SERMONS - DECEMBER 2020
6 December 2020 - Advent 2 - Isaiah 40:1-11
There are many times in life when you need to be comforted: times of great loss; times of great disappointment; times of great embarrassment; times of great fear and anxiety.
The comfort that people offer you at such times usually takes the form of words. Your friends or relatives say comforting thing to you.
But not everything that someone might say, in an attempt to comfort you, will actually deliver that comfort. The comforting words that someone says to you need to be true - or likely to be true - in order for those words to have a comforting effect.
So, if you are in a jet liner, and the wings of that plane have fallen off - so that the plane is hurling itself, out of control, toward the earth - it would not be comforting to you if, before the aircraft crashes, the person in the seat next to you says: “Don’t worry, everything will be alright.”
Everything will not be alright! And the person who would try to comfort you - and himself - by saying this, would not be in a position to be able to make things alright.
This would be a false comfort, based on wishful thinking and not on reality. And a false comfort is no comfort at all.
God is the ultimate reality. Even when people are not directly conscious of him, he remains as the ultimate reference point for all human existence.
Those who feel guilty over their misdeeds, or who feel regret over past mistakes, feel that way because of him - whether they realize it or not. In the deepest recesses of every human conscience, there is a sense that someday, all of us will have to give an account of our lives to God, who will judge us.
This voice of conscience cannot be silenced. And what also cannot be silenced is the deep, nagging thought that we will not fare well in this judgment. People may not consciously admit this, and they may act and speak in such a way as to try to silence and contradict this accusing voice of their conscience. But they will never really succeed.
We all know, deep down, that we are, as it were, on a jet liner of human destiny that has lost its wings. We are on our way down. In the final analysis, the human comfort that we offer to one another from inside this plummeting plane - assurances that God is not really so holy and demanding, or that people are not really so bad - does not work.
If someone who is being hurled to the final judgment with you, were to tell you that the plane is not really going to crash - or that you will certainly survive this crash - you would not be comforted by this, because you know that this is not true.
And you also know that there is nothing that you or any other mortal man can do, to change the trajectory that this plane - that you and all of sinful humanity - are on.
As we live and die in this world, false comfort, based on wishful thinking, is offered by many. But this false comfort denies what is real and inevitable.
Our sins are real. They have undone us on the inside, and have distanced us from God.
And we are all in this condition. “All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God,” as St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans reminds us, honestly and frankly.
Who can comfort us in this situation? Is anyone able to change this situation, so that this persons words of comfort would be believable, and would actually result in genuine comfort?
In today’s text from the Prophet Isaiah, God gives this authorization to Isaiah; through Isaiah to John the Baptist; and through John the Baptist to all faithful preachers of God’s Word:
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”
According to God, the inner warfare and struggles of the conscience, and the conflict between your sinful nature and God’s holiness, is now ended. According to God, your iniquity - the dirtiness and shame of your sin - is pardoned, and will not be held against you.
God desires not only to bring you up from your sin to a spiritually neutral state, but he wants to bring you all the way up to peace with him, fellowship and communion with him, and an eternal destiny with him.
That is, he wants to give you “double” for all your sins: not just to cancel out your failures, and give you another chance to succeed; but to credit you with success already!
Can God actually do this? In Christ, God has already done this!
He sent his Son into the world to live for the world, in perfect obedience under the law; to redeem the world from the power and guilt of sin, with the price of his own blood; to atone for the sins of the world, by the sacrificing of his own body; and to justify the world, by the vindication that was pronounced upon him - in humanity’s place - in his resurrection.
God can reattach the wings on that plane! In Christ, God has reattached the wings. In Christ, the plane will not crash. In Christ, you are justified now by faith, and will be justified also on the day of judgment.
Words of genuine comfort - concerning God’s saving works, and God’s saving grace - are therefore spoken to you in Christ. Indeed, they are cried out to you. Such is God’s eagerness that you would believe his words, and be truly comforted by them.
Through his delegated spokesmen - Isaiah the Prophet, John the Baptist, and the pastors who serve his church today - the Lord’s tender words of comfort and light are directed to your conscience. And these words come from one who is able to make all these things happen for you.
The comfort that comes from God is not a false comfort. It is not based on wishful thinking.
It is based on God’s actual love for the world, and on the important things that have flowed out from that love in sacred history. God so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten Son into the world - to reconcile the world to himself by his Son’s life, death, and resurrection.
As your pastor in this place - in this little “Jerusalem” - our God has commanded me, by virtue of my divine call, to comfort his troubled, fearful, and penitent people in this place. He has commanded me to comfort you.
And so, when the absolution of your Savior is spoken to you, this is the “tender” speaking of a real, believable comfort. God wants you to hear that comfort, and to believe it, for the washing away of all your sins.
When the gospel of Christ crucified is preached and expounded from this pulpit, the end of your warfare is thereby announced and cried out to you, for your peace of mind and heart.
And when the sacramental words of Jesus are recited from the altar to the communicants of his Supper, they - you - can know that your iniquity is pardoned, and that you have received from the Lord double for all your sins.
As you repent of your sins and trust in his words, not only are you liberated from the fear of death by the pardon that flows out from his cross, but you are also raised up in the hope of your own resurrection: by the receiving of the body and blood of your resurrected Savior into your body.
Through my vocation as your pastor, our God has said to me: Comfort, comfort my people; speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her.”
And so, dear friends, please listen to what I say to you now. In your fear and anxiety, please listen. In your discouragement and embarrassment, please listen. In your guilt for your many missteps and failures, please listen.
In your feelings of loss and disappointment, please listen. In you doubts as to whether there is any real comfort to be had in this sin-sick and corrupted world, please listen, and believe what I say:
In Christ, because of the perfect life of righteousness and obedience that he lived for you, your warfare is ended.
In Christ, because of the atonement for sin that he accomplished on the cross for you, your iniquity is pardoned.
In Christ, because of his glorious resurrection from death, by which he opened a portal to everlasting life for you, you have received from the Lord’s hand double for all your sins.
13 December 2020 - Advent 3 - Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
The ministry of Isaiah the Prophet took place in the context of the waning years of the independence of the Kingdom of Judah. Isaiah predicted, but did not experience for himself, the future captivity of Judah at the hands of the Babylonian Empire.
This eventually came as a chastisement from the Lord, on account of Judah’s frequent lapses into idolatry, and the other sins and injustices which were tolerated in that kingdom contrary to the will and word of the God to whom they claimed to belong.
But Isaiah not only predicted this captivity. He also predicted the deliverance from captivity that would come 70 years later, when a remnant of the Jews would be able to return to the Holy Land, and restore what had been destroyed and lost.
Isaiah’s prophecies, written down and taken in manuscript form by the captives when they were carried off to Babylon, served as a constant source of instruction an encouragement to the Jews while they languished in that foreign land.
God’s promises of an eventual deliverance and restoration for his people, spoken through Isaiah and written down, gave them hope: as they looked forward to the day when they could leave Babylon, and go home to Jerusalem again; and as they looked forward to the day when Jerusalem, and its temple, could be rebuilt.
When the Jews is exile read the words of today’s Old Testament lesson from Isaiah, those words no doubt contributed toward the building up of that hopeful faith: that is, the building up of their confidence that God, in his grace, would not remain angry at them forever, but would forgive them; and the building up of their expectation that God, in his faithfulness, would not forsake them, but would rescue them.
They believed that when the time of their well-deserved national chastisement was over, the Lord in his love would make things to be the way they were before, back in the land that he had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and to their descendants after them.
Especially when the first group of returning exiles arrived at Jerusalem, on Mount Zion, and with shock and sadness saw the rubble and devastation from 70 years earlier, they no doubt comforted themselves with these words from God’s chosen prophet:
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion - to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified. They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.”
There’s nothing wrong with God’s people deriving comfort from God’s Word, as they apply that Word to the particular circumstances in which they may find themselves. And God may very well have intended the words of this text to be of comfort to the Jewish people returning from exile. In fact, I can hardly imagine that he would not have wanted that to be the case for them, in that time and place.
But from the vantage point that we now have - after the coming of Christ to this world, and the establishment of the Holy Christian Church among all nations - we can say that this was not the ultimate and fullest fulfillment of this prophecy; and that this was not the ultimate and final application of these words in salvation history.
We know this because of what Jesus said and did in the synagogue at Nazareth, as his public ministry was beginning. St. Luke reports that Jesus went back to Nazareth, after his baptism and temptation in the wilderness:
“And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”
The people of Judah had disobeyed and dishonored the God who had established them as a nation, so that they were delivered into the captivity of the Babylonian Empire until such time as God liberated them from that captivity, and restored them to the status with him that they had previously enjoyed. But this story was a microcosm of the deeper and universal story of humanity as a whole.
In paradise, humanity’s first parents had enjoyed a wonderful and fulfilling fellowship with the God who created them, until Eve and Adam disobeyed and rebelled against God, and separated themselves from him. As a consequence, their descendants are now by nature in an exile of alienation from their Creator.
From conception and birth, all human beings, in their original condition, are enslaved to the power of sin and death. King David speaks for all of us when he says, in Psalm 51: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”
All of this is accompanied by much sadness and grief. Not only do we enter into this world separated from God and under his judgment, but the sin that afflicts us expresses itself also in the damage that we cause in our relationships with each other, by the destructive things we do and say to each other.
Now, God did not leave Adam and Eve, or humanity as a whole, without hope. Forgiveness and reconciliation were always offered, through the centuries, in God’s Messianic promise that all human sin would be atoned for in the saving work of the one who was called the seed of the woman, the offspring of Abraham, the prophet like Moses, and the royal heir of David.
Those who, through the centuries, believed this promise, thereby received this forgiveness, and experienced this reconciliation: even as they in faith still awaited the complete fulfillment and full revelation of what God had promised to them.
The faithful Jews in Babylonian captivity, as they looked forward to their physical liberation, also - at a deeper level - looked forward to their spiritual liberation through the coming sacrificial death of their Messiah.
The faithful Jews who saw the devastations of the Holy Land, as they looked forward to the physical restoration of Jerusalem, also - at a deeper level - looked forward to the restoration of their eternal dwelling place through the coming resurrection of their Messiah.
When Jesus did finally come into this world, as the Son of God in human flesh, he came to be and to do everything that had been promised. He came to fulfill all that needed to be done for the liberation and restoration of humanity.
What Isaiah had written, was written about Jesus. Indeed, Jesus, by the miracle of divine prophecy, had spoken through Isaiah regarding himself:
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”
Jesus came in history, and he comes here and now among us in Word and Sacrament, to bind up the brokenhearted. In one way or another, sin has broken the hearts of all of us.
Sin inflicts deep wounds on the consciences of so many people, either through the guilt that comes from the evil they have done to others, which they regret but cannot undo; or through the pain that comes from the evil that has been done to them by others, which they cannot shake off.
Jesus lifts this guilt, and heals this pain, through the cleansing and healing power of his gospel - his “good news.” He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He takes away the sin, and its effects, from both perpetrators and victims.
Forgiveness is the essence of the gospel. It represents the end of the old animosity between God and rebellious man, and it represents the beginning of a new life of reconciliation and peace between God and regenerated man.
Indeed, when Christ binds up the brokenhearted, he also proclaims liberty to the captives, the opening of the prison to those who are bound, and the year of the Lord’s favor. Jesus does not just save you from guilt and fear, but he saves you for a new life of freedom in his grace, and of joyful service to him and to the people he brings into your life.
In the imagery that Isaiah uses, the Lord comfort all who mourn, and grants to them “a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit.”
This describes the deep contentment and satisfaction that come from knowing that you, as a human being made in God’s image, are now back where you truly belong: in the embrace of a God whom you now know as a loving heavenly Father and not only as a judge.
This God watches over you and guides you, and by his Spirit is making you to be a new creation in his Son: with new values and new priorities; a new mind and a new heart.
And you live out this new life as a member of the mystical body of Christ, into which you have been baptized by his Spirit. What the gospel has done to you - to all of you together - is to re-make you into “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light,” as St. Peter describes what it means to be a member of Christ’s church.
When the Jewish people were released from bondage in Babylon, they were not simply set adrift as homeless wanderers. They were brought back to their true home. And that home, which had been destroyed, was then rebuilt: so that they could enjoy it, and so that they could enjoy God’s goodness in it.
As the redeemed people of God from all nations, who have been made to be a new holy nation, we too are not homeless. We have been restored to our spiritual paradise. We have returned to the harmony and happiness of Eden.
What had been destroyed by human sin and rebellion, is now rebuilt. The kingdom of Christ is being built up among us, and through us.
That kingdom is not of this world, as Jesus said to Pilate. But the citizens of that kingdom do indeed make an impact on this world. They are the salt of the earth, and the light of the world, as Jesus also said regarding his disciples.
As God’s Spirit works within us, and as he unites us to each other in a common purpose and a common mission, we in Christ’s name shall build up the ancient ruins, and shall raise up the former devastations.
When you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, gathering in his name and receiving his gifts through the means of grace that he makes available to you, you are returning to your true home. St. Peter also writes:
“As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
And when you love your neighbor as yourself - feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the lonely, comforting the discouraged, and - most important of all - proclaiming to others the excellencies of God, and God’s forgiving mercy in Christ - you are, in the Lord’s strength, repairing the ruined cities and the devastations of many generations. You are living out your citizenship in the new spiritual Israel, and in the new spiritual Jerusalem.
The coming of Christ, predicted in the Old Testament and celebrated by the church in the season of Advent, is about this. It is about all this. It makes all this happen.
In the words of Psalm 85 - as we sang those words in today’s introit - we speak of the new promised land of God’s Holy Church, to which God has brought us by the gospel, and in which we already dwell by faith:
“Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him, that glory may dwell in our land. Yes, the Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.” Amen.
20 December 2020 - Advent 4 - Luke 1:26-38
In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, we once again hear the familiar story of the annunciation by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary, concerning the miraculous conception and birth of Jesus.
To us, as we look back on this from the vantage point of knowing everything that was to follow from this announcement, we see only an occasion for joy and hope. But that was not Mary’s initial reaction to the angel’s visit, and the angel’s words.
“And [Gabriel] came to her and said, ‘Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!’ But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.”
It’s interesting to see that Mary was not particularly troubled by the actual appearance of the angel. We might expect that this would be the scary thing.
But that’s not what Luke tells us was startling and troubling to Mary. What troubled her was what the angel said. “Greetings, O favored one.”
A different translation of this greeting that is as well-known as it is inaccurate goes like this: “Hail, full of grace.” But in the original Greek of the New Testament, the word for “grace” or “favor” that is used here does not refer to something that is in Mary.
She is not full of grace. Rather, God is full of grace. When he thinks of Mary, God’s own heart is full of grace, and favor, and acceptance, and mercy.
God sends his angel to Mary because God has a favorable attitude toward Mary. He thinks well of her. But she is troubled by this. “Why does God think well of me?”, we can imagine her asking.
She would have known that, in herself, she did not deserve God’s favor. As a pious Jewish girl, Mary would have been familiar with Psalm 14:
“The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.”
Mary knew that she was indeed among the “children of man”: that she, too, just like everyone else, would have a reason to fear God’s judgment and punishment, and not automatically to expect God’s favor - at least not based on anything inside of herself.
There is no Biblical warrant for the belief that Mary was without sin. Rather, the Bible teaches that “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.”
I hope that no one is scandalized by this, but “all” means “all.” “All” includes Mary.
Mary would have admitted that. And so, as the angel makes this unexpected declaration to her, “Greetings, O favored one,” she is troubled and perplexed. What could this mean?
And what is even more frightening is the phrase that follows: “The Lord is with you.” Those with a troubled conscience, who are aware of their weaknesses and shortcomings before God, sometimes like to comfort themselves with the thought that God is not close by.
“Maybe God is not noticing my sin,” they imagine. But of course this is just an illusion.
God knows all, and sees all. You cannot escape from the Lord’s awareness of you and of everything that is going on in your life.
You cannot hide from God, as Adam thought he could in the Garden of Eden. God will call out to you, as he did to Adam: “Where are you?” And God will find you.
So, if someone might tell you, as Gabriel told Mary, “the Lord is with you,” that could be a scary thought. He is not far away, preoccupied with other things. He is right here, up close. Whatever is going on in your life right now - in thought, word, or deed - God knows about it.
And Mary was afraid. We know this, from the words that the angel then said to her:
“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.”
The angel emphasizes that Mary should not be afraid. He assures her that the Lord really is favorable toward her. He is not approaching her in order to judge her or to punish her for her sins, but to reveal his grace to her in a very special way.
And these words of assurance are not just empty talk. There is a reason why these things are true. There is a reason why Mary should not be afraid. There is a reason why Mary should believe that God truly is gracious and favorable toward her.
It is because God is giving to Mary - and to the human race through Mary - the greatest of gifts: his own Son. God’s Son, begotten of the Father from eternity and of one substance with him, will now become Mary’s son, conceived in her by the Holy Spirit.
The Second Person of the Holy Trinity will now take to himself a true human nature, in order to become the Savior of humanity. And he will take that human nature from Mary.
Mary was not encouraged to “wish away” her fear through “positive thinking.” She was encouraged instead to believe the joyful good news about Jesus her Lord.
Mary was not told that she is actually without sin, or that her sin is not an offense to God, so that she therefore should never be fearful at the thought of being in the presence of his holiness. She was told instead that her Savior from sin was now coming into the world, to accomplish his work of redemption and justification - paying the debt of sin, and covering over its stain and guilt.
That’s why Mary ceased to be afraid. That’s why the words of the angel, “the Lord is with you,” became a message of comfort and joy, and ceased to be a troubling and frightening message.
Angels don’t appear to you with personal messages from God. But a messenger who has been sent to you by God does perform some of the functions that Gabriel performed for Mary in today’s Gospel.
Your pastor, called to his office by the Lord of the church, says these words to you three times in the course of each Sunday’s worship service: “The Lord be with you.” This is essentially the same thing that the angel told Mary when he said, “the Lord is with you.”
And what reaction do you have to these words, when I chant them? My guess is that you have heard them so often that you probably don’t have much of any reaction.
But you should have a reaction. These words speak of something very important in your life - just as they spoke of something very important in Mary’s life.
If you were to think about it - as you also think about your sins, and about God’s holiness - perhaps you would begin to be a little bit troubled by these reminders that the Lord is with you. Mary’s initial reaction was that she was frightened by this.
And you, too, might be frightened when you pause and ponder the Lord’s imminent presence: here and now, up close.
The statement, “the Lord be with you,” can be an alarming statement, if you consider that the sinfulness that permeates your life makes you - in yourself - unworthy of a divine visitation. So, what are you thinking, at each of those points in the Liturgy when the pastor sings that phrase to you?
Are you comfortable with the idea that God is, in that moment, coming up close to you, peering into your mind and heart, and measuring and evaluating you on the basis of what he sees in your mind and heart? Probably not!
“The Lord be with you” can be a scary idea, when you’d prefer that the Lord not be close enough to notice your failures, your hypocrisies, your half-heartedness, and your confused priorities. But the Lord is with you. And he knows it all.
God knows about the shameful things that are a part of your life, and that are a part of you. But, God still invites you - he implores you, in fact - not to try to distance yourself from him, and not to try to hide your sins from him.
The Lord causes himself to be with you - accessible to you, and ready to hear what you have to say - so that you can repent of your sins, and seek his pardon.
From that perspective, therefore, it is a good thing that the Lord is with you - that he is with all of us - here and now, so that we can tell him what we need to tell him:
“Almighty God, our Maker and Redeemer, we poor sinners confess unto You that we are by nature sinful and unclean, and that we have sinned against You by thought, word, and deed. Therefore we flee for refuge to Your infinite mercy, seeking and imploring Your grace for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
And it’s also a good thing that the Lord is with us, so that we can then receive from him what he wants to give us. In the case of Mary, he gave her the gift of a Savior, who would rule among his people in righteousness. And that’s also what he gives to us.
Now, Jesus certainly doesn’t come to us in the same way as he did with Mary. God’s Son doesn’t enter into our bodies in the way that he entered into the womb of his mother.
But he does enter into our minds and hearts - in an equally miraculous and wonderful manner. The divine-human Savior who lived and died in your place, and who rose again from the dead for your redemption, comes to you now: to reconcile you to God, to bring you back to his fellowship, and to fill you with his own loving and healing presence.
The hymn writer Phillips Brooks expresses the thought so beautifully in his well-known Christmas carol:
O holy Child of Bethlehem, Descend to us, we pray; Cast out our sin and enter in, Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels The great glad tidings tell: Oh, come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Immanuel!
That’s what happens to you when Christ absolves you - when he says to you: “I forgive you all your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Jesus thereby casts out your sin, and once again “enters in”: as he did in your baptism, and as he continues to do whenever the grace of your baptism is recalled in this way.
Jesus renews to you the gift of his Spirit. He strengthens within you the mystical bonds of faith that unite him to you. He lives within you with his regenerating, life-changing power.
And so, when the Lord is with you in this way, and for this purpose, it is a wonderful thing! Do not be afraid! The son who was born to Mary is here, once again, to save you, and to take away all your fear.
In a few minutes you are going to hear that familiar phrase, “the Lord be with you,” yet another time today. At the beginning of the rite of Holy Communion, when the pastor and the congregation begin their solemn dialogue concerning the great and mighty wonder that is about to break into our midst, you will once again hear these words.
As your sins have been washed away in Holy Absolution, and as your faith in Christ’s Word and institution has thereby been renewed and strengthened, it is not going to be a frightening thing to be told this. It will instead be a marvelous blessing to be assured that the Son of God - and the son of Mary - is once again present among his people.
The Lord is with us in the bread and wine of his Holy Supper, in order to unite himself to us in our human need, precisely at the point of his own glorified humanity. For our forgiveness once again, and for the renewal of our faith once again, Jesus bestows upon us the very body and blood with which he purchased us as his own.
The Lord is with you. And as he is with you - as he is with us in his sacrament - we respond to his intimate presence in our midst, not in fear, but with a joyful yearning to be blessed by him according to his pledge and promise.
In Christ, and for the sake of Christ, God does not come to us in his gospel and sacraments to judge us or punish us. Rather, with Mary, and for the sake of Mary’s son, we, too, are “favored” by the Lord. When God thinks of us - in Christ - his heart is once again full of grace, and favor, and acceptance, and mercy.
“Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” “Do not be afraid, ...for you have found favor with God.” Amen.
24 December 2020 - Christmas Eve - Luke 2:8-14
During the past several months, the lives of people in our society have been afflicted by fear, and by the consequences of fear, much more than usual. And I’m not just talking about fear of the coronavirus.
Consider the fear that has influenced people’s actions and reactions in regard to the protests - and the riots, the arson, and the looting - that took place in so many cities across the country. People are afraid of police brutality. People are afraid of violent crime.
Consider also the fear that has influenced people’s actions and reactions in the political sphere. People are afraid that our country might become a fascist state. People are afraid that our country might become a socialist or communist state.
And of course there has been, and still is, much fear connected to the coronavirus pandemic: in regard to the disease and the threat it poses; and in regard to how government officials and agencies have responded to the disease and the threat it poses.
People are afraid that they or their loved ones will get sick and die. People are afraid that their businesses will be destroyed, or that their jobs will be permanently lost.
People are afraid that their rights and liberties will be taken from them by the overreach of power-hungry politicians and heartless bureaucrats.
Everyone is not afraid of all of these things. But I would venture to say that everyone is afraid of some of these things.
When you’re afraid of something, or of someone, it’s because you see that thing or that person to be a threat. You feel vulnerable and at risk. You don’t feel safe and secure.
Caution and prudence are sensible responses to danger or to the possibility of danger. The thoughtful, reasonable decisions you make in a time that calls for caution and prudence, will probably be wise and beneficial decisions.
But the decisions you make under the influence of fear are usually not reasonable decisions, because fear resides in the emotions. Fear is not something you think through, and consider carefully, but it’s something that takes hold of you, and drives you impulsively to do and say things you otherwise would never do or say.
From one angle, fear - with its captivating and debilitating power - is the polar opposite of having a sense of being in control - of yourself and of your circumstances. From another angle, fear - with the panic and paralysis that it so easily breeds - is the polar opposite of trust in God.
It is the polar opposite of a confidence that God is good, that God is all-knowing, and that God is in charge. It is the polar opposite of a willingness to accept whatever may come your way, when you are being faithful to what God has called you to be and to do in any given situation.
The shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night, on the hillsides outside of Bethlehem, were not afraid to be out there. They were experienced in what they were doing, and they were familiar with where they were.
And so they felt safe. But then something far beyond their experience, with which they were completely unfamiliar, broke in upon their quiet night. St. Luke tells us about it:
“An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.”
In an instant, the shepherds were reminded of their human weakness, and were petrified. In an instant, they were reminded of their human mortality, and no longer felt safe.
This angel, with his heavenly glory, was obviously stronger than they were. Was he an avenging angel? Had he come from heaven to punish them on account of their sins? That was plausible, because they were sinners.
Was he an angel of death? Had he come to kill some or all of them? All of these things were possible. And all of these possibilities were frightening.
But before the shepherds had a chance to do or say something foolish and irrational, arising from their great fear, the angel spoke to them. And his words had a power about them - a comforting, supernatural power - that was greater that the power of their fear.
“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. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.’”
The shepherds’ hearts were set at peace by these words. They now knew not only that God was still in charge of their lives, but also that his plans for them were good and life-giving plans.
God’s Fatherly protection was resting over them, and God’s purposeful vocation was directing them to live and work in this world. But there was now also something new. That very night, God, through his angel, was sending them to visit and worship their Savior from sin and death.
St. Luke continues his account:
“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’ ”
When a single angel appeared to the shepherds, they were very afraid. That fear was removed by the good news of great joy for all people, that the angel proclaimed to them.
And due to the enduring, soothing effect of the angel’s words, when a multitude of the heavenly host then appeared to them, they did not become afraid again.
Without the promises of God’s word ringing in their ears and settling into their hearts, they had been afraid of one angel. But with the message of their Savior’s birth coming to them and abiding with them, they were now not afraid even of a myriad of angels.
Far from being afraid, they were emboldened to do what God wanted them to do, and to go where God wanted them to go.
The shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.”
When the choir of angels appeared, they were praising God. Now the shepherds join them in this. When the shepherds returned to their flocks on the hillsides, after visiting Jesus, they too were “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”
The shepherds’ fear had given way to hope. They knew, of course, that they would not live forever - at least not in this world. But they were not going to spend the rest of their lives being afraid of death.
While they lived, they would live in the grace of God, and under the protection of God, by faith in the Savior who had been sent for them and for all people.
To be sure, they were still shepherds. And as responsible shepherds, they would still be cautious and prudent when they needed to be.
They would still be careful to make sure that their sheep were safe from wolves or other predators. They would still be attentive to their sheep’s need for nutritious food and clean water.
But as they followed their calling as shepherds, they would not work in fear, either. And they would now season their lives, and their work, with praises to God for all they had heard and seen.
What does any of this have to do with us, and with our twenty-first century fears? We’re not afraid of angels. We haven’t seen any angels. We’re afraid of other things. Other scary things.
The hymn-writer Phillips Brooks understood what Christmas meant for people who lived in his time, nineteen centuries after the birth of Jesus. He also understood what Christmas would means for us today, even without knowing the details of what life in 2020 would be like. He wrote, and this evening we sang:
O little town of Bethlehem, How still we see thee lie;
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep The silent stars go by;
Yet in thy dark streets shineth The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years Are met in thee tonight.
The hopes and the fears of the shepherds were met in Bethlehem on the night Jesus was born there.
Your hopes, and your fears - whatever they may be - are met there, too, as the Christmas gospel is preached to you tonight. Your fears are met, your fears are matched, and your fears are overcome. And hope emerges in their place.
You may have arrived here this evening in fear: fear of all the things that are going on in the world around you that seem to be threatening you, and that make you feel unsafe and in danger. But you don’t have to leave here in fear.
With caution and prudence, yes: as indeed all of life should be lived with caution and prudence, when called for. But not fear.
“O simple ones, learn prudence; O fools, learn sense,” as we read in the Book of Proverbs. St. Mark tells us of a conversation that Jesus had with his disciples, regarding the threats posed by false religious teachers and corrupt politicians:
“He cautioned them, saying, ‘watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.”
Yet Jesus also said these words to his disciples, in St. John’s Gospel:
“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.”
Tonight, the angel tells you: “Do not be afraid.” Tonight, the angel tells you: “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.”
And tonight, the angel sends you back to your vocations in this world with the praises of God on your lips, and with courage and hope in your hearts.
You can and will know, with renewed confidence, that God is good, that God is all-knowing, and that God is in charge. And you can and will know, with a deep certainty, that your Savior from sin and death has been born.
We close with these words, from Psalm 91 and from Psalm 46:
“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’ For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.”
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.” Amen.
25 December 2020 - Christmas - Matthew 1:18-25
When my grandmother was born in 1908, her parents decided to name her Gladys Mae. That’s what they told the doctor who delivered her, and that’s what the doctor reported to the town clerk.
But then her parents changed their mind, and decided to name her Catherine Margaret instead. Catherine was her grandmother’s name, and Margaret was her aunt’s name, and so that seemed to make better sense. This was the name that was written in the family Bible, and by which she lived for many years.
But then, in adulthood, she needed a copy of her birth certificate for some reason. The town clerk’s office was contacted. But no birth for Catherine Margaret was recorded. Only a birth for Gladys Mae.
It was eventually straightened out, through my grandmother’s father signing an affidavit, testifying to what her name was really supposed to be. But before it was straightened out, she had two names: the one registered with the town clerk, which was her legal name, and the one written in the family Bible, which is the name she went by.
In today’s Gospel, is St. Matthew telling us a similar story regarding the name or names of the Messiah? Did God the Father at first choose a certain name for his Son, and arrange for that name to be written down in Old Testament prophecy? But did he then change his mind, give his Son a different name, and reveal that alternate name to Joseph?
St. Matthew quotes from the Prophet Isaiah, when he writes: “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.’”
But St. Matthew also reports that the angel who had been sent by God to Joseph, told him, with respect to Mary’s pregnancy: “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.”
So, was Jesus originally named Immanuel, with that name even being written down in Sacred Scripture? But did God then change his mind, give him a different name, and cause that name also to be written down in Sacred Scripture?
Well, no. What happened with respect to my grandmother, with her indecisive parents, is not what happened with respect to our Savior. God the Father was not being indecisive here, but he was making two important points here.
According to the Biblical concept of a “name,” God’s “name” is not only the specific term or personal appellation by which he is known to people. His “name” includes everything that reveals something about him, or that makes known his character or his will.
In today’s text, Matthew points out that, in Hebrew, the word “Immanuel” means “God with us.” Immanuel is therefore a “name” for Jesus - even though Jesus did not actually go by that name - since the meaning of the word “Immanuel” conveys an important message about Jesus, and about who he is.
Jesus was not a mere man who later, in the superstitious imagination of his followers, was lifted up to be a kind of God. Rather, he was the one true God from all eternity, who in the fullness of time lowered himself to become a man.
In the mystery and miracle of the incarnation, God’s eternal Son - the Second Person of the Holy Trinity - became a part of human history. The creator became a part of his creation.
The eternal divine Word took to himself a human nature from his mother Mary, and became our brother according to the flesh. And this union of the divine and human in the person of Christ is a permanent union.
The humanity of Jesus was exalted in his resurrection and ascension, but it still exists as an exalted humanity. Jesus not only was God with us, but he is God with us, and will always be God with us.
This is most vividly experienced by us in the Lord’s Supper, where we do not received a mere symbol, and where the real presence of Christ is not limited to his divinity or his Spirit either. Jesus comes to us in his body and blood - his human body and blood - and touches our humanity at the point of his own humanity.
Jesus is “God with us” in a very special way in this sacrament, but he is God with us in all times and places, in heaven and on earth, now and forever.
He is God with us everywhere and always, because that’s what Immanuel means. And that’s why Jesus is “named” Immanuel. It is an enduring testimony to who he is as God in human flesh.
But the thought of God being with us, all by itself, is not necessarily a comforting or happy thought. Why is God with us? What is he going to do to us?
Jesus being Immanuel could mean that God is with us, so that he can condemn and destroy us, on account of our sins. Indeed, on the Last Day, this divine-human Immanuel will be visibly present with the entire human race, precisely to be the judge of the living and the dead.
And we must honestly admit - as we do admit in the Small Catechism - that “we daily sin much, and deserve nothing but punishment.”
This is why that second name of God’s Son, and the meaning of that second name, are also very important. “Jesus” in English comes from the Greek way of writing the Hebrew name Joshua or Yeshua. And what Yeshua means in Hebrew is “Yahweh saves” or “the Lord saves.”
So, in Christ, and in the gospel of Christ, God is with us: not to punish us, but to save us. God comes to us and lives among us in the Babe of Bethlehem, not to give the human race the punishment that it deserves, but to give the human race a second chance, and a way back to fellowship with God through repentance and faith.
In St. John’s Gospel we are told:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
And the Book of Acts quotes St. Peter: “We believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus.”
That’s what “Jesus” the word means. And that’s what Jesus the person does.
Jesus is able to be our Savior because Jesus is Immanuel - God with us. Only God, who is creator of heaven and earth, can make us to be new creatures. We are made to be new creatures in Christ.
Only God can forgive sins. God does forgive sins in Christ, who is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
We are so thankful on this Christmas Day, and on every day of our lives, that we are able to know Immanuel before Judgment Day comes, not only as Immanuel, but also as Jesus.
He is the Lord who saves us, by his perfect life, by his innocent death, and by his glorious resurrection. He in the Lord who saves us from the guilt of sin, from the power of sin, and - ultimately - from the consequences of sin: as he promises us a resurrection to eternal life.
The birth of Jesus marked the beginning of his life among us. It is indeed a key component of the story of our salvation.
And the names of Jesus that today’s Gospel tells us about - the earlier name that God had revealed through Isaiah, and the later name that God wanted Joseph to give to the baby - are also key components of the story of our salvation.
If Jesus did not have both of those names, and if the meaning of those two names did not define who he was and what he came to do, there would be no story of salvation for us to tell and to believe.
But our Lord does have those names. And we do have that story, to which we can cling forever.
“‘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.
27 December 2020 - Christmas 1 - Luke 2:22-40
St. Luke tells us that there was a “righteous and devout” man in Jerusalem named Simeon, who was “waiting for the consolation of Israel.” Luke also tells us that “it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.”
When Joseph and Mary brought little Jesus to the temple, for his formal “presentation” to the Lord, Simeon was directed by the Holy Spirit to this family, and specifically to this child. Luke picks up the narrative there:
“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.’”
With his physical eyes, Simeon saw Jesus - who was no doubt an ordinary-looking baby. But with the eyes of faith - faith in what God had revealed to him concerning this baby - Simeon saw the salvation of the Lord embodied in that baby.
Seeing this, and holding in his arms the Redeemer of Israel and of all nations, Simeon expressed in his prayer to the Lord his willingness now to depart from this world: “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace.”
Simeon was prepared to die. This readiness to depart, with a sense that he had experienced everything that he needed to experience in life, is one of the main reasons why Simeon is almost always portrayed in sacred art as a very old man.
Religious artists throughout history, and we today, pretty much assume that a fulfilled life is a long life. We tend to assume that only those who are aged would have the kind of attitude that Simeon had.
But there’s nothing in the text that tells us that Simeon was an old man. He could have been a middle-aged man or even a young man.
St. Luke does not tell us that he was ready to die because he was old. St. Luke tells us that he was ready to die because he had seen the Lord’s Christ.
How old is “old” anyway? The Book of Genesis indicates that Noah’s grandfather Methuselah lived to be 969 years old. Abraham, many centuries later, lives to be 175 years old.
Today, when someone passes away at the age of 80 or 85, we would probably not consider that person to have lived a life that was too short. We would expect such a person to feel that he or she had lived a full life.
But is that really so, in comparison to the life span of the ancient patriarchs? Would Methuselah have thought that Abraham had lived for a long time?
From Methuselah’s perspective, Abraham’s time on earth was very short. And from Abraham’s perspective, a person who dies today, at the age of 80, would be seen as someone whose life had been very short.
In truth, death at any time is evidence of human sin, and of the fallenness of our human nature. “The wages of sin is death,” as St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans.
Adam and Eve were created to be immortal. Anything short of immortality, is a very short life, according to the way things were meant to be.
But the way things were meant to be, is not the way things are. Instead of immortality, and instead of being in harmony with an immortal God, humanity’s experience in this world is colored and shaped by sin: inherited from parents, passed on to children, and enacted personally by all of us: every day, in thought, word, and deed.
But as St. Paul also writes, “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Receiving this gift, and seeing this gift - as Simeon did - is what allows you to be ready to die, because those who live and die in Christ, live forever.
Christ forgives the guilt of sin. He breaks the power of sin. In the resurrection on the Last Day, he will reverse all the effects of sin.
It is not true that only a long life can be a full life. If Simeon was, say, 35 years old when he held Jesus in his arms, his life - for that reason alone - would have been a truly full life.
God’s definition of a full life, is a life that is filled with his Son Jesus Christ: filled with his grace and guidance; filled with his promise of eternal life for those who have “seen” him; filled with the faith that his Spirit works in those who believe in him.
This is what Simeon knew. This is what Simeon 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.”
The Christmas season is a time when we think about living in peace. The angels sang: “Glory be to God on high; and on earth, peace, goodwill toward men.” We, too, sing this.
And in the words of Isaiah the prophet, we confess Jesus as “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
But as today’s text reminds us - with sobriety, as well as with a joyful hope - the Christmas season is also a season to think about what it means to die in peace, when the time for our departure from this world does come.
We might wonder, though, if we can compare our encounters with Christ, such as they are, with the encounter that Simeon had with Christ in the temple.
Are we able to have the same kind of confidence in God, and the same degree of resignation to God’s will, that he had - in view of the fact that he physically held Jesus in his arms, and really saw him? We haven’t done that!
Well, how does today’s text describe exactly what Simeon saw? Does Luke report that Simeon sang a song with a line that says: “For my eyes have seen Mary’s baby”?
No, that’s not what he sang. Simeon, with the eyes of faith, saw a lot more than that, and sang about a lot more than that.
According to the Lord’s Word to him, Simeon in faith saw much more than what his physical eyes would have allowed him to see. “For my eyes have seen your salvation,” Simeon prayerfully chanted to his God.
Simeon saw a human baby, but he also saw the promised Seed of the woman, crushing the serpent’s head. He also saw the Lamb of God, taking away the sin of the world, and his own sin.
He saw, and heard, an invitation - to him, to Israel as a whole, and to all the Gentiles - to believe and trust in this Savior, and to be enlightened for eternity by the truth of this Savior.
Can you see Jesus in this way? Can you in this way be made to be ready to depart in peace, whether your time of departure comes when you are young, when you are middle-aged, or when you are old? You certainly can!
It is customary in traditional Lutheran congregations - such as ours - to sing the song of Simeon immediately following the communicants’ reception of the body and blood of Christ, in the Sacrament of the Altar. Putting that song at that place in the Liturgy was not an arbitrary decision by our forefathers in the faith.
Rather, they knew that what Simeon had experienced in the temple with the baby Jesus, according to the Old Testament promise that God had made to him, is what we experience in the Lord’s Supper, according to the New Testament promise that God has made to us.
With his physical eyes, what Simeon saw was an ordinary-looking baby, and nothing more. But with the Word of God ringing in his ears - and resting in his heart - Simeon saw more. He saw the Lord’s salvation.
With your physical eyes, what you see is ordinary bread and wine, and nothing more. But with the Word of God ringing in your ears - and resting in your heart - you, too, see more. You, too, see the Lord’s salvation.
The body of Christ that was given in death to liberate you from the Serpent’s power, and the blood of the Lamb that was shed to take away your sin, are not bodily visible to you in the sacrament. The divine glory and Messianic character of the baby Jesus was not visible in a bodily way to Simeon, either.
But it was all there nevertheless - in, with, and under the humble humanity of that special baby. God’s eternal Son - who comes to save Simeon, and you, and the world - is in that baby. And God’s eternal Son is in this sacrament, under the earthly forms of bread and wine.
To be sure, Christ is available to us whenever and wherever his gospel is available to us - in preaching, in absolution, or in reading and meditating on the Sacred Scriptures. If need be, a Christian can know Jesus, and be forgiven and saved by him, without the Lord’s Supper, if for some sad reason a Christian never has an opportunity to receive the Lord’s Supper.
There were many faithful and pious Jews in the time of Simeon who also believed in the coming Messiah - as promised in the Hebrew Scriptures - and who were saved in that faith, without having had an opportunity to take Jesus literally into their arms.
But Simeon did have that opportunity. Simeon did have that special blessing and privilege.
And that’s one of the reasons why the Lord’s Supper was instituted by Jesus as a special gift for his church. In this Supper Christians like you and me have the blessing and privilege of holding Christ, of receiving Christ, of seeing Christ.
In this death-prone world, and in the death-prone life that we live in this world, faith often falters, and commitments often waver. Temptations to sin, which are always there, sometimes overcome us.
In our grief and weakness - in our shame and penitence - we yearn then for something objective and concrete to remind us of Christ’s mercy. We yearn for something tangible and certain actually to deliver Christ and his forgiveness to us: so that we will once again be able to live in him; so that we will once again be ready to die in him.
This is precisely what the Lord’s Supper does for communicants. This is precisely who the Lord’s Supper presents to communicants.
When you pray after communion, “Lord, now you let your servant depart in peace,” that’s not a reference to departing from the communion rail and going back to your pew. That’s not a reference to departing from the church building and going back to your house.
That’s a reference to departing from this world, and dying. “Lord, now you let your servant die in peace.” That’s what you are saying.
Regardless of how old you are - whether 15 or 50; whether 18 or 80 - you, like Simeon, are now ready in Christ, and because of Christ, to depart in peace, when the time of your departure comes.
You have seen the Lord’s Christ. You have touched him. He has touched you, has justified you, and has renewed his claim on you as one whom he has redeemed. And so you’re ready to go, when God is ready to take you.
According to the Lord’s Word to us, we have seen the Lord’s salvation. And so we sing:
“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.