SERMONS - DECEMBER 2019
1 December 2019 - Advent 1 - Isaiah 2:1-5
Once again, the news is filled with troubling reports of violence and conflict in this world. In Europe, knife-wielding assailants randomly stabbed people on the streets of London and The Hague this past Friday, leaving several dead and wounded. Conflict and suffering persist in the Middle East. Missile tests and other threats of war continue on the Korean peninsula.
And it’s not just these international episodes of violence and conflict that we are thinking of. The cities of our land are chronically afflicted with crime and lawlessness. Tension, hard feelings, anger, and perhaps even violence, characterize many of our personal relationships as well.
Why is the world like this? Why are we like this?
People in general wish for peace and harmony with others. But people in general never seem to achieve this wish, and they seem easily to succumb to temptations to act in ways that are contrary to this wish. Why is this?
According to God’s Word, the reason for such violence, conflict, tension, and hard feelings - and for all the other evils that we experience in our damaged world, and in our fractured relationships - is, quite simply, the sinful corruption of the human heart.
As recorded in St. Matthew’s Gospel, Our Lord tells us: “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” And as much as the higher part of our human reason would desire peace and harmony in this life, we cannot, by our own strength or efforts, shed our lower sinful nature, or cleanse ourselves of that corrupt nature.
Our inborn sinfulness is like the tin cans that boys used to tie to the tails of puppies. No matter how hard we try to run away from it, and leave it behind us, our sin sticks to us, and follows us wherever we go.
Organizations like the United Nations may from time to time be able to do some good, in minimizing some of the violence between nations. But ultimately this violence will remain. Conflict, tension, and anger will not be completely erased from the human experience, for as long as the human race exists in this world.
“But what about God?”, we might ask. If there is a God in heaven, doesn’t he care about these problems? If God is all-powerful, can’t he do something about the violence and conflict in the world, and about all the suffering and anguish that are caused by this violence and conflict?
Some atheists have concluded that the existence of such human sinfulness in the world proves that God does not actually exist. That is foolish reasoning, of course. What human sinfulness proves is that sinful humanity does exist. Human sinfulness does not prove that a holy God does not exist.
But even so, doesn’t God care about the violence and conflict that exist in our world, and in our lives? Can’t he do something about it?
Well, remember what Jesus tells us. Evil thoughts and murder - indeed, all human cruelty and all human conflict - proceed from the human heart.
The problem is inside of us. We are not just the victims of human wickedness. We are perpetrators - collectively and individually. We are all a part of the problem, because we are all infected by the sinful corruption from which these evils arise.
St. Paul soberly reminds us in his First Epistle to the Corinthians that “in Adam all die”; and he reminds us as well, in his Epistle to the Romans, that “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.”
Some people have the idea that God should use coercive techniques, physically to prevent people from saying and doing bad things to each other. There is a certain appeal to that wish. If I am about to be the victim of a crime, I suppose I would be happy if a supernatural power would descend from heaven, and physically restrain the hand of my assailant. But I would venture to say that God does indeed externally restrain evil much more often than we would ever imagine.
Who knows how many bad things would have happened to us, that did not happen; or how much violence would have been perpetrated against us, that was not perpetrated, if God’s angels had not protected us from these dangers, and turned them away from us, at various times in our life?
The reason why we don’t know about these supernatural interventions, is precisely because these interventions did occur! And nothing bad happened.
But God does not intervene every time. The history of human warfare, and our own personal history of conflict with other people, prove this.
I believe that one of the reasons why God does not step in and externally prevent every potential act of violence, is because it would not be a real solution to the problem, but would instead hide and mask the real problem.
When violent criminals are thrown into prison, there is the benefit to society of their violence now being contained. Incarceration prevents them from causing further harm to law-abiding citizens.
But when a criminal is put into prison, his heart stays the same as it always was. If his heart was filled with anger and violence when he was physically free, it will still be filled with anger and violence when he is physically restrained.
In regard to the anger and violence that afflict the human race as a whole, God is not satisfied simply to tie a straight jacket around this problem, or just to treat the external symptoms of this problem. His agenda is to get into the human heart, and to change the human heart.
And the tools and methodology that God uses to solve the problem of human conflict, at its root, do indeed have the capacity actually to work in the human heart, for the accomplishing of this end.
In today’s Old Testament lesson, the Prophet Isaiah looks forward to the age of the Messiah - that is, the age in which we live. With the use of some beautiful imagery he describes what God will do - what God is doing - to heal our human brokenness, and to correct our human destructiveness:
“It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways, and that we may walk in his paths.’”
“For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
When God’s law goes forth out of Zion, to all nations and to all people, one of the first things it does is to reveal to us the underlying stimulus of our conflict and antagonism with each other: namely, our conflict and antagonism with God.
St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans that “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.”
So, while outward violence is really just a symptom of man’s inner anger and animosity toward his fellow man, that inner anger toward other men is itself really a symptom of a deeper spiritual pathology - namely, anger toward God.
The sinful human heart is angry at God, and hostile toward God, because God is both a threat and a rival to the sinful human heart.
He is a threat, because he judges and punishes sin, and therefore judges and punishes the sinner. And he is a rival, because sinful man - who is turned in on himself - worships himself as an idol.
In its sinful pride and self-centeredness, fallen humanity cannot stand to hear the First Commandment, or to be told that we must fear, love, and trust in a different god - other than ourselves, and our own greed and ambitions - above all things.
But when the Word of the Lord goes forth from Jerusalem - to all nations and to all people - what it also does is reveal to the human heart that the Son of God died in Jerusalem.
Jesus came to Jerusalem, and he died in Jerusalem, to put an end to our anger and idolatry, our conflict and violence. In his suffering and death for us, he diverted God’s wrath away from us. And he crushed down and pushed back our impulse toward self-worship, by restoring us to fellowship with the true God.
The Word of the gospel - the message of the cross - does not just suppress our outward sinful behavior, and physically restrain us against our will. The Word of the gospel penetrates to our heart, and transforms our will.
The glad tidings of Christ’s salvation recreate us in the image of Christ, and unites us to the resurrection of Christ, who now lives his life in us.
The gospel brings pardon and forgiveness, for our old life of inner and outer conflict. And in the new birth of the Spirit, the gospel brings a new nature to us, and a new life of inner and outer peace. In his First Epistle, St. Peter comforts us with these words:
“You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for ‘All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.’ And this word is the good news that was preached to you.”
There are all too many people in this world who harden themselves to the Word of God. They do not receive the law of the Lord.
And so they are not set free from their inner slavery to anger and hatred. They still perpetrate acts of violence and conflict. The are not liberated from the blindness of their idolatry of the self.
In their continuing violence, they testify to their deep need for God’s grace - a need that they refuse to see and acknowledge. But in their continuing violence, they also remind us of what we have been rescued from, by God’s grace.
In an indirect way, the violence and anger of the unbelieving world prompt us to remember, and be thankful for, the way in which God has diverted us from this pathway of destruction, as he calls us instead to walk in the newness of life that has been given to us in our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection.
We do still struggle against the lingering impulses of the old nature, which continues to lurk inside of us, and which carries out a life-long insurgency against the new nature. The old nature, in its desperation, tries to overturn within us the peace of God that passes all understanding, which is ours in Christ, by faith.
But God, and the peace of God, fight back. Whenever you show love and compassion for your neighbor for the sake of Christ, without waiting for your neighbor to show love and compassion for you first, this is a sign that God has won a victory in you.
Whenever you find yourself forgiving an offense that has been committed against you, rather than bearing a grudge; or whenever you find yourself apologizing for an offense that you have caused, rather than justifying yourself, this is a sign that the Lord’s peace is with you.
By the power of his Word in the minds and hearts of men, God in Christ “shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples.” In the midst of human conflict, God shows his people a better way than the way of the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Jesus calls you, and impels you, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and to love your neighbor as yourself. In the words of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, we “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” And as St. John writes in his First Epistle, “We love because he first loved us.”
This love, which suppresses and supplants the envy, suspicion, and jealousy of your sinful nature, flows out from God himself, as he abides within you.
By the gospel of his Son Jesus Christ, God has broken through and halted the destructive pattern of anger and violence that infects sinful humanity. And for each of us - one person at a time - he has indeed shown us a better way, and in Christ has given us a better way.
In our personal relationships with others, we shall, as it were, beat our swords into plowshares, and our spears into pruning hooks. We shall not lift up our sword, and shall not learn war any more. We will instead remember the encouragement of the apostle Paul, given in his Epistle to the Ephesians:
“Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
In our reconciliation with God, we are reconciled to each other. In Christ, the Prince of Peace, we are now a part of a kingdom of peace.
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways, and that we may walk in his paths.” Amen.
8 December 2019 - Advent 2 - Romans 15:4-13
“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction.”
In these words from his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul teaches us two important truths.
The first, is that the antiquity of the Scriptures, and their historical distance from the times in which we live, do not make them irrelevant to us. When St. Paul wrote these words to the Christians in Rome, the Hebrew Scriptures to which he was drawing their attention had been in existence for as long as a millennium and a half.
And yet he told them that these Scriptures - written through divine inspiration by Moses, David, Isaiah, and many other prophets - had been written for them. Not just for them, of course. But for them, as well as for all people, of all times.
In this season of Advent, we are reminded in a more focused way that the Hebrew Scriptures were indeed written also for us. These Scriptures are old, but they are not obsolete.
The fundamentals of the human condition have not changed over the millennia - only the outward trappings. A sinful and scared man dressed temporarily in a fig leaf apron, is in the same basic condition as a sinful and scared man dressed in khakis and a polo shirt.
What God said about the human condition thousands of years ago is therefore just as true now, as it was then.
The Sacred Scriptures were written, over many centuries, in specific historical contexts. Knowing those contexts is an important part of understanding the intended meaning of the Scriptures.
But once that meaning is determined, it is a meaning that has meaning for all people, and that addresses all people with the authority of the God who speaks through the Scriptures.
What God says in Holy Writ at a particular point in history does not apply only to the people who were alive at that point in history. It applies to all people who have lived since then, too.
Maybe it does not apply in the same way. But it does apply. It applies as well to all people who are yet to live.
For example, God instituted many external rules and rituals in the Mosaic Law that were designed to teach the ancient Hebrews - in a symbolic way - about the coming Messiah and his salvation. We who live in the New Testament era are no longer bound to these rules and rituals - which were a shadow of the things to come - because the Messiah whom they pictured has come.
We can, however, still learn from these signs and symbols about the Savior to whom they pointed, and still point. And we can - indeed, we must - learn the deeper moral law of the Old Testament, which is still binding on the whole human race.
In this respect, the timeless Biblical declaration that children in the womb have been fearfully and wonderfully made by God; are loved by God; and should be loved and valued by us, will not be silenced by the bloodthirsty clamor of the culture of death that has enshrouded our land for decades.
And the unchanging witness of Scripture to God’s creation of humanity as male and female; and to God’s moral direction to us that a man and a woman are to become one flesh in marriage - and only in marriage - does not flinch or retreat under the assaults that our insane society is launching against human personhood and human sexuality, as God in Scripture defines those objective realities.
What St. Paul said to the Romans of the first century, regarding the Old Testament Scriptures, could also be said to us - in the 21st century - regarding the New Testament Scriptures. From our perspective, what St. Paul and the other apostles wrote, was written a long time ago. But it, too, was written for us.
“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction.”
The second important truth in that sentence, is that whatever was written in former days, was written for our instruction. The Scriptures do not only make us feel a certain way, or cause certain emotions to bubble up inside of us.
They instruct us. They inform our values. They give shape to our beliefs. They direct our thoughts, and guide our decisions.
With God’s own authority, they teach us things that we cannot otherwise know, but that we need to know. Human beings who are ignorant of what the Scriptures have to say about God and man, about human sin and divine grace, do not know how much they do not know.
The Scriptures address us as people who, by nature, do have a faint, inborn echo of the knowledge of God’s existence; and who do sense, in our consciences, that things are not as they should be between us and God. But until we are instructed by God - in the Scriptures - we have almost no idea what God is really like.
We do not grasp how profoundly holy he is, or how deeply disapproving of our sin he is. And, we do not fathom how great is his mercy and forgiveness toward us, in his Son Jesus Christ.
But our response to Paul’s statement that the Scriptures were written for our instruction, is often like the response of a teenager, when she is reminded that her parents are wiser and better-informed about the ways of the world than she is, so that she should listen to what they say, and obey them.
What adolescent does not think that he is smarter than his parents? Likewise, what sinful human being does not think that he is smarter than his Creator - even if he never actually says that in so many words?
How often do we hear those who are ignorant of Biblical doctrine say that they could never believe in a God who would condemn this, or allow that, or... you fill in the blank. The proper attitude, however, is that we should be willing to believe about God and his ways, whatever the Scriptures tell us about God and his ways.
And, we should be willing to believe whatever the Scriptures tell us about ourselves: about our natural foolishness and arrogance, our inborn blindness and lostness.
These are things that we, in our pride, would likely not admit, otherwise. But we must admit them, because whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction.
The Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, and many other passages of Scripture do reveal the demands and requirements of God’s law to us; and they remove from us all thoughts that we might be able to justify ourselves or excuse ourselves before God’s tribunal. But this is not the chief purpose and goal of the instruction that God gives.
The guilt and conviction worked in us by God’s Spirit - as we admit our faults, and acknowledge our failures - is not an end in itself, but is a means to an end, namely, to prepare us for instruction in Jesus Christ: that is, instruction in the objective truth of his person and work; instruction in the spiritual meaning of his humiliation and birth; instruction in the saving benefits of his suffering and death; and instruction in the wonderful eternal consequences - for us - of his resurrection and exaltation.
And that’s the point St. Paul is making, when he goes on to write:
“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”
Your life in this sinful world is something that is, in many ways, a thing to be endured, and not only to be enjoyed. Your life in your own skin - as you think of all the hurtful words that you cannot unsay, and all the harmful deeds that you cannot undo - is also something to be endured.
Even with an appreciation for the good things that we have experience in this life, these pleasant memories are seasoned with the bitter herbs of regret - for the many right paths not traveled, or for the many destructive paths not avoided.
But when you receive the instruction that God gives in the Scriptures, the hope that is then yours in Christ overrides, and overwhelms, all those regrets.
The God-given hope that is now yours, looks forward to an eternity with God, that has been established for you by the shedding of Christ’s blood for all your sins. The Christ-centered hope that is now yours, rests in the declaration that is pronounced upon you in the gospel - repeatedly and effectively - that your sins are forgiven in Christ; and that the God whom your sins have offended, is now reconciled to you in Christ.
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. His redeeming and healing grace will never be irrelevant for the lost and suffering humanity that dwells in this world, for as long as this world endures. His life-giving and enlightening words will never pass away, even if heaven and earth do pass away.
The instruction that the Scriptures give to you is not merely intellectual or cerebral in character. It is not primarily intended to satisfy the religious curiosities of your mind, as much as it is designed by God to calm the fears of your heart.
As you endure the upheavals of a fallen world, and of a troubled conscience, you are comforted by this instruction: in an assurance of a divine love that conquers all human fear, and of a divine peace that passes all human understanding.
The kind of love and peace that God gives, when he instructs, he gives to his people together: as they are gathered together by his Word in the fellowship of his church, to be instructed together. Here in this place we are instructed together from the Scriptures - in readings, in sermons, and in hymns.
And, we are instructed together, in the deepest and most intimate sense, by our Savior’s Words of Institution in his Holy Supper: as those words not only teach us what the body and blood of the Lord accomplished for us, but as they also mystically bestow upon us the blessings and benefits that were earned by the sacrificing of that body, and the pouring out of that blood, on Jesus’ cross.
When you have in these ways been bathed in the love of God, and filled with the peace of God - by the instruction of God - you cannot keep what you have received to yourself. And so St. Paul continues:
“May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
The instruction that you receive from the very old yet ever new Scriptures, concerns not only what you are to think and believe about God and yourself; but also what you are to think and believe about others, in the relationships with others that God has put in place for you.
Those who have been instructed together, and who have learned together, also confess their faith together. And just as the truth that we receive from God is not merely intellectual or cerebral, so too is the confession of what we have learned, not merely intellectual or cerebral.
The faith that we have been taught by God, is a devotional faith, and a prayable faith. God teaches us how and what to believe, and he teaches us how and what to pray.
With one voice we glorify him. This is possible, only when our individual voices have been taught the divine harmony of truth, in which the Scriptures instruct us.
And, our evangelistic welcome to others - to join their voices to ours - comes in the form of an invitation to them, to receive with us the instruction that comes only from God: through the means that have been appointed by God.
“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction.”
Blessed Lord, since you have caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning, grant that we may so hear them, read, mark, learn, and take them to heart, that by the patience and comfort of your holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
15 December 2019 - Advent 3 - Matthew 11:2-15
John the Baptist was a prophet - and even more than a prophet. So says Jesus, in today’s text from St. Matthew’s Gospel.
He was the immediate forerunner of the Messiah, preparing the people of Israel for his arrival. He called them to repentance, and administered to them a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
All of this was important, and was a part of God’s plan for the unfolding of Christ’s mission.
As a prophet sent from God, what John the Baptist knew about God, on the basis of God’s revelation to him, was accurate. What he preached to the people from God was correct and true.
But John did not understand everything about how God was going to accomplish his purposes, through Christ. We know of this limitation in his knowledge, because when Jesus, as the Messiah, requested baptism from John, this was a surprise to him.
He wasn’t expecting such a request. He initially declined to do it.
Until Jesus explained the reason for it, John didn’t realize that Jesus’ solidarity with the people of Israel as their Savior and substitute, required him to be baptized with the people of Israel.
In today’s text, we may very well see another example of John’s not knowing the whole story about what Jesus’ ministry would entail, and of John’s not perceiving the full mission of Jesus as Messiah. Matthew tells us that “when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’”
Christian scholars have debated over the centuries, whether John was, in this way, expressing personal doubt, or second thoughts, about whether Jesus really was the Messiah.
He was languishing in Herod’s dungeon, in what were no doubt appalling conditions. And so we would not be too hard on him if, in his human weakness, he did begin to have some doubts.
What this incident may demonstrate, however, is simply another example of John’s lack of full understanding, as he sought clarification and instruction from Jesus.
What God had called John to preach - and what he had preached, before he was thrown into prison - was a message of warning to Israel, that God’s judgment was coming. His judgment against their sins, their half-heartedness, their hypocrisy and unbelief, was coming.
The Messiah - soon to appear - would usher in and bring this judgment. And so the people of Israel should prepare for his coming, by “getting right” with God now, before it is too late.
They should repent of their sins, and receive the forgiveness that God offers. And then, they should bear the fruits of repentance - in a new life lived by faith, for as long as their life in this world continues.
“I baptize you with water for repentance,” John proclaimed, “but he who is coming after me...will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
The popular piety of the day would have been expecting the future Messiah to bring judgment against the Romans, and the other pagan nations. But John correctly pointed out that God’s judgment was coming to Israel. Not just to Israel, but to Israel first.
And yet, when Jesus did appear, and when - after his baptism - he began to make himself known as the Messiah, none of these things seemed to be happening. Or at least they were not happening in any kind of visible, obvious way.
Jesus was not proclaiming a harsh message of divine wrath. He was not personally inflicting God’s punishment upon the wicked.
Instead, he was helping and comforting the poor and the weak, the dispossessed and the lonely. He was healing the sick and the lame, raising the dead, and proclaiming to the people a message of God’s forgiving mercy and redeeming love.
Apparently this was not what John expected. Now, John had not been mistaken in saying that the Messiah would bring the fire of divine judgment upon the unbelieving world - and even upon unbelieving Israel.
That was going to happen. It is still going to happen.
But other things were going to happen first. Other things are still happening, now, as we still await the ultimate day of conflagration and final judgment.
When Jesus responded to the query that John the Baptist had sent to him, by means of some of his disciples, he was gentle and respectful toward John. And he responded, not just by making a bold assertion of who he is, but by calling John’s attention to what the Old Testament Scriptures had predicted concerning him and his ministry - and by comparing those predictions with what he was now doing.
“Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.’”
The Prophet Isaiah had spoken of the ministry of the future Messiah. In the portion of Isaiah that we heard a few minutes ago, as today’s first lesson, we read:
“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.’”
That’s pretty close to what John the Baptist had been preaching. The Messiah will come with “vengeance.”
But, at least at first, this vengeance will not be poured out against wicked people. That will happen someday, on judgment day. But that’s not the first thing that is going to happen when the Savior comes.
Instead, the Messiah will wreak God’s vengeance against the powers of sin and death. He will attack and punish the devil and his minions.
Satan’s domination over fallen humanity will be thrown off. God, in Christ, will cast him out. And God, in Christ, will rescue those who had been held captive under his evil power.
As Jesus traveled through the land of Israel, the devils fled before him. When he proclaimed and applied the forgiveness of God to the humble and penitent, the Great Serpent fell from his temporary glory, and was vanquished.
Jesus is gentle with John, and with his disciples - who soon will no doubt become Jesus’ disciples. Jesus is gentle with the sick, the lame, and the social outcast.
But Jesus is not gentle with Satan. A calm and calming word of pardon, spoken to a humble human sinner, is - in the supernatural realm - a furious attack on the forces of evil, wrenching that forgiven sinner from the clutches of the Enemy.
This doesn’t happen in obvious ways. But it does happen. It is God’s vengeance against the Prince of Darkness.
It happens by the power of Christ’s Word, and by the miracle of his touch in the lives of hurting people. Isaiah goes on to describe this:
“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.”
Jesus also said: “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven, is greater than he.”
In some respects, we in the New Testament era know a lot more about Jesus and his ways than John the Baptist did.
We have the Gospels and the Epistles, telling us the details of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection; explaining to us the nature and mission of the Christian church, and pointing out to us the signs of the Lord’s Second Coming - for judgment - so that this Day will not surprise us.
But there is also a lot that we do not know. As with John the Baptist in his time, there is much that we do not understand about God and his ways.
Many things happen among us - troubling and unsettling things - that we do not expect to happen. And sometimes, we have expected God to do things that he has not done - or at least that he has not done yet.
Sometimes we suffer grievous disappointments, betrayals, and injustices. Where is the Lord’s vindication, that the Bible says will come for those who serve him, and who suffer for the sake of his name?
And what is our response to situations like this? Despair? Getting angry at God, and criticizing him? A loss of faith?
Or, do we respond in the way that John the Baptist responded, at such a time in his life? Do we reach out to Jesus, and ask Jesus to show us his truth?
And do we then wait for him to give us - through the Scriptures - a fuller insight into his will, a fuller understanding of his ways, and a fuller appreciation of his grace: just as Jesus encouraged and instructed John the Baptist through the Scriptures, when he needed that encouragement and instruction?
Jesus has already died for our sins. The atonement price has been paid. And Jesus has risen from the grave as the victor over death - over our death.
The hope of eternal life has been restored, for those who look to him. But Jesus has not yet brought an end to the pain of this world. He has not yet righted all the wrongs of human history.
He has not yet, in judgment, cut down the “unfruitful trees” of the human race, once and for all, and thrown them into the fire.
We might be impatient for these things to be fulfilled. But there are reasons for the Lord’s delay.
There is a reason that pertains to the whole world - God’s desire that all men have time to repent, and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
And, there is a reason that pertains to you, and to God’s desire that during your time on earth - as you wait on him - your heart will be ever more firmly established: in penitent humility before God; in a patient faith in God; in Christlike holiness; and in a love for all that God loves.
St. James writes in today’s Epistle:
Be patient, brothers, “until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.”
At a time when John the Baptist needed encouragement from Jesus, Jesus did encourage him, and established his heart, by reminding him of the totality of what the Hebrew Scriptures say concerning the ministry of the Messiah. He would come in mercy and compassion, before he came in fiery judgment.
And when you need encouragement from Jesus, Jesus encourages you as well - and in the same way. He establishes your heart, as he unfolds the Scriptures to you, and speaks to you in the Scriptures.
As you grow in your ability to admit your own spiritual poverty - and your need to be enriched by God’s grace and forgiveness alone - you will be blessed ever more, to know that in Christ, “the poor have good news preached to them.”
The good news of Jesus’ forgiveness of all your sins is preached to you. Indeed, I will preach it again right now:
Dear friends, your sins are forgiven in Christ! God is at peace with you! For the sake of his Son, your Savior, God will not hold your trespasses against you, but instead he embraces you with his reconciling love, and fills you with his life-giving Spirit.
When your faith is weak, Christ, by his Word, will invigorate you. When your faith is incomplete, Christ, by his Word, will teach you.
When your faith is uncertain and wavering, Christ, by his Word, will renew your confidence in him - and your certainty that he is indeed the one who was promised of old; who has promised to come again; and who, in the meantime, is your companion and comforter.
You don’t need to know everything about Jesus, or about his plan for you and for the world. At least not right away. But over time, your grasp on his promises will be strengthened. Your appreciation for his methods will be deepened.
You will understand things you didn’t understand before. You will see things you didn’t see before. You will accept things you didn’t think you could accept before.
And, Jesus also says to us today - as we struggle, and as we learn and grow: “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Amen.
22 December 2019 - Advent 4 - Matthew 1:18-25
In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, we are told that Joseph was a just or righteous man. This description of Joseph’s character applies to more than one aspect of his life.
First, it means that he was an honorable and moral man. He had not committed fornication with his fiancee Mary.
The time when they would be allowed to live together as husband and wife had not yet come. And so Joseph, as a righteous man, had not been intimate with her.
Exercising this kind of moral discipline was important for a pious Jewish man like Joseph. It demonstrated respect for the institution of marriage, as God ordained it.
And it demonstrated respect for God himself, whose will in these matters was considered to be more determinative for how a man should conduct himself, than his own animalistic urges.
Not everyone in Joseph’s day felt this way, of course. His contemporaries in the non-Jewish Greco-Roman world certainly knew how to indulge their impulses for sexual adventurism, of both heterosexual and homosexual varieties.
But this was not how things were among the Jewish people. This is not the way Joseph thought. As a genuine believer in the God of Israel, this is not the way Joseph lived.
Joseph was a righteous man. And because he was a righteous man, specifically in this way, he knew that he was not responsible for Mary’s untimely pregnancy.
Since he had had nothing to do with getting her pregnant, he assumed that she had been intimate with another man, and had violated her pledge of marriage to him. And so, he decided to break off the betrothal - which, according to the Jewish understanding, would have had the force of a “divorce.”
But another aspect of what it means for Joseph to have been a righteous man, is evident in the fact that even under such circumstances, he was going to do this quietly and discreetly. He had every reason to feel that Mary had deeply insulted and humiliated him by her actions. But he was not going to be vindictive or vengeful in response.
He was not going to expose her to public shame. Joseph, as a righteous man, was a kind and decent man - even to Mary, at a time when he was quite certain that she had betrayed him.
We are so different from Joseph, so much of the time, aren’t we? We live in a sex-drenched society. Our commitment to sexual purity - in thought, word, and deed - is no doubt significantly lower than his was, even though God’s standards have not changed.
And when we perceive someone to have betrayed us, or publicly embarrassed us, we do not hold back in “getting even,” and in making sure everyone knows who the “bad guy” was in that matter.
It is said: “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” It could just as well be said that hell hath no fury like a man scorned, or humiliated, or made a fool of, before his friends and neighbors. But Joseph was not like this.
He did value his reputation, and he did seek to honor and obey God in the way he lived. But he did not guard his reputation with arrogance and pride.
When he felt that his reputation was being threatened, he did not lash out in anger against the one whom he perceived to be the offending party - in this case, Mary.
At this point, as Joseph was contemplating the discreet and quiet divorce he planned to get, God communicated something to Joseph - by means of an angelic visitation in a dream - that he certainly did not expect to be told. Matthew reports:
“As he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’”
The explicit meaning of this is obvious. Mary’s pregnancy was the result of a miracle. Joseph was assured that Mary had not betrayed him after all. She, too, was an honorable and righteous person, and Joseph should therefore go through with the marriage.
But there was another message for Joseph, that was implicit in this angelic announcement. When you read between the lines, God was basically saying this:
“Joseph, son of David, I am asking you to take care of this very special woman, and this extremely special baby. And so I am asking you to take the blame for this pregnancy, in the eyes of your friends and neighbors.”
When it became known in the community where Joseph and Mary lived, that Mary was pregnant - before the time when she should have been - the people in the community would have started watching Joseph, to see what he was going to do.
If he had separated from Mary, and called off the marriage, then everyone would have concluded that he was not to blame. His reputation would have remained intact, even as Mary’s would have been severely damaged.
But if he did not break up with Mary, and if he instead followed through with the wedding plans, then everyone would have concluded that he and Mary had sinned. It would have seemed to everyone that Joseph was tacitly admitting as much, by staying in the relationship, and by raising the child who had been conceived outside of wedlock as his own.
Nothing that Joseph could have said would have changed that perception. If he had tried to explain that Mary’s pregnancy was by the Holy Spirit, and that the child was the Son of God, it would only have made things worse.
No one would have believed him. The townspeople would instead have become even more annoyed at him for compounding his guilt, by making up what they would have seen to be a blasphemous and impossible story, instead of just taking the blame for his sin like a man.
We can assume that Mary had tried to tell Joseph the same thing, before his dream. But he didn’t believe her. That’s why he was planning a divorce - before his dream. So, Joseph knew that his friends and neighbors wouldn’t believe him, either.
Joseph was a righteous man. He had not done anything wrong in his relationship with Mary. In his own conscience, he knew this.
But when God asked Joseph to take Mary as his wife, according to the original plan, he was thereby asking him to put himself in the public position of being seen and judged not to have been a righteous man.
And Joseph was not going to be able to justify himself before others, or reclaim his formerly good standing in the community. He was going to have to bear this burden without complaint. In silence he would carry the weight of a publicly-perceived guilt for something he actually didn’t do, for the rest of his life.
The sin of fornication was going to be imputed to him and pinned on him. But this was the way it had to be - in order for Mary and her baby to be properly loved and cared for.
In his humble submission to God’s loving will, even at the sacrifice of his public reputation as a righteous man, Joseph showed himself truly to be a righteous man.
When God became one of us, he became one of us at the very beginning of a human existence. Emmanuel - God with us - lived with us as a human being, from conception to adulthood.
The divine Son entered this world as a baby, in need of the kind of protection and upbringing that would be afforded him by a righteous man.
God wanted that man to be Joseph. And Joseph dutifully accepted this divine calling - for the benefit of Mary, and for the benefit of Jesus.
The angel of the Lord had said to Joseph: “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
In a way that he may not have realized at the time, Joseph’s actions, and his obedience to God, foreshadowed what Jesus was going to do someday, to save his people from their sins.
Jesus - who was without any sin of his own; and who was himself a just and righteous man in the absolute sense - allowed all human sin to be imputed to him and pinned on him: all fornication and adultery, all slander and lying, all greed and envy, all hatred and murder.
Before the tribunal of the law of almighty God, Jesus - the Son of God - allowed himself to be thought of as guilty of these sins, and many more such sins.
And he did not try to justify himself, or shake off this burden that God the Father had sent him into the world to bear, according to his calling as the world’s Savior. Jesus needed to be smeared with all of humanity’s sins, and to carry those sins to the cross, so that by his death in our place all of those sins would be atoned for.
“Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth,” as Isaiah the Prophet reminds us.
This was all a part of God’s plan for making you to be a righteous person, like Joseph: in your moral behavior, as a disciple of his Son; but even more so in your standing before him in his Son, covered with Jesus’ righteousness, even as Jesus had been covered with your sins.
St. Paul writes: “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Jesus took your sins to the cross and died for them there. And Jesus forgives your sins. His forgiveness, you receive by faith.
And now, as a fruit of that justifying faith, you know how to act when God - through your calling - asks you to bear an undeserved shame, and to protect others by taking the blame for things you have not actually done.
As a Christian, it is not the most important thing for you always to be seen by everyone as right in all your actions. As a Christian, you are not governed by such a consuming and selfish pride.
You know that it is more important to have a clear conscience before God, than to be well thought of by all other people.
This means, therefore, that you will sometimes endure unfair and undeserved criticism from people, because of how you handled a situation that your critics think they understand better than they actually do.
You may need to keep a confidence - to protect others from embarrassment, or to prevent others from being hurt - so that you cannot tell your judgmental critics what they would need to know, in order to know that you did the right thing after all. So, you will bear their negative opinion of you in silence.
Joseph was a righteous man. In his standing before God by faith, in his moral standing before his neighbors, and in the kind and gentle way he treated people, he was righteous.
And, when God called him to do it, he was righteous also in his willingness to be thought of as unrighteous, in order to fulfill a truly righteous purpose for the benefit of others: namely, Mary and the boy Jesus.
In Christ, you too are given this kind of righteousness. In Christ, you too are called to this kind of righteousness.
With the Lord’s help, we seek to live in a way that honors God. With the Lord’s help, we seek to live in a way that serves our neighbor, and protects our neighbor, even if it is at the cost of our reputation among people who misunderstand us.
But most of all - as this is illustrated for us by Joseph’s example - we humbly rejoice in Jesus’ willingness to bear our sin under the judgment of the divine law, and on the cross to be thought of and treated by his Father in heaven as if he were as sinful as we actually are; so that in Christ, and according to his mercy, God now thinks of us, and treats us, as if we were as righteous as Jesus actually is.
24 December 2019 - Christmas Eve - Matthew 1:20b-23
Please listen with me to a reading from the first chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, beginning in the 20th verse:
“Behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to [Joseph] in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us).
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
Human beings are, by nature, social beings. We are designed for fellowship and companionship: with God, and with each other.
When the Triune God made the first man, he made him to be a creature who would have a constitutional compatibility with his creator. The Lord said: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”
And after Adam had been created, as God was preparing to make Eve and to bring her to him as his wife and partner, the Lord said: “It is not good that the man should be alone.”
But, we often are alone. The alienating effects of sin make us to be alone.
Fallen humanity simultaneously hides from God, and is hostile to God. And the fallen members of the human race often turn on each other, and push each other away: in anger, in pain, in pride, and in fear.
Human beings, created by God in his image and likeness, are supposed to be in a relationship with God, living in harmony with his will and enjoying his presence. But in its fallen condition, sinful humanity is instead separated from God, and spiritually alone.
Human beings, created by God to value each other’s company, are supposed to have wholesome and rewarding relationships with each other, and to enjoy their common life together. But in their fallen condition, human individuals who are alienated from God, are also alienated from each other.
As far as human relationships and human affections are concerned, we are often alone in heart and mind - pulling in our emotions, and putting up defenses; unwilling to be vulnerable, unable to reach out in true love.
That’s the general condition in which God found humanity, when he decided that the time had come to solve this problem, and to reverse this alienation through redemption and forgiveness. That’s the general condition in which God finds each of us, in our natural state - in the deep loneliness of our sin - when he sets in motion his plan for our reconciliation: with him, and among ourselves.
Jesus was conceived in his human mother, receiving a true human nature from her, so that he would indeed be a human being as we are. But he was miraculously conceived, with no human father, so that he would not be a sinful human being as we are.
And because Jesus is God in the flesh - the incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity - his father, in every sense, is God the Father. He is Emmanuel: God with us.
St. Paul explains in his Epistle to the Romans how Jesus brought about a reconciliation between fallen humanity and God, so that God would be “with us” in every way - not only in his sharing of our human nature, but also in his presence in our lives as our supernatural Friend and Companion:
“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. ... God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.”
“For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”
And in his Epistle to the Ephesians, Paul explains how it is that through the reconciliation that Emmanuel brought about between us and God, he also brings about a reconciliation among us:
“He came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and members of the household of God.”
As members of God’s household and of God’s family, we also hear these words from our incarnate Lord:
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
The message of Christmas is a message that God is indeed now with us. As our Redeemer from sin, he is with us in a way that is more close, and more intimate, even than his presence with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, before sin entered into the world and into the human experience.
Now, since the miracle of Christmas 2,000 years ago, God is indeed our Emmanuel - God with us, as one of us. God’s Son, the eternal Divine Word, one with the Father from eternity, became one with us as well, by taking our flesh. And he dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.
As the Babe of Bethlehem, our Emmanuel was God with us in our human infancy. As the Boy of Nazareth, our Emmanuel was God with us in our human childhood. As the carpenter turned prophet, priest, and king, our Emmanuel was God was with us in our human adulthood.
And as the living Victor over the grave, who promised his church, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age,” our Emmanuel is God with us even now, every day, as our Savior from sin, death, and the devil.
God is with us in Baptism, where Jesus washes away our guilt, and clothes us with his righteousness. God is with us in Absolution, where Jesus speaks his words of pardon and peace to us, and assures us of God’s mercy.
God is with us in the Sacrament of the Altar, where Jesus gives himself to us in his glorified yet truly human body and blood, to renew and nurture our faith.
And God is with us whenever the gospel is preached, taught, and applied. This is the very voice of Jesus, echoing from the sacred pages of Scripture, as he instructs and comforts us, and as he renews to us the promises he will never break.
Jesus is the one Mediator between God and man, who fills us with his Spirit; and who draws us into a blessed mystical union with himself - and through him, with God our heavenly Father.
Jesus is the author of life, who makes all things new for us: even in the midst of all our human regret over the past, and all our human fear of the future. And Jesus is the Great Physician, who heals our wounded spirits, and, who heals our fractured relationships with each other.
The joyous message of Christmas is that we are not alone any more. In Christ, God is with us. He is with us in all these ways, doing all these things for our salvation.
Still, in our human weakness and anguish, in our human doubt and uncertainty, we gaze down upon the baby lying in a manger this evening; and as we gaze, in heart and conscience, we silently ask important questions.
Yet as God’s love and compassion shine up to us from the face of that baby - that baby who is Emmanuel, God with us - we know God’s answers to those questions.
Does God see me and know about me, and does he love me? Yes, he does. Is God willing to forgive me and help me? Yes, he is.
Is God with me, in all my human struggles, and in all my human trials? Yes, he is. As the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us,
“[God] has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’”
In Christ, we have peace with God, who does forgive all our sins, and who promises us eternal life in the one who is God’s Son and Mary’s son - our brother according to the flesh.
In Christ, we have peace with each other: as we, in the mercy and strength of Christ, forgive and love each another, and show compassion and good will toward each other.
We pray with, and pray for, each other. We serve, and serve with, each other. We rejoice together in the communion with God that we now have because of Christ - that we now have and enjoy together, as members of his body, the church.
The sin that formerly divided us from God, and from each other, is now overcome in Christ, our Emmanuel.
The angel told Joseph that Jesus would save his people from their sins. Jesus, born of a virgin in Bethlehem this night, has indeed saved us from our sins, and from all the lonely consequences of our sins.
“‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us).” 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 2019 - Christmas - Luke 2:8-14
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
That’s the translation of the song of the angels, from St. Luke’s Gospel, that our ESV Bible offers us. In the Liturgy, we sing a slight variation on this, most Sundays of the year, and on occasions like today:
“Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
In the minds of many, the words of the angelic host, chanted on the night when Jesus was born, describe in a nutshell the reason for Christ’s coming to this world. He came to bring peace.
In his later years, Jesus himself confirmed that this was indeed at least a part of the purpose for his coming. As recorded in St. John’s Gospel, he said to his disciples:
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”
Indeed, Christ came to establish a kingdom of peace. That’s the goal, and that’s what will happen, because God’s promises are never broken, and God’s plans are never thwarted. The Prophet Isaiah comforts us with these words:
“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.”
What Child is this, who, laid to rest, On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet, While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King, Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring Him laud, The Babe, the Son of Mary.
Yet Jesus also said some other things about the reason for his coming, and about peace.
The appearance of Jesus, and the saving work of Jesus, were not welcomed by the supernatural forces of darkness and evil that lurk in this sinful world. What Jesus represented, and what Jesus did, were, and still are, seen as threats by those forces of darkness and evil.
Jesus, and what he stands for, are seen as threats also by those mortal men who are enthralled and captivated by the world, the flesh, and the devil; and who are unwilling or unable to recognize God’s authority over them - or God’s love for them.
This is all serious stuff. The coming of Christ had a serious purpose. And the message that the church of Jesus Christ still proclaims in this fallen world is a serious message - and a message that often gets a seriously hostile and angry reaction.
And so, as St. Matthew reports it, we note that Jesus also said this:
“Nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. ...”
“Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
That doesn’t sound exactly like what the angels told the shepherds on the night Jesus was born. But when you look at the bigger picture of Christ’s presence in this world, and of the reason why he came, you will see that the Babe of Bethlehem came to earth to do battle.
Now, Jesus did not come to do battle against people. He did not come to do battle even against those people who directly opposed him, and sought his death.
He came to do battle, not against them, but for them, against the one who had enslaved them and blinded them. He came to do battle against the devil, the great deceiver of humanity, to rescue them from his control, and to win a victory for all of us against this enemy of our souls.
And it was chiefly in his suffering on the cross, and in his resurrection, where Jesus took the devil on. He entered into the domain of death itself, to defeat Satan precisely where his power over us was strongest.
In speaking of Jesus’ deliverance of the children of men from the clutches of Satan’s deceptions, the Epistle to the Hebrews teaches us:
“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he 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.”
And St. Paul writes in his First Epistle to the Corinthians that Christ “must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For ‘God has put all things in subjection under his feet.’”
In breaking the bonds of death by his victory over the grave, Jesus broke the devil’s fearsome grip on humanity. And he opened up for us a pathway of escape to everlasting life: by means of our justification in Christ, and by means of our own resurrection in Christ.
This pathway of liberation is a pathway that is traveled by us in repentance, and by faith in the certain promises of our Redeemer.
What the angels proclaimed is most certainly true. The coming of God’s Son in human flesh, to be humanity’ Savior, does bring peace.
But before it brings peace, the coming of God’s Son in human flesh brings war and conflict. Jesus comes first to fight, against your enemy, and to defeat him: to liberate you from the power and guilt of sin, and to restore you to fellowship with your heavenly Father.
Think of that when you ponder Jesus’ humble birth, and the reasons why he entered this world through that humble birth.
Think of that when you ponder your need for the victory and deliverance that this baby will win for you: on his bloody cross, where he will offer himself as an atoning sacrifice for your sins; and in his empty tomb, from which he will be raised for your justification before God, as the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
Why lies He in such mean estate, Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear, shall pierce Him through, The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh, The Babe, the Son of Mary.
And then the peace does come. Real peace: not just a lack of spiritual conflict, but a positive enjoyment of God’s goodness, by God’s reconciled children, in God’s kingdom.
In his Word and Sacrament, within the fellowship of his church, Jesus gives you this peace with God.
Jesus gives you peace within yourself, as your conscience is calmed by the knowledge of God’s gracious pardon and acceptance through his Son. And Jesus gives you peace with your fellow man, as the healing love and forgiveness that he pours into your heart flows out through you to others.
So bring Him incense, gold and myrrh, Come peasant, king to own Him;
The King of kings salvation brings, Let loving hearts enthrone Him.
Raise, raise a song on high, The virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy, joy for Christ is born, The Babe, the Son of Mary.
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” Amen.
29 December 2019 - Christmas 1 - Matthew 2:13-23
The festival of Christmas is always a day of joyous celebration. We remember God’s goodness and love in the sending of his Son to be our Savior, and as we do so, we are glad.
The story of the birth of Jesus is a declaration that God cares about us. He has not forgotten about the human race in all its troubles, but has made a way for us to find happiness and peace through this Holy Child.
But even as the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem always lifts us up in joy and optimism, we are then always brought low again - in a sober-minded sadness - by the story of the deaths of many other babies in that same small Judean town, which is so closely associated with the story of Jesus’ birth.
The good news about Christ is seemingly eclipsed and buried by the bad news about King Herod’s cruelty that immediately follows it. And Herod was indeed a brutal tyrant. The Lutheran historian Paul Maier recounts just a few of his notorious deeds:
“Herod was so jealous of his favorite wife that on two occasions he ordered that she be killed if he failed to return from a critical mission. And then he finally killed her anyway, as well as her grandfather, her mother, his brother-in-law, and three of his sons, not to mention numerous subjects. During a swimming party at Jericho, he also drowned the high priest, who happened to be another of his brothers-in-law.”
“Old and very ill from arteriosclerosis, Herod worried that no one would mourn his death - a justified concern. So he issued orders from his deathbed that leaders from all parts of Judea were to be locked inside the great hippodrome at Jericho. When he died, archers were to massacre these thousands in cold blood, so there would indeed be universal mourning associated with his death.”
Fortunately, this last order of a dying despot was not carried out. But the fact that it was issued shows us something of the man.
And of course, within the past 2,000 years, there have been enough other tyrants in human history - matching and surpassing Herod’s brutality - to illustrate the fact that this world is indeed a cruel and painful place.
And even when tyrants on a smaller scale inflict misery on a smaller number of people, it still serves to remind us that in this life people often do experience much suffering and injustice.
The Christmas story might make us forget about this for a day. But when we read on just a little further in our New Testament, and come to the account of the massacre of the Holy Innocents, we are shocked back into a realization of what the world is really like.
And, of course, that realization may once again make us wonder what Christmas really accomplished. Where is the peace on earth that the angels promised?
The Christmas story is supposed to demonstrate God’s love for humanity. But how can this divine love be harmonized with the depredations and savagery that have continued to occur for the past 2,000 years?
If God loves the world, why does he allow these things to continue? Might we not rather conclude that God is either indifferent to these injustices, or too weak to do anything about them? And if that is so, then what’s the point of believing in him, or of trying to follow his ways?
One thing that can be said in response to these questions, is that our ability to discern the presence of injustice in human affairs is actually evidence for the existence of God, and for the goodness of God.
God is the supreme Good. As creatures of God, according to the way God did in fact create us, we humans have an inborn, intuitive sensitivity to God’s goodness; and an ability to know, deep down, the difference between good and evil, right and wrong. Our inborn knowledge of this natural law, in turn, confirms in us and awareness of the existence of the God who imprinted that law onto our conscience.
St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans that “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.”
So, if there were no supreme being - who embodies Goodness in an absolute sense - then there would be no ultimate criterion by which we could identify, in our conscience, good things as good things, and bad things as bad things. Without God, and his moral voice within us, as the ultimate norm and standard - by which all things are measured - the perceived difference between good and evil would be an illusion - completely subjective and arbitrary.
Some people in human history - like Herod the Great - stopped listening to the voice of their conscience, and hardened themselves to the natural law that God had planted within their conscience.
King Herod came to think that, for him, it was a “good” thing to kill babies and toddlers, and to kill his wife and other relatives, because this served his selfish desire to remain in power. People like Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Mao Tse Tung, are well-known 20th-century examples of the same sort of thing.
And it would be that way with most people, if most people did not continue to listen to that still small voice of God’s natural law within them, most of the time; and to endeavor to live, and to make judgments and decisions, according to that inner voice from God, most of the time.
But even more can be said. We should not minimize the emotional and physical suffering and sadness that many people in this world do experience. But we can recognize that God’s will for the human race reaches down to issues that are at a deeper level than this pain and sadness.
It is easy to criticize God for not preventing things like the slaughter of the Holy Innocents in Bethlehem. But before we conclude that God has been a failure in this world, we should make sure we know what God is actually trying to do in this world.
And before we persuade ourselves that God has let us down, we should consider that the story may actually be that we have let him down.
In his relationship with humanity, God wishes to be more than a cosmic policeman, who prevents men from inflicting on others the bad things they want to do. God would certainly be able to set himself up as the head of a supernatural police state, if that’s what he wanted to do; and to use extraordinary coercive methods to restrain people - people like Herod - from doing bad things.
But God’s purposes are not merely to prevent people from doing the hurtful things they want to do. He wants people not to want to do hurtful things in the first place.
He doesn’t intend to be the equivalent of a zoo-keeper, who keeps vicious animals in cages or chains, so that they cannot fulfill their desire to attack other animals - or people. Rather, he wants the animals to be tamed, as it were, so that they don’t have a desire to attack.
It certainly was a problem that Herod ordered the children of Bethlehem to be killed. But at a deeper level, it was a more serious problem that he even wanted to issue such an order. God would have wished that Herod’s inner depravity and hatefulness be replaced by compassion and kindheartedness.
And that goes for all of us. To whatever extent you harbor hurtful feelings and angry intentions toward others, you, too, have a problem in an area of your life that runs deeper than the arena of your outward actions.
If God were simply to restrain you in your outward behavior every time you were prepared to say or do something unkind or cruel to another person, this would not change your heart. This would not remove from you the selfishness, pride, and arrogance that motivate these words and actions.
But at the same time, God does not simply want to be humanity’s therapist, either. He is interested in the thoughts and intentions of the heart, but he is not interested only in those things.
It is possible for people to develop psychological mechanisms for coping with earthly problems that help them not to react to their stress in overtly violent or destructive ways. It is possible for people to learn how to have an altruistic and generous attitude toward others, even if their values are not shaped and governed directly by the Holy Scriptures.
It is possible for people to cultivate their inborn ethical sensitivity to God’s natural law, even if they do not have a living and personal faith in the God who established this law. But again, this is less than what God wants for us.
God does not simply want us to be morally reformed. He wants us to be spiritually regenerated.
Literal police officers perform a valuable function in maintaining order in the civil society. But if God had settled for being humanity’s cosmic policeman, he would never have gotten down to the deeper issues that he really wants to address with us.
Literal therapists likewise perform a valuable function in helping people sort through their problems, and organize their thoughts and feelings. But if God would have been satisfied to be humanity’s cosmic therapist, he would not then be able to address the deeper problems he really wants to solve: for our life in this world, and for our hope in the next.
It’s difficult to hear about atrocities like the massacre of the Holy Innocents at the hand of Herod. It’s even more difficult to witness such atrocities ourselves, or to be personally and directly affected by them - as many people in this world, unfortunately, have been.
But when these things do happen, don’t blame God for failing to do what we think he should have done for us. Ponder instead what it is, at a deeper level, that God actually wants to do for us.
St. Paul summarizes for us the reason for Christ’s entrance into this world. He writes:
“When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’”
God is not a supernatural policeman, or a supernatural therapist. He is a supernatural Redeemer.
God’s Son came into the world, not merely to restrain our outward evil behavior, or to help us get in touch with our inward confused feelings. He came to buy us back from the power of death and destruction, with the price of his own blood; and to reconcile us to God.
God’s Son came into the world to atone for our sins, and to justify us before a holy God with the covering of his own righteousness. He came to deliver to us a heavenly adoption, and to make us to be children of a heavenly Father by the indwelling of his own life-giving Spirit.
You and I are indeed under the divine law, as Jesus was. But in our case, we have rebelled against God’s goodness, and have ignored his demands, so that we deserve to be condemned by that law.
God has the right to call us to account, and he does call us to account. We do not have the right to call him to account, when he does or allows things that we think he should not do or allow - such as the slaying of the Holy Innocents, and a million other crimes that have occurred in human history.
According to the righteous judgment of God, Herod certainly needed to stop perpetrating his acts of human cruelty on others. He should have mended his ways before he died. But at a deeper level, Herod also needed to repent of his sins before God.
Herod certainly needed to stop being so paranoid and callous in his thoughts and feelings about others. But at a deeper level, he also needed to be reconciled to God by faith, and to become a new creature in Christ.
It grieved God that Herod lived and died in the blindness of sin, with his heart turned away from God and his grace. It grieved God that Herod hardened himself against the things that God really wants to accomplish among and within men.
And it grieves God when people who are alive today likewise shut themselves off from his power to heal, to restore, and to forgive. It grieves him when those who need the inner deliverance from sin - in time and in eternity - that he offers in his Son, choose instead to criticize him for failing to prevent outward evil actions in the affairs of this world.
The gift of Christmas is God’s gift of salvation to those who have grieved God, but whom God loves nevertheless. The gift that is offered to you, in the Holy Babe of Bethlehem, is the gift of reconciliation with a God whom your sins have offended, but who wants to pardon you and give you another chance.
The gift that is offered to you in Jesus, as he comes to you today in Word and Sacrament, is the gift of adoption and acceptance from a heavenly Father who wants to be alienated from you no more.
The peace of Christmas is not simply the outer “peace” that could be imposed on the world, if the wicked actions of wicked people would be restrained against their will. Instead, the peace of Christmas is the inner peace that comes when wicked people are forgiven, and when they are given a new will - and a new heart and mind in Christ.
God has the power to do this. God wants to do this. God wants to do this for you.
May your life be ever filled with the goodness and grace of the Christchild. Even in the midst of suffering and injustice, may you still know, and rejoice in, the eternal peace that only God can give. Amen.