a part of the problem, and not a part of the solution?

The devil wants to tear us apart from each other. And more significantly, he wants to tear us away from Christ.

The devil wants to pollute our Christian morality, and to corrupt our Biblical ethics, with worldly alternatives. The devil wants to obscure the plain teaching of Scripture regarding the way of salvation that God has provided for humanity, and regarding the sacred means by which God most certainly delivers his grace to his church.

The devil is actually quite pleased when people invent their own religious doctrines, on the basis of what seems plausible and rational. He knows that anything we come up with on our own, will invariably draw us closer to his deceptions, and farther from God’s truth.

He likes it when religious people fabricate for themselves an artificial religious unity - not based on a common acceptance of the teachings of God’s Word - because he knows that such artificial unity actually disunites us from the divine Source of all true unity.

The devil wants us to ignore what St. Paul tells us today. And in times of testing, when arguments ensue, and when relationships become strained, he wants us to conclude - as quickly as possible - that we have “irreconcilable differences” with each other. He knows that when we become alienated from each other, and from Christ, he can then step in and reclaim us for himself.

But Jesus is not going to let that happen. He will continue to bring to us his name - his revelation of his divine person, of his divine saving work, and of the saving grace that he extends to us in our weakness and need.

He continues to place his name and Word upon us, in his declaration of full forgiveness for all our failures. He continues to place his name and Word within us, as he teaches us his saving truth, builds up our Christian character, and conforms us to his image. And, incidentally, that does usually make us less irritating to other people, and easier to get along with.

By the working of God’s Spirit, we put on the mind of Christ, and are filled with the love of Christ. By the working of God’s Spirit, we are drawn every day, in repentance and faith, to the one cross of Christ, which is our only hope.

And as we are drawn together to the cross, we are drawn also to each other. That’s how the unity of Christ’s church is preserved. That’s how Christ protects his people from the divisiveness that would destroy them.

Among Christians who kneel together at the same altar, and who partake of the same sacramental mystery, there need never be any “irreconcilable differences.” The forgiveness that we receive from God, and that we then pass on to each other in Christian love and forbearance, has the supernatural power to bring reconciliation to every division, and peace to every conflict.

The name of our Lord Jesus Christ, with everything that this name means and stands for, has the power to bring clarity of thought to every confused mind. The name of our Lord Jesus Christ, with everything that this name means and stands for, has the power to bring a renewal of conviction, and a refocusing of Christian commitment and devotion, to every misguided heart and will.

The name of our Lord Jesus Christ, with everything that this name means and stands for, has the power to sooth all bitterness, to suppress all carnal strife, and to bring reconciliation and a restored harmony to all godly relationships.

“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” Amen.

2017 Jan 29 - Epiphany 4 - Micah 6:1-8

Have you ever been sued in a court of law? We live in a very litigious society, so the chances are pretty good that some of you have been.

And those of you who have been taken to court would probably confirm to the rest of us that it was not a very enjoyable experience.

I would imagine, too, that getting sued by a person who has a lot of resources at his disposal - and a fairly good case against you - would be an especially onerous experience. Your chances of prevailing would not be very good.

What do you think it would be like to be sued by God? How would you like to be hauled into court by the Almighty, where he would press very damaging charges against you, and call forth witnesses who would validate those charges?

What would be your chances of prevailing in such a case? Well, it would be impossible to come out on top in that kind of scenario.

The idea of God suing people may seem preposterous. But in today’s Old Testament lesson from Micah, this is the exact kind of imagery the Lord uses, to illustrate what is going on when he calls his people to account for their failure to honor the covenant that he has made with them.

And to the extent that we, too, are guilty of this kind of “breach of faith,” in our relationship with God, then we too are, as it were, being sued by him, right now. He is hauling us before an objective tribunal of justice. He is making his case against us.

In today’s text, the nation of Israel is on trial for its sin of turning away from the God who had established them as a nation. As a people, they owed everything to him. But they were now ignoring his Word and violating his laws.

God, who had made a sacred and enduring covenant with his people, has been wronged by them. His love for them has been betrayed.

And he is not happy about it. And so, in the courtroom to which he has summoned them, the Lord calls upon his people to answer for their negligence:

“Arise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the indictment of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has an indictment against his people, and he will contend with Israel.”

“O my people, what have I done to you? How have I wearied you? Answer me!”

“For I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember what Balak king of Moab devised, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

God had saved the Hebrews from a very real earthly slavery in Egypt. Mount Sinai - and indeed all the immovable mountains of the world - had witnessed those momentous events of history, by which the Lord had liberated his people from this cruelty; and by which he had protected them from their enemies during their journey to the promised land.

The mountains are therefore called upon by the Lord, in this courtroom proceeding, to bear witness to all these things. God had indeed fulfilled the promise that he had made to Israel’s forefather Abraham, and had made Israel to be a free people and a great nation.

The people of this nation cannot ignore the objective, factual history of God’s saving actions on their behalf. They are, accordingly, obligated to serve him always, and to remember the covenant he has made with them.

But, shamefully, they have not done this. And no one can deny that, either.

Today, those who have been baptized into Christ have become a part of the new Israel, and have become spiritual heirs of the promise made to Abraham. Christians, too, are therefore under obligation to serve the Lord.

By the death and resurrection of his Son, God has set us free from our inborn slavery to sin, death, and the devil. We therefore owe him everything.

It’s true, of course, that Christians, as Christians, no longer live under the law, or under the weight of its accusations. But Christians, as Christians, do now live within the law, willingly serving God and their neighbors according to it, in love.

In his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul asks these rhetorical questions: “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” “Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!”

But how have we measured up under these obligations - to live as Christ lived, and as Christ has told us to live? How faithfully have we honored the Lord who bought us with the price of his own blood?

Have we treated him and his claims on us as an annoyance, and as a hindrance to our desire to pursue and fulfill our own goals in life? Have we been guilty of a “breach of contract” with the God of our salvation?

Is God, right now, suing us, as he calls us to answer for our inexcusable failures? As far as the demands of the divine law are concerned, he is!

And if you examine your life and its priorities on the basis of what God’s law does in fact require of you, I think you will agree that you have not honored him to the extent you are obligated to. You do deserve to be “sued,” and to be compelled to give an account of yourself.

Mount Calvary witnessed the death of the Prince of Life. And Mount Calvary - together with all the other mountains of the earth - thereby testifies against you, when you act as if God, in Christ, has not earned the right to have your absolute and total loyalty.

St. Paul reminds us in his First Epistle to the Corinthians: “You were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” God has deserved much more from us than what he has gotten.

When God “sued” the nation of Israel, as described by the prophet Micah, Israel acknowledged its guilt, and inquired of the Lord as to what kind of “compensatory damages” it needed to pay to him:

“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

This reflects the notion that perhaps the God of Israel would demand some kind of huge payment, offered in the “currency” that “gods” usually want from their devotees - namely sacrifices of appeasement and self-atonement. It was even suggested that the Lord might require a human sacrifice, because of the enormity of Israel’s sin.

But of course, the sacrificing of children - which was common among the Canaanites and other idolatrous nations - was strictly forbidden by the true God. The conventions and “standard operating procedures” of the various pagan religions of the region, did not apply to him.

And most of the assumptions and popular beliefs about God and his ways that we encounter in the world in which we live, likewise do not really apply to him.

When you admit that God is justified in condemning you for your lack of obedience to him, how would you think that you might be able to “make it up to him”? What kind of “settlement” might you try to reach with him?

Nowadays, most people no longer think that divine beings are interested in human sacrifices. But they do usually think that God can be appeased through other kinds of less extreme religious activities on our part, such as attendance at church, making contributions to the church, and so forth.

People who have been convicted in their conscience of displeasing God will often assume that God can be appeased, and that they can atone for their own failures, by performing such religious actions.

But it’s all completely wrong-headed. God doesn’t need these things.

And God doesn’t want these things, when people would presume to offer them to him as if they were meritorious sacrifices, or religious actions that are thought to have the effect of turning God’s anger away from us when he sees us doing them for him.

When these or any other religious actions are performed as if they were a human work that appeases God, they are, in fact, an abomination to him - because they then become an idolatrous substitute for the way back to God that God has actually revealed.

By the blood of his Son Jesus Christ, God has redeemed us, and purchased us to be his own people. And in his death on the cross, Jesus has already atoned for all our sins - including our sins of ignoring God and turning away from him.

That’s why it’s an even deeper offense against God when people try to atone for their own sins. When you do this, or think in this way, you are in such times putting yourself in the place of Christ, as your own Savior.

You are thereby presuming to do what only Christ can do. And you are presuming to do what has already been done by Christ on your behalf, and for your benefit.

For a whole host of reasons, God strictly forbade the people of Israel to offer their children as human sacrifices to him - as many of the pagans were willing to do in regard to their false gods. From the true God’s perspective, there would be only one such sacrifice that would be pleasing to him - the sacrifice that he himself would provide by sending his own Son into the flesh, and to the cross.

In Christ, God himself bore the weight of his own justice against human sin. He himself paid the penalty of our negligence, rebellion, and disobedience, as our substitute.

In today’s text, the misguided people of Israel are told what God really expects of them in their national life, and in their attitude toward him: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

It’s not an outward ceremonial action that God demands of those who have offended him. He doesn’t want to be “paid off” through ritual sacrifices.

But he calls instead for the turning of the hearts of his people, back to him. God wants to see in the people of Israel - and in us - a life of humble repentance, and a life that is characterized by the fruits of repentance in the way we think about and treat other people.

He wants to see in the people of Israel - and in us - a life of humble trust in his mercy, as we “walk humbly with our God,” in accordance with how God reveals himself in the Gospel, and comes to us in his Word.

And God does not only want to see this. He also causes it to happen.

His Word is not only the guide and the norm, by which we can know how to avoid sin and idolatry, and how to please the Lord with our behavior. His Word is also the power of God, by which God instills within us the repentance and faith that he requires.

To “walk humbly with our God” is to walk by faith. It is living life, every day, in recognition of the fact that God’s ways are better than our ways, and that his promises - promises of grace and forgiveness - are always true.

And as St. Paul also writes in his Epistle to the Romans: “We were buried...with [Christ] by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

We often do fail in holding up our end of our relationship with God. We often do not believe him when he speaks to us, or listen to him when he calls out to us. And he is not happy about it.

But when God “sues” us over it, it’s not because he wants to be “compensated” for the “pain and suffering” that our sins have brought upon him. He just wants us to stop ignoring him, and once again to acknowledge him to be the loving Lord of our lives.

He wants us to look to Christ and to his cross, as the chief evidence of that love, by which God has made us to be a new, holy nation before him. And he wants us to find our life, in the resurrection life of Christ, who as our living Savior is ever with us.

Your sins have caused an “alienation of affection” between you and your Savior. God wants that alienation to be brought to an end.

When God, as it were, hauls you into court, it’s not because he wants something from you. It’s because he wants you. And, ultimately, it’s because he wants to give himself to you.

In your baptism you were made to be a part of the body of Christ, and to be a citizen of the kingdom of Christ. Whenever you slip away from this, God returns you to where you belong. He causes you to be, once again, what your baptism says you are.

Today, as the law of God impresses itself upon you, God is “suing” you. He is calling to your attention the seriousness of your failures.

But also today - in the Lord’s absolution, in the Supper of his Son’s body and blood, and even in the preaching of this message right now - God is forgiving you.

In the courtroom to which his law had summoned you, you are now acquitted in Christ. Because of Christ, no judgment is levied against you.

He is not extracting a payment or a sacrifice from you. He is, rather, giving you the fruits and benefits of the one sacrifice for sin that really counts.

He is calling you back to where you belong. He is renewing his fellowship with you. And he is sending you out, once again, on the wonderful and joyful pathway of walking humbly with your God. Amen.