SERMONS - DECEMBER 2018
2 December 2018 - Advent 1 - Luke 19:28-40
We read in St. Luke:
“And as they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ And they said, ‘The Lord has need of it.’”
Have you ever thought about what it means for God Almighty to need something from us?
We, with a misplaced sense of self-sufficiency, do often refuse to acknowledge our needs. When you require help from someone, do you always admit it?
Or, in your pride, do you tell people that you are O.K., even when you are not? Do you assure people that you don’t need any help, even when you do?
On other occasions, we may speak of something as a “need,” even when it is not really a need but simply a desire - often a sinful desire. Fornicators often excuse their indulgence in sexual sin by speaking of their “needs.”
How often have you justified a craving for something that was morally questionable, or defended your acquisition of an unnecessary luxury, by telling yourself or others that you needed it?
But here we have a situation where God actually does need something, and he is willing to say so. Specifically, he needs a donkey, so that Jesus can ride on it.
We might think that God does not need anything from human beings. Isn’t God self-sufficient? Isn’t that a part of what it means for him to be God?
Well, in regard to God’s own existence as God, he does not need anything from you or me. But God does not simply exist. God also acts, in this world, and among men.
In order to save humanity from its sins, God became a human being. He personally entered into his creation and became a part of it. The Second Person of the Holy Trinity - the eternal Word - became flesh, and lived among us.
And in order to save humanity from within humanity, there are a lot of things that God needed to appropriate from humanity - and from the created world in which humanity lives - so that those things could be used by him for the fulfillment of his good and gracious will toward us.
For the accomplishing of humanity’s salvation from sin and death, the first thing God needed from humanity was a genuine human nature, so that Jesus - the Son of God - would be true God and true man. God could not create for Jesus a new human nature from scratch, which would be genetically disconnected from Adam and his descendants.
That would not be a human nature at all, but only a copy of human nature. And it would leave Adam and his actual descendants without a Savior.
And so, God needed to enter into the womb of a virgin, and miraculously take to himself a human nature from that virgin, in order to become a part of the human race to which she - and we - belong.
The Epistle to the Hebrews explains why God needed this, so that Jesus would come into the world in the way he did; and also why we, as the fallen children of man, also needed this:
“Since...the children share in flesh and blood, [Jesus] himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. ...he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.”
In today’s text from St. Luke, we are told that on a certain unique occasion, God also needed a donkey colt. God would not say that he needed something, if he did not really need it.
The Lord did not simply want a donkey, so that he could have improvised with a horse - or with some other creature - if he had to. No. The almighty creator and Lord of the universe - in the humble form of a man; and according to his eternal plan for our salvation - needed a donkey.
Centuries before the events that are described in today’s text, Zechariah had prophesied:
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
God needed a donkey, so that this prophecy would be fulfilled. Only a donkey would do.
The donkey was emblematic of Jesus’ humility. He was not entering Jerusalem as a fearsome, worldly conqueror - on a noble steed. He was entering the city as one who had come into the world not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
The donkey - as a beast of burden, and as a working animal - was also emblematic of the fact that Jesus was entering into the Lord’s Holy City to do the hard work of redeeming humanity, and to bear the heavy burden of all human sin - as he would carry that sin to the cross in our place.
As the donkey labored to carry Jesus down the road and through the gate, so too would Jesus labor to carry to Calvary your sinful pride, and your sinful self-justifications - and to suffer and die there, for the forgiveness of those sins, and for the forgiveness of all human sin.
Luke reports that Jesus sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village in front of you, where on entering you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever yet sat. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ you shall say this: ‘The Lord has need of it.’”
So those who were sent went away and found it just as he had told them. And as they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?” And they said, “The Lord has need of it.”
Can you imagine a situation where you look outside your window, and see two guys opening the door of your car, getting into it, and preparing to drive it away?
You then go outside to ask them what they are doing with your car, and they respond, “The Lord has need of it.” What would you think?
Well, Jesus is not going to send two disciples to your driveway to borrow your car in exactly this way today. Since the time of his ascension, that’s not the way he operates. But there are other things that God does need from you today, for the fulfillment of what he is doing today.
God became a part of the human race in the person of Christ, and in his earthly, human body he suffered for our sins, and atoned for them. The incarnation was a once-and-for-all-time miracle. It will not happen again.
But God does still use things that he needs to get from us, and from the world in which we live, in delivering to people the salvation that Jesus won at the cross.
In Holy Baptism, Jesus’ regenerating and forgiving gospel is applied personally and in a very tangible way to a real human being, who has been conceived in sin, but who also had been redeemed by Christ.
According to the Lord’s institution, God needs water in order to do this - the same kind of earthly water in which Jesus himself had been baptized. According to the Lord’s institution, God also needs the human hand and human voice of an administrant in order to do this.
In the sacrament of Holy Communion we are given our Savior’s body and blood, for the forgiveness of sins and for the strengthening of faith. According to the Lord’s institution, God needs bread and wine for this to happen.
No other earthly elements will do. He needs, here and now, the same elements that Jesus used when he first administered this sacrament to his disciples, on the night in which he was betrayed.
God brings the message of human salvation to human beings through the ministry of human ministers. As this mission is continually carried out in the Lord’s name in each generation, the Lord needs called servants to do this.
Regarding himself and those who assisted him in his apostolic ministry, St. Paul tells the Corinthians, “We are God’s fellow-workers.”
And for the maintenance of these ministers, the Lord needs the material support that comes from the rest of God’s people, so that pastors, teachers, and missionaries can in fact be set apart on a full-time basis to do what God has called them to do. Paul tells the Philippians of his gratitude to God for their “partnership in the gospel.”
God, in Christ, needs all these natural things from you, so that he can give to you - to your friends and relatives, and to all men - the supernatural things that you need from him.
What you need from him - a new heart, a new life, and a new hope for eternity - you would not be able to receive, if God had not taken your humanity to himself in the conception and birth of Jesus. What you need from him, you would not have, if Jesus had not borrowed that donkey, and if he had not ridden that donkey to his death - and to your salvation from death.
But God did take and use what he needed, so that he can now bestow upon you, and fill you with, what you need. As a man among men, Jesus forgives and heals you.
As your brother according to the flesh, Jesus is your true friend, your constant companion, and your ever-vigilant protector, in all the trials that you face.
He uses what he needs to use - ministers and laymen; water, bread and wine - so that the comforting promises of his gospel can be brought to you, and so that the power of his love can remain with you, and work through you.
As the humble servant of God and man, Jesus calls and equips you to be his servant, and the servant of your neighbor.
He uses you, and the things that you own and share, as his instrument in meeting your neighbors’ needs - for this world, and for the world to come; even as he meets your needs through your neighbors, and through the things that they own and share.
“And as they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ And they said, ‘The Lord has need of it.’” Amen.
9 December 2018 - Advent 2 - Luke 3:1-20
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
With these words we are introduced today to the extraordinary preaching ministry of John the Baptist. John was a real person, who really did and said the things that are reported about him in the Gospels.
The Christian faith as a whole is not a fairy tale, about things that supposedly happened “once upon a time.” It is, rather, rooted in actual history. Hence we are told in today’s text from St. Luke that
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”
John’s ministry was extraordinary in more than one way. He had a very unique preaching style. Few if any modern homiletics professors would tell their seminary students that calling the congregation a “brood of vipers” is the best way to begin a sermon.
But John also had a very unique mission, namely to prepare the people of Israel for the impending appearance of their Messiah. His ministry, as the last of the prophets of the Old Testament dispensation, had been predicted several centuries earlier. St. Luke tells us that
“He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
To the Jews of this era, baptism in general was not an unknown ritual. Gentiles who converted to Judaism were received into the chosen nation of God by means of “proselyte baptism.”
The way it worked, was that all the members of a converting gentile family - including infants - were baptized, after which the males in the family were then also circumcised. This baptism ritual was said by the rabbis to be bringing about a “new birth” for those to whom it was administered.
Their first birth had been as gentiles. Now they were being “born again” as Jews. The parallels between this ritual and how it was described, and the sacrament of Christian Baptism as Jesus instituted it, are obvious. And these parallels are not coincidental.
But the Great Commission that Jesus gave to his church, involving the administration of Christian Baptism to people from all nations, was not yet in effect. The focus of John’s ministry, and the intended recipients of John’s Baptism, were the nation of Israel.
And this was seen by many as odd, because what John was saying, in effect, is that Jews must now see themselves as if they were gentiles, in need of a new beginning with God. This explains John’s comment, which anticipated objections to the idea of a baptism that was necessary for those who were already Jews:
“And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.”
This was not easy for many of the Jews to accept, because they thought that their standing with God was already secure, in view of the fact that they were Jews and not gentiles. But now John is telling them that they, too, need to be baptized.
And this new and different kind of baptism, to which God was now calling them, was “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” It was a baptism that reached into the heart; that demanded changes in the heart; and that worked the changes it demanded.
The Greek word translated into English as “repentance” is “metanoia,” which means a change of mind, or a reorientation of one’s whole way of thinking. It is not referring only to a change in outward behavior.
National pride before the rest of the world, must be replaced by individual humility before the judgment of God. An attitude of self-congratulation for obeying the letter of the law, must be replaced by an honest admission of failure in obeying the spirit of the law.
John’s preaching, as Isaiah’s prophecy concerning his ministry described it, concerned the need for each person to have a pathway for God into his life. Sin blocks God.
The sin must be removed, and a straight, clear, and level road for God must be laid out and put in place, so that God can and will travel on that pathway to its internal destination; and bring true spiritual life where there was only death, true hope where there was only despair, and true faith and confidence in God where there was only presumption, fear, and uncertainty.
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
Repentance - as the Spirit of God works it in mind and heart through the preaching of the law - lays out and clears this pathway.
Repentance is not an act of religious self-mortification, which earns God’s favor. Repentance is not an internal spiritual effort that we put ourselves through, to purify ourselves and make ourselves worthy of divine attention.
It is, rather, an emptying, and an opening. It is not a religious reach toward God, as much as it is a surrender to God, and to his just judgments against our transgressions and shortcomings.
Repentance for sin prepares the mind and heart for the forgiveness of sin, which is the first and chief gift that God bestows when he does come.
Divine forgiveness repairs the breach between God and man that man’s rebellion against God creates. God’s gracious removal of the guilt and stain of sin restores the spiritual connection between God and humanity that humanity’s defiance against God breaks.
Those who responded to John’s preaching, and who received the baptism that he administered, were forgiven all their sins in view of the coming Messiah, and the salvation that he would bring. They may not have understood all the details of how the life, death, and resurrection of Christ would play out, or what the timing of everything would be.
John himself seems not to have had a full knowledge of exactly how all of this would take place. And he didn’t know who the Messiah was, until Jesus later came to him, to receive baptism for himself from John’s hand.
But what God had made known to John, John believed and proclaimed. And those who received his message, and who themselves also believed what he proclaimed, thereby implicitly put their trust in Jesus on the basis of the promises of God concerning Jesus, even before they knew explicitly that the Messiah would turn out to be Jesus.
Repentance, and the faith that arises after repentance, are matters of the heart. And a repenting and believing heart is a divinely-transformed heart.
Priorities are re-categorized. Values are realigned. Commitments are re-calibrated. And the way you live and treat other people changes.
These changes are not superficially patched onto the repentance and faith of the heart. They organically arise from repentance, and naturally flow out from faith, like fruit grows on a living, healthy tree.
In particular, the way in which a regenerated person lives and acts within his vocation, will be different from how an unregenerated person lives and acts. Those who truly know God, and who know that it is God who has called them to serve others in the positions of responsibility and power into which they have been placed, will behave differently than those who think that the positions they hold are opportunities for the self-serving exploitation of others.
And John the Baptist spells out some specific examples of this difference, with respect to the ordinary relationships that people in a community have with one another, and also with respect to those who have jobs in which the temptation to misuse authority would have been great in first-century Palestine. John says:
“‘Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ And the crowds asked him, ‘What then shall we do?’ And he answered them, ‘Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.’”
“Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Collect no more than you are authorized to do.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.’”
These vocational directives apply also to us, as they guide us to discern how our Christian priorities, our Christian values, and our Christian commitments shape the way in which we serve others, from within the callings we have received from God.
With hearts that have been transformed by God, we, too, bear the fruit of the repentance and faith that God has worked in us - in how we think about other people, and in how we treat other people. Indeed, everything in today’s text applies to us in one way or another.
To be sure, the baptism that Jesus instituted - and that we have received - is different in some ways from the baptism that John administered. But one way in which it is not different, is that we, too, have received “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” St. Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost:
“Repent and be baptized every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, and for your children, and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”
Indeed, as evangelical and sacramental Christians, we live within this baptism every day. Our repentance toward God, and God’s forgiveness toward us, are not one-time occurrences of the past, but they constitute the ongoing reality of our daily walk with God, by faith.
We listen to John’s preaching today, and today we admit that we, too, need to hear it - because we overstep the boundaries that God has set for us, and fall short of the standards that God has set for us. A superficial adherence to the religion in which we were raised, if that religion has not penetrated to the mind and heart, is not enough.
Being in church on Sunday is not enough. The church - together with everything that the church of Jesus Christ represents for us and gives to us - needs to be in us, every day.
Jesus Christ himself - the head and bridegroom of his church - needs to be in us, as his sacramental gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation abide with us, and cause us to become new creatures in him.
When the events reported in today’s text took place in history, Jesus had not yet been manifested as the promised Messiah. But we have heard John’s later declaration that Jesus of Nazareth is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. We hear this still - and sing this still with our own lips - whenever we are preparing to receive Christ in his Holy Supper.
And we know exactly how all of this played out - with a perfect life, followed by a sacrificial death, followed by a victorious resurrection, followed by a glorious ascension.
We have an inner joy, and know an inner peace, that come from the reconciliation with God that Jesus’ saving work has accomplished for us. God, in Christ, has traveled that pathway also into our lives, and God lives within us.
But at the same time, we are sobered and subdued when we think of Jesus’ future visible reappearance on this earth, and ponder what is yet to come - for us and for the world - on the day appointed for the judgment of all men. John reminds us:
“His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
And so we resolve today - with the Lord’s help - to get ready for this personally, and to stay ready for this personally, with a conscience that remains clear before God, because it continually exhales repentance and continually inhales forgiveness.
And we resolve today - with the Lord’s help - to do our part in helping to get the world ready for this, and in helping the world to stay ready for this, through the fulfillment of the Great Commission that Jesus has given to his church - a commission that will remain in effect for us until the end of the age:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
As we repent, and as we believe, we are comforted today to hear once again the voice of John the Baptist. As we hope, and as we work, we are challenged today to hear once again
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Amen.
16 December 2018 - Advent 3 - Luke 7:18-28
John the Baptist was the last of the prophets of the Old Testament dispensation. He was the immediate forerunner of Christ, preparing the nation of Israel for the appearance of their Savior.
As a prophet, everything that John preached was true. Everything that God had made known to him about the Messiah, he believed and proclaimed, so that others, too, could believe it. But John did not know and preach everything that there was to know about the Messiah and his mission.
For example, he did not know in advance that Jesus of Nazareth - a distant relative of his, actually - was in fact the Messiah. And he didn’t understand that it was necessary for Jesus, as the Messiah, to identify with sinful humanity, as the substitute and Savior of sinful humanity, by receiving baptism from John. Remember that Jesus had to talk John into baptizing him, because of John’s initial resistance.
In his preaching, John the Baptist correctly pointed forward to the final judgment that the Christ would bring upon the earth. From the beginning of his ministry, John understood that very clearly.
In last Sunday’s Gospel, from St. Luke, we heard snippets of his preaching in that respect: “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
“I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Later - especially after Jesus was baptized - John seems to have come to a fuller understanding of what Jesus as Messiah would do, and why. John began describing Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Before he would be the judge of the world, he would be the redeemer of the world.
The timing of all these things was still, perhaps, a bit unclear to John. But he was learning, and growing in his understanding of all the implications of what God had called him to proclaim.
We don’t know exactly why John sent two of his disciples to speak with Jesus, as today’s text from St. Luke reports it. But it appears to have been a part of a process by which John wanted to come to an even better understanding of the mission and ministry of Jesus, and by which he wanted his followers also to begin to look to Jesus as the one whom they must now follow.
John was in Herod’s dungeon. It was probably becoming clear to him that his public ministry was at an end, and that his time on earth was likely going to come to an end pretty soon as well. He would have known that his disciples must now become Jesus’ disciples, and he would have wanted to find ways of bringing them together.
“John, calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to the Lord, saying, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’ And when the men had come to him, they said, ‘John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”’”
“In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight. And he answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.’”
Jesus certainly expected John to recognize these works of compassion, as works of compassion that the Prophet Isaiah had mentioned in his description of the Messiah and his ministry. We read in Isaiah:
“Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.’ Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.”
And the Messiah himself is quoted in Isaiah as saying:
“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.”
John may have been expecting Jesus to “get down to business” right away, as soon as he was baptized: going right to the cross, then rising, and then not long after that sitting in judgment on all nations. But that was not God’s timetable.
Jesus’ longer and slower pathway to the cross, took him into and through the lives of many hurting people. And in the works and words of compassion that Jesus applied to those hurting people, he showed himself to be in perfect compliance with the two greatest commandments of God:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus was not only a man without sin, but he was also a man with an abundance of obedience. His life was filled with an active and loving righteousness under God’s law, reflected in an active love for his Father in heaven and for all people on earth.
The perfect righteousness of Christ made him worthy to offer himself as a substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of the unrighteous, once the proper time for that sacrifice would arrive. But his perfect righteousness needed to be established and confirmed beforehand in a real life of righteous love - a life of “active obedience” to God’s law in both letter and spirit.
Only then could this life - this perfect life of love - be offered to God to atone for the sins of all who have failed in their love for God and the neighbor. Only then could this righteousness - this perfect righteousness - be credited to the penitent and believing for their justification before God, in Christ.
And so, between the time of Jesus’ baptism, and the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus lived out who he was through healing the sick, through exorcizing the possessed, and most important of all, through proclaiming - to a humanity that was alienated from God because of sin - his gospel of reconciliation and peace with God.
John needed to know that this, too, was an important part of what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah of Israel. And Jesus needed time to do this. The disciples of John also needed to know this, as they were now being drawn to Christ, and to the mercy and forgiveness of God that can be fully known only in Christ.
And Jesus is still showing compassion to hurting people - even now - between his ascension and his future visible return to the earth. He is not doing it in person, though.
Since his ascension, he is no longer visibly present on the earth. He is no longer physically walking the highways and byways of this world. But he is showing compassion to hurting people even now, through us. On one occasion Jesus said:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”
We certainly believe the Lord’s promise that he is always mystically present with his church on earth, until the end of the age. We acknowledge that by the power of his Word and institution, he is truly present in his means of grace, delivering forgiveness, life, and salvation to his people.
He has delivered forgiveness, life, and salvation to you. He has set your heart at peace through his abiding presence with you, in the fellowship of his church.
But the physical works of compassion that he still performs for the needy, the lonely, and the suffering, he does not perform through Baptism and his Holy Supper as such.
He performs these works through the hands of other people: people who have been made to be “little Christs” to their neighbors, by being clothed with Christ, and by the indwelling of the Spirit of Christ. He performs these works through you.
The number of people who were healed and fed by Jesus directly, during the three years of his earthy ministry, has been far surpassed by the number of people who have been healed and fed by Christians, in the name of Christ, over the past 2,000 years.
The Christian Church invented the very concept of a hospital. And feeding the hungry and clothing the naked have always been a mainstay of Christian charity.
These kinds of things take place not only through organized Christian agencies and synodical boards, which you may support. Each of you - in your personal relationships with people in your family, in your community, in your place of employment, and in your congregation - have many opportunities to be a “little Christ” to them, and to manifest your God-given love for them.
You can visit someone who is lonely. You can encourage, simply by your caring presence, someone who is struggling with a challenge or enduring a trial. You can pray with someone who is frightened.
You can assure someone with a troubled conscience that Jesus has put away his sins. You can heed the exhortations of St. Paul, in his Epistle to the Romans:
“Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. ... Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. ... If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. ... ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink...’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
The most important thing Jesus did during his earthly ministry, and the most important thing he does now - through us - is preaching the gospel. St. Mark reports that “after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’”
And in St. Luke, Jesus said to those whom he was sending forth to speak in his name: “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me...”
God, who loves this world and the people in it, is giving us time to manifest that love - broadly and deeply - to those with whom we share the world. He is giving us time to be the light of the world, and the salt of the earth, all to his glory. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says this about the future - a future that is our present:
“Because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”
Even as the love of many will grow cold - the love of those who love as the unbelieving world loves - the love of those who are immersed in, and filled with, God’s love, will not grow cold. Jesus talks about this in St. Luke’s Gospel:
“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. ... Give to everyone who begs from you... And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.”
“If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.”
“And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.”
“And your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” So far the words of our Lord.
Our love for each other, and our love for the world, will remain warm and vibrant, as Christ’s sustaining presence among us - in Word and Sacrament - remains warn and vibrant. God’s saints will endure in his grace, and by his power, because God’s mercy toward us will endure. “His mercy endures forever,” as we often chant, and we always believe.
The most loving thing we can do, as we wait for the Lord’s second coming and for judgment day, is to speak the words of eternal life, in Christ’s name, to all those for whom Christ died. And that is everyone.
“Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,” as St. Paul tells us in his Epistle to the Ephesians. And we want others to grow up into Christ with us.
We want others to believe what we tell them; to repent of their sins as we repent of ours; and to trust in the Son of God - who is their Savior - for forgiveness, life, and salvation.
John the Baptist, as he languished in Herod’s dungeon, seemed to be getting a little impatient with Jesus. Jesus seemed not to be doing what he was supposed to be doing, as the redeemer and judge of the world.
We might be tempted toward a similar kind of impatience: as we wait for the visible return of Christ, and wonder why he is taking so long; as we wonder why he is allowing so much pain and suffering to continue to occur in this world, for so long; and as we may even begin to wonder if Jesus will ever return, or if any of the things we have been taught in the Scriptures about him are really true.
But Jesus calls us out of that impatience and doubt, as he draws us back to the unchanging promises of our baptism - through which he has placed his name upon us, and has claimed us as his own.
Jesus calls us out of that impatience and doubt, as he invites us back to his sacred sacramental meal, and gives his very body and blood into our mouths, to renew us in faith.
And Jesus calls us to go forward into this fallen and hurting world, as his representatives and agents, and in his strength and wisdom, to do our part in alleviating the pain and suffering that we are noticing and bemoaning.
God is doing something about that pain and suffering - about that loneliness and discouragement; about that fear and guilt. He is doing something about it through you; through the material and spiritual resources that he has given to you; and through the love and compassion for others that he has implanted within you.
As you struggle with your sinful impatience with God, think about God’s loving patience with you. And listen to what St. Peter writes to you:
“The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But, the day of the Lord will come...”
“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
“Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Amen.
23 December 2018 - Advent 4 - Luke 1:39-56
In the English of today’s Gospel from St. Luke - which describes the joyous meeting between Mary of Nazareth and Elizabeth the wife of Zechariah - the word “blessed” appears several times. But this English word “blessed,” as it appears in various places today’s text, actually represents two different words in the original Greek.
When Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist, greeted Mary, who was pregnant with Jesus, she said: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”
The Greek term that stands behind the term “blessed” in this statement, is eulogeo. This term also stands behind the English word “eulogy.” It refers to the kind of blessing that involves “good words” being spoken over someone, or about someone.
Good words from God had indeed been spoken over and about Mary. Not long before Mary’s visit to her kinswoman Elizabeth, the angel Gabriel visited Mary, and told her:
“Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you! ... Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.”
“He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. ...”
“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.”
Truly extraordinary and powerful things were spoken over and about Mary. And God’s message to her about what he was doing for her and in her - as delivered by the angel - was the means through which God actually accomplished the miracle that he was promising. Martin Luther commented on this:
“She has no husband and her womb is entirely enclosed. Yet she conceives in her womb a real, natural child with flesh and blood. ...”
“Where does it come from? The angel Gabriel brings the word: ‘Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son...’ With these words Christ comes, not only into her heart, but also into her womb, as she hears, grasps, and believes it. No one can say otherwise, than that the power comes through the Word.”
God in his grace, and according to his plan for the salvation of the world, had chosen Mary to be the mother of his Son - that is, the mother of God in human flesh. When Mary had her encounter with the Word of God, her life was radically changed. And she was profoundly blessed.
The words were themselves a powerful and effective divine blessing spoken upon her; and this blessing caused, and resulted in, another kind of blessing. As Elizabeth continued to speak to Mary, she then spoke of this other blessing:
“Behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
The Greek word translated as “blessing” here is a different word - not eulogeo, but makarios - which means fortunate, well off, and happy. Because of the blessed words that were spoken over her, blessed experiences were then felt by her, and a blessed gift was bestowed upon her - the gift of Jesus, her son and her Savior, placed into her womb, and placed into her heart.
Perhaps this can be illustrated by the two kinds of blessing that my wife and I gave to our daughters in conjunction with their weddings. First, before they got married, their respective boyfriends came to me and asked for my approval of their desire to propose to my daughter.
They wanted my “blessing” - that is, my words of agreement with this desire. They each received that blessing. And then, when the day of the wedding came, my wife and I “blessed” the couple yet again, yet in a different way: by providing a meal and a reception for them and their guests.
The connection between these two kinds of blessing, insofar as God is their source in the lives of his children, is touched on by the Lord’s statement through the Prophet Isaiah:
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
God’s Word makes things happen. And when God wants something to happen, he speaks a powerful Word to cause it to happen.
When God blesses us with a Word, blessed actions then also occur. Blessed things come into existence.
When these blessed actions are done for us, and when these blessed things come into existence within us, we know in joy that we have indeed been doubly blessed: in the blessing that was spoken to us - eulogeo - and in the blessing that happened to us - makarios.
During her interactions with Elizabeth, Mary was indeed filled with joy and delight, when she reflected on all the things that she had heard and received from God. She had believed what the angel told her, because what he told her was a message that God had sent to her.
In faith she had been certain that she would supernaturally become the mother of God’s Son, because God had said so - even though there was no other human or natural reason to think that something like that could happen. In faith, she had submitted herself to the mystery of God’s loving will - for her redemption, and for the redemption of the world - which God’s Word had made known to her.
In faith she had welcomed into her life, and into her body, the Holy Spirit, by whom she did miraculously conceive a child - as the Spirit of God worked in her through the Word of God. “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” she had said to the angel.
And now, in faith, she sings the song of one who has been blessed by her Lord in such marvelous ways:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”
Ah, there’s that word “blessed” again! This time, in the Greek, it is a variation on Makarios - that is, fortunate, well off, and happy.
And all generations will indeed proclaim that Mary was a most fortunate person, because of the great gift that she received from God; and because of what the divine Child whom she brought into this world means to all these generations.
All generations of Christians call her blessed, because God called her blessed; and then, through the power of his Word, made her to be blessed. All generations of Christians call her blessed, because of the blessings that all generations of Christians have received through her Son - who took his human nature from her, so as to become the Savior of the human race, and our Savior.
As Mary’s song continues, she goes on to sing: “And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.” God’s mercy was revealed in what he said to Mary, and in what he did for Mary.
God’s mercy was revealed in his only-begotten Son, who came into this world through Mary. And God’s mercy is indeed for us, as we fear the Lord, and as we trust in the Lord.
The words from God about the incarnation of God’s Son that were spoken to Mary by Gabriel, are words that were never spoken to any other human being, before or since.
This special spoken blessing was a blessing that was only for her. The Second Person of the Holy Trinity becoming flesh, so that he could live as a man among men, is a unique, never-to-be-repeated event, that happened only in her.
But there are words of blessing that God does want his called messengers to speak over you, and that he wants you to hear and believe. When your conscience convicts you of your sins, and you sense that your sins have caused an alienation and separation between you and God, your pastor is then sent to pronounce upon you the blessing of absolution - spoken in the stead and by the command of God’s Son.
Through his institution of the public ministry of his church, God arranges for “good words” of forgiveness and reconciliation to be spoken over you and about you; and through those words, he declares that, as far as he is concerned, your sins have been put away, and he is at peace with you.
God says this, and he wants you to believe this. But God does not just say this.
He does not only bless you with these words, and with an announcement that your standing with him is back to what it should be - as important and comforting as such a divine declaration is. Through the power of those words, he makes this reconciliation actually to happen; and he, as it were, puts the tangible reality of that reconciliation inside of you.
If your sins had resulted in a strain and even a separation between you and God, God now brings about a real reunion between himself and you. He blesses you, in the sense of causing you to be truly fortunate, by renewing in you the indwelling of his Spirit, and by renewing his Son’s mystical union with you.
St. Paul writes in his First Epistle to the Corinthians:
“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”
And to the Colossians, Paul also writes:
“I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but 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. Him we proclaim...”
Something similar happens for and in communicants, in conjunction with the Lord’s Supper. The “good words” that are recited in the stead and by the command of Christ in the consecration, are a spoken blessing from God.
They are a blessing of the bread and wine - in the presence of the communicants - as the words of Christ’s institution are spoken over those earthly elements, so that they will now be the host and carrier of his body and his blood. And they are a blessing of the communicants themselves, as Christ’s words are spoken to those who are thereby invited to receive him in this special way; and whose hearts and minds are prepared by those words for the extraordinary encounter with Christ that they will have.
These words are true. And God wants you to believe these words. We confess in the Large Catechism:
“It is the Word...that makes and sets this Sacrament apart. So it is not mere bread and wine, but is, and is called, Christ’s body and blood. ... It is not the word or ordinance of a prince or emperor. But it is the Word of the grand Majesty, at whose feet all creatures should fall, and affirm [that] it is as He says, and accept it with all reverence, fear, and humility.”
“With this Word you can strengthen your conscience and say, ‘If a hundred thousand devils, together with all fanatics, should rush forward, crying, “How can bread and wine be Christ’s body and blood?,” ... I know that all spirits and scholars together are not as wise as is the Divine Majesty in His little finger.’ Now here stands Christ’s Word, “Take, eat; this is My body. ... Drink of it, all of you; this is My blood of the new testament.” ... What Christ’s lips say and speak, so it is. He can never lie or deceive.”
And, once the verbal blessing of God has been spoken, heard, and believed, God then wants those who participate in this Supper to be “blessed” also by having the body and blood of his Son bestowed upon them, through their sacramental eating. The Lutheran theologian Martin Chemnitz explains the deeper meaning of this:
“Christ instituted that in the Lord’s Supper bread and wine should be means or instruments through which he wishes to offer and communicate His body and blood to those who eat, in order that He might be and remain in the believers not only through faith and Spirit, but...also by natural or substantial participation, and might thereafter be united with them more and more.”
“Therefore, after the use of the blessed bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper, ...there ought to be taught from the Word of God the sweetest consolation about the union of Christ, God and man, ... with the soul and body of the believers, that He may bear, preserve, give life to, and rule us who have been inserted and, as it were, grafted into Him.”
According to the special calling that was given to Mary - to be the mother of God in human flesh - Mary was blessed in two powerful ways. She was “blessed” - eulogeo - when good words were spoken over her and about her - words that she believed to be true. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”
And she was “blessed” - makarios - when God did great things for her - placing his own Son into her womb - so that she was most fortunate and happy on account of the wonderful gift she had received. “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
According to your calling as a baptized child of God, as a forgiven sinner, and as a member of God’s family and household, you too are blessed by God in two powerful ways. In the preaching of the gospel to you, in the pronouncement of Holy Absolution upon you, and in the speaking of the Words of Institution for the sacraments that are received by you, you are “blessed” - eulogeo - by these good and powerful words, which announce God’s peace and pardon in Christ.
And you are “blessed” - makarios - when God regenerates you, transforms you, and fills you with his own living presence. In his Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul expresses the Trinitarian wish
“that according to the riches of his glory [the Father] may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith - that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
In the humility of a faith that clings to God’s promises in Christ, and that is in awe of God’s love and mercy toward us, we each join Mary in saying in response: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Amen.
24 December 2018 - Christmas Eve
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
My wife and I were noting recently that one of the radio stations in Phoenix, which has the custom of playing only Christmas music in the weeks before Christmas, has been playing a much larger percentage of secular Christmas songs this year, as compared to previous years.
So we are hearing more about Santa Claus and Mommy kissing him, about reindeer and Grandma getting run over by them, and about sleigh bells and silver bells. And we are hearing less about Jesus, about Mary and Joseph, and about the angels and the shepherds.
Of course, as Lutherans, we have always missed being able to hear the theologically deep Christmas chorales that we most enjoy. But now we are hardly ever hearing the more popular religious carols, either.
Others have observed, and commented on, this trend. The cultural observance of Christmas is waning, even as all other forms of cultural Christianity are also waning.
The larger society is moving from indifference to the Christmas story and what it stands for, to outright hostility against Christ and his claims on the human race.
That segment of the population that used to come to church on Christmas and Easter, doesn’t come at all any more. That segment of the population that used to sing “Silent Night” at least for the sake of sentiment, has now lost that sentiment, and no longer sings it at all. And that is truly sad for a number of reasons.
Today is actually the 200th anniversary of the first public performance of “Silent Night,” at the Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, Austria. Not long before Christmas of 1818, a flood had damaged that church’s organ, which had not yet been repaired and made usable.
Two years earlier, the parish pastor, Father Joseph Mohr, had written the words of “Silent Night” - “Stille Nacht” in the original German. He now decided to debut this song in his church, and asked his musician friend Franz Gruber to write a tune for the hymn that would sound good on an acoustic guitar - since that was the instrument that would have to be used that year.
During the Christmas Eve service, as Father Mohr accompanied them on the guitar, the St. Nicholas choir sang the hymn. The song became instantly popular in the German-speaking world, and soon crossed confessional lines also into the Lutheran territories of Germany.
Before long it was translated into English, and became an Anglican favorite as well. And its historic popularity in America is illustrated by the fact that the version of “Silent Night” recorded by Bing Crosby is the third best-selling single of all-time.
The hymn actually has six stanzas. Most hymnals and songbooks include only three of them, but tonight we will sing all six.
This hymn is not theologically detailed or deep, but it does tell the story of Christmas in a warm and tender way that touches the heart, and that creates a yearning in the heart to learn more, and to enter more deeply into a contemplation of the meaning of this story.
The hymn speaks of the wrath of God against sin and wickedness. The idea of a holy and righteous God, who reserves the right to judge and punish evil, is an increasingly unpopular idea in our world - even as it is clearly a Biblical idea.
But the hymn also reminds us that the Babe of Bethlehem came into this world to still God’s wrath - ultimately by his sacrificial death on the cross - and to reveal the grace and forgiveness of God in Christ.
The hymn speaks of the love of God - a love that prompted God to establish for humanity a remedy for its sin - and a remedy for the alienation in relationships, and the personal harm, that sin causes.
The hymn speaks of Jesus as that remedy, since he alone is the only source of the redeeming grace that flows out from him into the lives of those who in repentance and humility turn away from sin, and who in thanksgiving and confidence trust in him.
And the hymn speaks of light - a light that shines in the midst of a great and deep darkness. Christ’s appearance in the world is, as it were, a shaft of divine, saving light, from heaven to earth.
And from Christ, the light of forgiveness, life, and salvation is now beaming out into the world, through his gospel, into the darkness of human destruction, human fear, human guilt, and human despair.
St. John, in the prologue of his Gospel, tells us about this. In speaking of the eternal, living “Word” - which is how he describes the Son of God - John writes:
“In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. ...”
“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.”
“He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. ... For from his fullness, we have all received grace upon grace. ...”
“No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.”
We spoke before of a society and of a world that have become hardened and even embittered to the true story of Christmas. That story and its implications are either ridiculed, because of the miracles that are involved; or they are despised, because of the claims that they make on the meaning of everyone’s existence, and the challenges that they pose to everyone’s conscience.
But the genuine Christmas story is also light - a light that shines on the darkness that resides in the hearts of men.
There might even be some of that darkness in you: if you have come under the influence of the secularization that surrounds you; and if you have allowed doubt and skepticism, pride and indifference, to begin to inhabit that part of your soul where faith in the message of Christmas is supposed to reside.
Tonight, there is a remedy for you. Tonight, the Christmas gospel has been preached to you.
Tonight, God’s gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation have been offered to you. And tonight, you can sing of that night in Bethlehem, so many centuries ago - that silent night, and that holy night.
Tonight, in word and song, you can in a sense be transported to that night - to that silent night when God’s reconciling love for you was made known. Tonight, in word and song, he who was Lord at his birth on that night - on that holy night - can be known and embraced once again as your Lord, as your Redeemer, and as your King.
St. Paul writes:
“For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.”
“But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
And the Prophet Isaiah declares:
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.”
Silent night! Holy night! Shepherds quake at the sight;
Glories stream from heaven afar, Heavenly hosts sing “Alleluia”:
Christ the Savior is born! Christ the Savior is born! Amen.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning is now, and will be forever. Amen.
25 December 2018 - Christmas Day - Luke 2:8-14
Christmas is generally understood and experienced to be a time of joy and happiness. This joy and happiness is fed and nurtured by the joyful and happy things that are usually going on around us at this time of year.
The old Christmas song “Silver Bells” describes some of those uplifting features - in the typical ambiance of the Christmas season - that contribute to this kind of cheerful atmosphere:
City sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style;
In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas.
Children laughing, people passing, meeting smile after smile,
And on every street corner you’ll hear:
Silver bells, silver bells. It’s Christmas time in the city.
Ring-a-ling, hear them ring. Soon it will be Christmas day.
Other things that help to make the Christmas season to be a joyful and happy time are: the time spent with family and friends; the sharing of gifts; the glow and sparkle of candles and other decorations; and the overall amplification of a general feeling of goodwill and kindness that this season produces.
But what if these positive and uplifting things are not a part of your Christmas? Or what if they may be there, externally, but are not able to overcome a more powerful inner sadness that you may be feeling?
What if you have experienced a serious loss in the past year? Maybe you lost a job or an opportunity for a job, a loved one or a relationship with a loved one. Thoughts about this loss still haunt you, and they discourage you, even today.
And for many, a burdened conscience may be weighing you down at Christmas, with regret over hurtful actions that you cannot undo, or with remorse over the effects of bad decisions that you cannot reverse.
If this is the way things are for you - in whole or in part - your Christmas may not be very joyful and happy, but rather depressing and lonely.
There may be some people right here in our midst - maybe you - who secretly are without a feeling of hope; without a sense that life has real meaning or purpose; or without a reason - as far as outward circumstances are concerned - to think that Christmas is in any way special or noteworthy, or a time for rejoicing.
But it is a time for rejoicing - for true rejoicing. It is a time for happiness - not a superficial pretense of happiness, but a real, inner, and overflowing happiness and celebration.
This is so, not because of the circumstances of your life in this world, but - in many cases - in spite of those circumstances. The joy and happiness of Christmas are not created by the external ambiance or traditions of Christmas that surround you, but by the gospel of God’s Son made flesh for your redemption.
That gospel - that joyful good news of forgiveness, life, and salvation in Christ - pierces through the sadness, even when the sadness is deep and wide, and goes right to your heart. The angel, in his announcement to the shepherds outside Bethlehem, gets it exactly right:
“And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.’”
It is the Word of God that supernaturally puts true joy and happiness into Christmas: not silver bells and children laughing; not friends and family; and not the absence of hardship or grief. It is the Word of God that puts true joy and happiness into you.
And this is why Christmas can be, and should be, a joyous and happy time for anyone, in any life circumstance.
Christ the Lord - the divine Lord of Israel and of all nations - has been born as a human baby, to be the companion and friend of humans. A Savior - one who will rescue us from the danger and peril of our sins - has come to this troubled and troubling world, to live for us, to die for us, and to rise again for us.
In the birth of Jesus, God became a part of our human story. And as the resurrected Lord, God’s Son remains even now as a part of that story. He lives among us still, and in his gospel and sacraments he speaks to us still.
In our guilt, he speaks forgiveness. In our fear, he speaks peace. In our loneliness and discouragement, he speaks to us as one who will never leave us or forsake us, and who tells us: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
If you look at what is going on around you at this time of the year, or even if you look inside of yourself - at your own emotions and thoughts - you may or may not find joy and happiness. But if you look to the Babe of Bethlehem - the Savior born for all people, who is with you today in Sermon and Supper - you will find a deep and abiding happiness, and an enduring comfort in your human troubles.
If you hear and believe the angel’s good news of a great joy that is for all people - and that is therefore for you - you will know that joy. The joy of Christ will shine upon you - and through you - even as you continue to face hardships and challenges, trials and temptations.
What the Lord says to his people Israel through the Prophet Isaiah, he says also to his church, the spiritual Israel; and he says to you:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
Again, through Isaiah, the Lord says this:
“For I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, ‘Fear not, I am the one who helps you.’ ... I am the one who helps you, declares the Lord; your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel. ... And you shall rejoice in the Lord; in the Holy One of Israel you shall glory.”
And Isaiah comforts Israel, and us, with this declaration:
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
“Of the increase of his government, and of peace, there will be no end, on the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice, and with righteousness, from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.”
Now to the Lord sing praises, all you within this place,
In Christian faith and charity each other now embrace,
This holy tide of Christmas reveals to us God’s grace.
O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy,
O tidings of comfort and joy. Amen.
30 December 2018 - Christmas 1 - Luke 2:22-40
Over 20 years ago, my brother-in-law told me a story about an aging man who received a visit from his pastor. The pastor, with concern for the spiritual condition of this parishioner, asked him: “Do you ever think about the hereafter?”
The man said, “Oh, yes. I think about the hereafter at least once a day.” The pastor felt assured, as he continued to listen to his parishioner’s answer. And the man went on to say, “At least once a day, I’ll walk into a room, and then ask myself, ‘Now what am I here after?’”
When my brother-in-law told me this joke many years ago, we had a pretty good laugh over it. But three years ago, he needed to be thinking about “the hereafter” in a more serious way.
Even though he was about my age, his health had seriously deteriorated, and it was necessary for him to move into a nursing home. And one day, my sister got a phone call and was told that he had died.
This was not a surprise. The pastor had been visiting him, and had been comforting him with the promise of eternal life for those who repent of their sins and trust in Christ for forgiveness and salvation.
At this point in his life, he was indeed thinking about the hereafter. At the age of 52, with a conscience that was at peace with God through faith in Jesus, my brother-in-law - my brother in Christ - entered into the hereafter, and into the rest of his Redeemer and Lord.
But now I want to ask you: Do you ever think about the hereafter? This is not a set-up for another joke, but is a serious question.
Are you ready to die? A lot of people think they are, when they are really not. What about you?
Our culture has been systematically draining people of the natural fear of death that used to be a pretty much universal feature of the human psyche. People have been indoctrinated in a practical kind of atheism, that may not overtly reject the existence of God; but that does reject the authority of God, the importance of serving and obeying God, and the need to be prepared to face the judgment of God.
In old Western films, when someone was about to be murdered, his assailant would often say, “Prepare to meet your maker,” or “Say your prayers.” People used to think and speak in this way. Even criminals had a sense that there will be an accounting on the other side of death.
And when a judge, in a court-room scene in one of those movies, would sentence a murderer to be “hanged by the neck until you are dead,” he would also say to him: “May God have mercy on your soul.” Why would he say that? Why would God’s mercy be necessary for a criminal whose mortal life was coming to an end?
People today often have no context for understanding any of this. God - if he does exist - is benevolent and indulgent. He’s not a threat to anyone in the afterlife.
The influence of Spiritualism and of the New Age Movement are both very strong. So, when someone dies, his spirit either migrates up into a higher spiritual plane, or transmigrates through reincarnation into another body. Nothing threatening or scary will happen - just a new supernatural adventure.
And there is nothing particularly frightening about death, for those who, in public schools and state universities, have been brainwashed by the Darwinian ideology of naturalism - which asserts that there is no supernatural realm at all; and that when someone dies, he simply ceases to exist.
It is not a coincidence that an increase in the influence of these belief systems, has been accompanied by an increase in the suicide rate - especially among young people.
These poor deluded souls have concluded that their lives in this world are filled with sadness and aimlessness. And they assume - without questioning - either that their existence in the next world will be better, or that death will simply bring a welcome end to their pain.
What the Epistle to the Hebrews teaches finds no point of contact with these belief systems: “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.”
And there is no place in these popular conceptions of what happens after physical death, for the words of St. Paul - as recorded in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians - to make any sense:
“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.”
Of course, if people listened to the voice of their conscience - as people in previous generations often did - things would be different. In describing the revealed Law of Moses, and also the moral law of God that is written on the hearts of all men, St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans:
“For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”
And so I ask you again: Do you ever think about the hereafter? Are you ready to die?
In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, we heard the familiar yet moving story of the Prophet Simeon in Jerusalem. Luke tells us that
“this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.”
“And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, ‘Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.’”
“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word.”
Some other translations render this line in these ways:
"Lord, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your promise.”
“Now Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace, According to Your word.”
"Lord, I am your servant, and now I can die in peace, because you have kept your promise to me.”
Simeon was ready to die. He was ready to die because God had made a promise to him concerning the coming of Jesus, and concerning the encounter he would have with Jesus; and because God had kept that promise.
Simeon was already a believer in God’s grace and forgiveness, according to the ways in which this grace and forgiveness were revealed and applied in the Old Testament era. But Simeon had also received this special, personal promise from God.
And he was able to experience a special, personal blessing from God, through his taking of the holy babe into his own arms. Simeon was prepared by God for his future death - and for everything that would come after death - through the connection that he was allowed to have with God’s Son, in God’s house.
When Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the Temple that day, Jesus would have seemed - by all outward appearance - to have been just an ordinary baby. But Simeon knew, through the faith that the Holy Spirit worked in him, that this baby was anything but an ordinary baby.
He was a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to the people of Israel. He was the Lord’s salvation, prepared in the presence of all peoples. He was the Lord’s salvation for Simeon.
Jesus embodied, in his person, Simeon’s salvation from the power and guilt of sin; and from the fear of death and of divine punishment. And Simeon knew that Jesus would be this also for many, many more people - as God’s preparatory law convicts, crushes, and slays; and as God’s saving gospel of redemption through his Son heals, restores, and enlivens. And so Simeon told Mary:
“Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed..., so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”
What Simeon knew implicitly - as he in his heart clung to God’s promise; and as he with his arms literally clung to his Savior - is what St. Paul later explained explicitly to the Romans:
“Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it - the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 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, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”
Simeon was ready to die in peace - whenever the Lord would call him from this world - because he knew that through Christ, and the promise of Christ, he had been justified before God - that is, acquitted, declared not guilty, and credited with the righteousness of Jesus.
Simeon believed this. And as he believed it - as he really believed it - Simeon received this justification, even in that moment. He knew what judgment would be pronounced upon him after death, because he knew what judgment had already been pronounced upon him in Jesus. And for this reason he would now die in peace.
You, too, can be prepared for death - for a peaceful and hopeful death - when God prepares you for your death, in the way he prepared Simeon for his death. You, too, can be ready to depart from this world in peace - when that time comes - as you believe what Simeon believed, and as you receive what Simeon received.
Now, in the New Testament era, the house of God where we encounter Christ is not limited to a specific place in Jerusalem, but is wherever the message of God’s salvation in Christ is proclaimed; and wherever the sacraments that Jesus left for his church are administered according to his institution.
And the way in which we take Christ to ourselves - and into our hearts - is through our hearing and believing of the gospel; through our return, in repentance and faith, to our baptism; and through our humble and devout reception of the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion.
In the Temple, in today’s text, Jesus outwardly seemed to be nothing more than an ordinary baby. But according to God’s Word and promise, Simeon knew, and could see, that he was the Lord’s own salvation - for all nations, and for him.
In our church, the words of absolution and consecration pronounced by the pastor outwardly seem to be nothing more than ordinary human words, and the blessed water, bread and wine outwardly seem to be nothing more than ordinary earthly elements.
But according to God’s Word and promise, we know, and can see, that these are the powerful and truthful words of the Almighty; the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, and the very body and blood that were sacrificed and shed for our redemption and justification.
There is a direct connection - a direct connection - between what goes on in public worship, and your ability to be ready for death and for the Day of Judgment. But if you neglect and despise these sacred things and these sacred gifts, you will not be ready - even if you may erroneously think you are.
The Epistle to the Hebrews paints for us a “verbal picture” of this connection; and also spells out for us a warning, that we must avoid avoiding the Lord’s house, and the Lord’s means of grace within his house. We read:
“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”
“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire.”
God’s house needs to be a very familiar place for you, so that you can always know and experience what Simeon knew and experienced: God’s promise to you concerning Christ, and his forgiveness of the sins which you have repented of, and renounced; and, God’s blessing of allowing you to receive Christ and hold onto Christ, so that you, without fear of judgment, can depart in peace.
Simeon’s song of faith and gratitude is a song that we often sing - albeit in a slightly different translation. We will sing it again today, immediately after we have touched Christ, and have been touched by Christ, in his Holy Supper. Let this song be your song of faith and gratitude.
Let this song, as you sing it, be your celebration of the clear conscience before God that his justification through Christ has given you. Let this song, as you sing it, be your testimony to the world that by God’s acquittal you are prepared to die - and therefore that you are prepared to live, for as long as the Lord preserves you in this life, under the grace and righteousness of Christ.
“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” Amen.