Monday, December 28, 2020

The Song of Simeon


Luke 2:25-33

And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him.  And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ.  And he came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to carry out for Him the custom of the Law, then he took Him into his arms, and blessed God, and said, "Now Lord, Thou dost let Thy bond-servant depart In peace, according to Thy word; For my eyes have seen Thy salvation, Which Thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples,  A LIGHT OF REVELATION TO THE GENTILES, And the glory of Thy people Israel."  And His father and mother were amazed at the things which were being said about Him.

Sermon for the Sunday after Christmas                                            12/27/20

The Song of Simeon

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

This year Concordia Publishing House has prepared our inserts for the service by cutting off the first half of the Gospel lesson traditionally read on this Sunday of the Church year.  They chose to focus on the prophetess Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the house of Asher.  I, on the other hand, like to focus on Simeon, the one promised to see the Christ before died, and who, upon seeing the infant Jesus spoke the words we sing following every sermon in our standard service, the Nunc Dimittis, which is the Latin for the first two words in the Latin Version, "now let depart your servant, O Lord".  Our theme, this morning, is what we now call The Song of Simeon.

Everything we know about Simeon is contained in these few verses.  We know that he was a believer, Luke calls him "righteous and devout".  We know that he was awaiting the coming of the Messiah with particular eagerness for Luke says he was "looking for the consolation of Israel," which is a Messianic title from the Old Testament period.  We know that he was filled with the Holy Spirit and guided by the Holy Spirit.  And finally, we know that he had been promised that he would not pass on until the Christ (the Messiah) was come into the world.  He would get to see the salvation of the Lord.  

Of course, that did not mean he would live exceptionally long while he waited.  It meant that the coming of the Messiah was so close in time that Simeon was promised that he would see it before he died.  Every picture we see of Simeon pictures him as an old man - which sort of makes sense, except that we are told in no Bible passage that Simeon was old, or full of years, or living a particularly long and happy life.  Simeon could have been in his twenties or thirties!

We don't know much about Simeon's life, either.  We know that he was a believer - that he was devout.  We also know that He was faithful to his religion in a time when faith and faithfulness were less common commodities in Israel.  When Jesus came, He called the religious leaders of Israel sons of the great serpent, Satan, and accused many of the people who approached Him of not having even a vague idea of who God is or what He wants of us - which, I think, qualifies them as unbelievers and enemies of the faith.  Apparently, Simeon believed, and practiced his religion faithfully, and from a spirit of devotion to God rather than slavish obedience to rules.

This conduct would indicate that Simeon was filled by the Holy Spirit, just as it does for believers today.  If you believe, you gotta have the Spirit, for "No man can say, "Jesus is Lord", but by the Holy Ghost."  When Luke tells us that "the Holy Spirit was upon Him", he is saying that Simeon had an extraordinary gift of, or filling by, the Holy Ghost.   But none of this is really important, except that it explains who Simeon is and why he showed up at the temple on this particular day, and did the things he did.  What is important is the prayer which he spoke, which we sing week to week.

First, Simeon calls on the Lord to fulfill the second part of the promise.  Now that he has seen the salvation of the Lord in the flesh, he is ready to die in peace.  That is probably what reinforces the idea that Simeon was an old man.  But doesn't have to mean that.  Even as a fairly young man, Simeon could say,"Okay Lord, I am ready to go any time because I have seen the salvation which you have prepared before all of mankind."  It doesn't need to mean anything more than the certainty that God has fulfilled His promise to Simeon.  Old or young, think of the faith that this first statement took!  Simeon saw the baby Jesus, just eight days old.  The Spirit informed him that this One was the Savior - but Jesus hadn't done anything, yet.  He wouldn't do anything striking for another thirty-odd years.  But Simeon believed.  He believed the Word of God, and the promise of God, and what the Spirit showed him, and he was willing to live and die by it.  We, too, can be willing to live by the Word of God, and be willing to die trusting in every promise of God

Simeon said "My eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all the peoples."  Mind you, Simeon had not seen the crucifixion, or the resurrection.  He had never heard the Apostolic proclamation of the forgiveness of sins in His name.  He had simply seen the baby Jesus.  The Old Testament told Him the rest of the story, and Simeon believed not what his eyes had seen, but what the Word said, and the Spirit had revealed to Him.

He makes an interesting point, however.  Our salvation is not the events that took place.  They were the how of the thing - how it works, how forgiveness functions, how God got around the paradox of human guilt and divine justice, so that God is both just and the One who forgives sins and rescues those who trust in Him.  Our salvation is Jesus.  He is the miracle.  God in the flesh of a man - in this case, a man-child.  He is our salvation.  The love of God is wrapped up in what it took to imagine such a redemption, and to personally step down from the glory of being God and take up a humble human existence.

We might not be quite so surprised if God had been born in a castle or a palace somewhere.  If He were rich and powerful in the ways of the world, that would have fit our expectations.  If Jesus had demanded the honor due to Him and expected worship and praise and the sorts of perks that we ordinary people tend to demand when we get a little authority or celebrity under our belt, perhaps the whole Incarnation - the God in human flesh thing - might be a little more comprehensible.  But here He is, God, making no big deal about it.  He walks and talks like an ordinary man.  He even dies - Imagine the wonder of it!  God died!  He died just like you will - not the cessation of being, but the separation of body and soul.  And He died for you, to redeem you from your own sin and rebellion, and rescue you from death and hell and torment.  Because of what Simeon saw, your sins are forgiven!

When Simeon saw the baby Jesus, He was staring into the most incomprehensible wonder of history - and God was looking back.  The Holy Spirit had given Simeon the understanding of what he was seeing, and with that seeing, he was ready to die.  What else was there?  The promises of God were already fulfilled.  Once God did the impossible in the incarnation, how could He fail?  What else could challenge Him more?  Isaiah had already revealed to us that the sacrifice was a done deal in heaven.  Once God determined to accomplish it in time it was as good as done.  Now Simeon saw the first step - and he knew the rest could not help but happen.

Simeon also confessed, as the Old Testament had, that this salvation was not just for the Jews.  Jesus is the Light of Revelation for the Gentiles.  Up until Jesus came, God and salvation was primarily about the Chosen People of Israel.  With the coming of Jesus, God reveals that it is His will to redeem and save all men, Gentiles no less than others.

Jesus is the Light of Revelation.  He alone shows us the Father.  He reveals to us the will of God and the love of God for us.  And what is the will of God for us?  (Our Salvation.)

Jesus reveals the will of God by first doing it, and then sending His preachers to proclaim it to us.  Jesus revealed the will of God to save us by taking our condemnation and the wrath of God against our sins, and our just sentence due to sin, and suffering in our place, and then dying the death our sins have deserved.  "He was wounded for our transgressions.  He was bruised for our iniquities.  The chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and with His stripes, we are healed."

We are ‘enlightened' today by Word and Sacrament, through which the Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts, and by means of which food we are forgiven, strengthened, and refreshed both – in this life and for eternal life.  Jesus continues to be the Light of the world by the preaching of faithful pastors, and by the daily witness of lives lived to His glory by people who have been transformed by His grace and love.  It is about this transformation that Paul writes, in Romans 12, "I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.  And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect."

You "prove what the will of God is" by living in it - a holy life of one who is forgiven much, and so loves much; who is set free from sin and so chooses to live free from guilt and shame and sin.  When you live out your confidence in God, rather than the fear of circumstances or the uncertainty of "luck", you bear witness to Jesus, who is the glory of God, and the glory of His people, Israel - both the people Israel, whose history is summed up in this one man who is also God and the living personification of the love and compassion of the God of Israel, and the Israel of God which is us, the people of the gracious choice of God "in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit."

You may be beginning to see how the whole Gospel is captured in that beautiful prayer, which we call the Song of Simeon, and sing by the Latin name of The Nunc Dimittis.  Each time we sing it, you want to mark your place in it - one of those, who, like Simeon, has seen the salvation of God, one of those Gentiles for whom Jesus came to be a Light of Revelation, and one of those people, Israel, chosen of God, for whom Jesus is our glory!

Luke reports that Jesus' "father and mother were amazed at the things that were being said about Him."  It is no small wonder!   That was probably because they lived life everyday, and forgot the marvelous things God was working in them and through them.  More amazing than the things being said, however, is the Jesus Himself.  Even amazing as an infant, for that infant was also God, who required feeding and changing and burping like any other child, according to the flesh - but as God was running the universe, and causing stars to burn in the heavens, trees to grow, winds to blow, and the chemical reactions which we call the processes of life of our bodies to proceed, as though nothing unusual were happening at all.  What a marvelous thing - in the ancient sense - that is, full of things to marvel at.  And it is all briefly and eloquently summed up for us for all time in the Song of Simeon.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Two Responses to Christmas

 Luke 2:15-20

And it came about when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds began saying to one another, "Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us."  And th

ey came in haste and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger.  And when they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child.  And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds.  But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.
And the shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.

Sermon for Christmas                                              12/25/20

Two Responses to Christmas

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Our text really begins last night, with the angels appearing in the skies over the fields around Bethlehem.  The angel appeared – just one of them – and made the wonderful announcement that a Savior – the Messiah – was born in Bethlehem, and that the sign they should look for is a newborn baby in a stable, lying in a manger.  Then, when this startling vision had spoken, the sky was full of angels - a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and singing Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace among men with whom He is well-pleased.  We don't know how long it took, but we do know that the shepherds began terrified and apparently ended up dazzled and excited.

That is where our text this morning starts up.  The angels have gone away into heaven, and now the shepherds respond.  They take the news of a Savior, and the wonder of what they have just witnessed, and they decide that, just maybe, they should go and see for themselves.  Our text says that they went "with haste."  It only seems reasonable.  You have angelic visitors make the announcement of something you have been waiting for all of your lives, and your parents before you, and their parents before them, it just makes sense that you are going to hurry on over to see the thing.

And what did they find?  They found Mary, and Joseph, and a newborn baby lying in a manger all trussed up in swaddling cloths like they used to do with babies back then.  There was nothing remarkable about the scene.  Some of them may have had children born in a stable, sleeping in a feed-trough too.  What was remarkable was that the angels had told them that this One would be there.  They told them who this One was!  He is "Christ, the Lord."  That is like saying "the Messiah, who is God Himself!"

So, how did they respond?  They told everyone.  They told Mary, and they told Joseph, and they told the others who might have been standing around, and they told people they passed on their way back to their flocks.  Once they saw it, and knew that it was just what the angels said, they couldn't keep it to themselves.  They were so excited and happy that they had to tell.   And they returned to their fields and flocks that night praising God and glorifying Him for all that He had done, for all that they had seen, and for Him letting them in on it!

That was one reaction to Christmas:  Evangelism, singing, praises, and sheer delight.

The other reaction was the one Mary had – and possibly those who heard the shepherds.  But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.  This was a quieter response.  It was just as believing, I am sure, but more contemplative.   And all who heard it [this wonderful news from the shepherds] wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds.  Perhaps this, too, was contemplation.  Perhaps it was unbelief, although we cannot say so.  Maybe they were just amazed.  It was still a quiet response.

Which response was the right response?  Which response was appropriate?  Which response was God-pleasing?  Both were.  The text of Scriptures says nothing about either response to suggest that they were wrong, or undesirable.  They are just two ways of approaching the good news of the Savior.  The two responses to Christmas can be seen in the Church today.

Of course, it is really difficult to work up the same sort of amazement and surprise that the shepherds must have felt.  We have no angel choirs, and we know the Christmas story by heart before the Christmas season begins, we have heard it so often.  But the shepherds are like those who come newly to the faith, and really "hear" that wonderful news for the first time.  They can see and feel how big it is.  God has become one of us!  Our sins are forgiven!  We cannot die, but will rise even from our graves and live forever in joy and peace and in the presence of Almighty God!

Adults who come to the faith as adults know the feeling!  It doesn't usually last for more than a couple of weeks or months, but they never forget it.  It is the joy of Christmas, experienced by the shepherds as they heard the angels and then as they raced to the manger and saw that it was all true!  It is something they cannot help but talk about.  It is contagiously embracing.  Those who have encountered new believers have met those shepherds on their way back to their flocks – and they all wonder about what they see and hear as the excited shepherds go about praising God and glorifying Him for all that He has done and made known to them.

People like me, those of us who were baptized as infants and grew up in the faith are more like Mary.  There has never been a time in my life when I did not know of Christ.  I cannot identify a time when I did not believe.  It is an everyday sort of feeling to hear about Christmas.  It is not bad, and it is not excitement.  The thrill of Christmas was about being a child, about presents and candy and family.  I still remember with nostalgic longing sitting around my father's chair as he read once again, each Christmas, the book called "The Littlest Angel."  That is where all the emotion is, for people like me.

But that is not bad either.  It took me a long time to get over the notion that I should be like a shepherd, fresh from seeing the angels and hearing the heavenly choir.  But then this account of Mary reminded me that it is not the same for everyone.  Some of us are shepherds, and some of us treasure up the truths of Christmas, and ponder them in our hearts.  Christmas is not about our feelings and excitement.  If we have them, that is just wonderful!  But if we do not have excitement and that thrill running our spines, that is just fine, too.

Our society seems to need the emotion, the tear-jerkers, the naked excitement.  They have no meaning to the holiday but what they can create.  There is no faith, and the mystery of the Incarnation leaves the unbelieving world cold.  What the nativity scene cannot create, they try to stir up with Rudolph and Frosty and the Grinch.  Those are fun fantasies, and the child in us may enjoy them, but they are not Christmas.  Watch those Hallmark movies, and they will tell you a dozen different meanings for Christmas, "what Christmas is all about," and they will be wrong every time.

Christmas is the truth that God took on human nature and human flesh and blood in Jesus Christ.  That child, who was true Man and yet also God Himself, was born on the day we commemorate as "Christmas".  We remember the overwhelming love that caused our heavenly Father to do such a thing, humble His Son to become just One of us.  The Incarnation of the Son of God – that putting on of flesh – gives true value to human existence.  It is okay to live in this world – even God did it.  The birth of Jesus and His life following gives precious value to family and childhood, and parenting and day-to-day work.  These were all sanctified by God's willing humility.  He did it too, so it must be a good thing!  Daily life and human existence were ratified and made something worth our attention and effort, rejecting all the false sanctity of those who would deny the flesh and reject the life in this world as unholy and unworthy.  God took part in it – so which of us is too good and too pious to invest ourselves in living and in the things of this life which God gives us?  That is part of the thrill of Christmas – a quiet and pondering-sort of thrill, though it may be.

Then, of course, we who don't have the excitement of the shepherds, can also share in their joy that this One, lying in a manger on that first Christmas, was born to save His people from their sins.  He is the Messiah, the Christ.  The shepherds didn't need to be told what a Savior was, or why they needed saving.  Their lives were harsh and painful.  They knew nothing of our conveniences and comforts.  They faced their sinfulness in ways we cannot hardly imagine.  They made the sacrifices of their sheep and lambs to remind them of their sins, and their terrible cost.  They could see the temple from their fields.  They heard regularly about the hope of Israel, and their shame in being a conquered people.  Forgiveness, and freedom, and rescue were important dreams and hopes to them.

We need a Savior no less than they did.  We are just not accustomed to thinking about it, except in church, and some of us find it inconvenient when the pastor makes us face that reality too often or too clearly.  But the baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger was born to be our Savior, and He is.  He lifted sin and death from our shoulders, and bore it to the cross in our place.  He died for what we have done, so that we might live with Him in heavenly glory.  The thought should thrill us and excite us, but, frankly, we have grown accustomed to it, and many times we don't "feel" it much at all.  If you do feel it and get excited, praise the Lord – and enjoy it.

For the rest of us, our reaction to Christmas is like Mary – we treasure these things up and ponder them – believing, and finding the awesomeness of the truth in considering the magnitude of the Love of God, the greatness of the grace of God, the fullness of His forgiveness, and the wonder of the Incarnation and who it was that laid in a manger.

This is Christmas.  Jesus Christ was born to be our Savior, and laid in a manger.  Some of us get all excited and shout about it – and some of us take it all in, treasure it all up, and ponder it in our hearts.  Both are good, and proper, and appropriate.  They are just two responses to Christmas!

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

Friday, December 25, 2020

Luke 2:1-14

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.  (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)  And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.  And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.  And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.  
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.  And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.  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, good will toward men."

Sermon for Christmas Eve                      12/24/20

The Wonder of It All

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

I have heard the Christmas story every year for the seventy years of my life.  As a child, I memorized parts of it each year for my place in the annual Christmas program of the Sunday School.  I memorized different parts each year until I had committed to memory the entire passage, from Luke 2, verse one, to verse twenty.  I have sung it, and shouted it, and cried my way through it.  I have preached it for over thirty years, and written several Christmas programs for Sunday Schools of parishes I have been called to pastor.  Through it all, I have never gotten tired of it, nor ever lost the sense of the Wonder of it all.

It is so simple, and yet so profound.  "In those days there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed."  We are tempted to ask, "which days?"  And Luke tells us.  He tells us that it was in the days when Cyrenius - also known as "Quirinius" - was governing in Syria.  He did it twice-once as a military officer, and once as a Roman Governor, as far as we know.  But it places it in time, about 10 to 6 B.C., as we now reckon the years.  Real people, like Caesar Augustus and Lucius Quirinius., and real places; not "once upon a time, in a land far-far away."  Because Herod the Great is part of this story later on, we know that Jesus was actually born something like 4 to 6 B.C., because Herod died in the year we number 4 B.C..

It was a census, though, not a tax.  Everyone had to go to their ancestral home-town and register.  The purpose was for collecting taxes later on, and they may have also had to pay a tax at the time of registration.  We just don't know.  But everyone had to go to the family home-town.  For Joseph, that meant Bethlehem, the City of David.  He was a direct descendant of David – and so was Mary.  So they went to register.  Mary probably went along because she was unwilling to be left behind, pregnant, and all of that, and pregnant before her wedding day, which was a cause of great humiliation in those days.  There is something to the idea that maybe they planned to move away from home in Nazareth to avoid the vicious gossip and withering looks of the neighbor ladies.  We think about that possibility because of the visit of the Magi, the so called "wise men" from the East.  They came and found Jesus in a house, not a stable, when they arrived, and they had been following the Star of Bethlehem for nearly two years!

In any case, while they were in Bethlehem, and still staying in the stable - because there was no room in the inn, Mary went into labor, and gave birth to her first-born Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, as every mother did with their newborn children in those days, and used a hay-rack (called a "manger") as a make-shift crib.  It was likely not unusual for travelers to stay in the stables when the inn was full, and this current census was keeping the inn fully occupied.  It is such a simple story - or account, if the word "story" makes you think that it might be fiction or something.  Marvelous in its simplicity and paucity of details, this "account" nevertheless describes an earth-shaking miracle; the Incarnation of God - that is, God putting on human flesh and blood and becoming one of us.  The Reformed still insist that it is not possible, although they admit part of it, they still say that the physical body of Jesus could not contain God.  God presents us with a different perspective, though.  Here he is, God in the flesh.  Imagine the wonder of it all.

The Angels tell us about that.  Those Shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks by night, were the first to hear the good news of the Incarnation.  They would do that, when they were in the lower elevations, they would sit out under the stars and keep watch, guarding their flocks against the nocturnal predators of Israel's countryside.  They must have been visited by the angels early in the darkness of the night, because everyone was still up in the stable, and there were still people on the streets for the shepherds to tell about their wonderful vision, and what it meant for the people, as they hurried back to their flocks later that night.

Anyhow, the shepherds were keeping guard over their sheep, and suddenly the sky above them lit up.  And there was a angel floating in the middle of that light in the sky.  They had never seen anything like it - not in paintings, and not in movies - because it had never happened yet, so no one would have thought to paint it or picture it somehow.  The sky lit up bright, and the angel - they knew what it had to be, because it couldn't be anything else! - spoke to them.  He said, "Fear not!"  He had to say that because the shepherds were terrified - or "sore afraid" as the King James Version puts it.  Besides, God is a God of comfort, and He wants to bring us peace and hope and joy - so He always tries to calm people down when they confront Him.  Actually seeing the glory of God tends to be unnerving - even for those who are expecting it.

"Fear not, for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people, for unto you is born this night, in the city of David – right down the hill from them – a Savior who is Christ (the Messiah promised for so long in Scriptures) and who is God Himself!"  The angel was pretty blunt and clear.  "Christ the Lord" is our translation of Luke's translation of the words of the angels.  The phrase would have been without meaning to them, but they all knew about the promised Messiah, and they all would have understood the word, "Lord" as the formal name of God, given to Moses to share with the people of Israel - "Tell them ‘I am' sent you."

After twelve hundred years of waiting since the time of Abraham, this was deliriously good news!  Good tidings, indeed!  It meant the end of death - and sin - and life's basic unfairness - although not immediately, but absolutely for sure in not too many years!  Good tidings of great joy!  And there was absolutely no doubt for the shepherds that it was true - only God can put on a light show like they were seeing, and only an angel of the Lord could stand in the sky and speak to them like this.  Naturally, they wanted to see what the angels spoke about.  They didn't doubt for a minute - nor did they think they would see all of the glory of the thing right there in the manger - after all, the angels said that he was just born that night.  They just wanted to see - and God wanted them to see it, because you and I cannot get there.  He wanted them to run and see and worship and report it to a whole bunch of people so that we would know that it was true and real, and not merely some story.  He wanted them to see so that we could see through their eyes.

So the angel told them how to find this baby, and what to look for.  "And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger."  Ohhh!  The wonder of it all!  Not only did God come, as promised, to save His people from their sins, but He came so simple, and so humble, and so accessible.  The Angels gave them a sign - what to look for - and they found it.  They found Mary and Joseph together with the Baby lying in the manger.  But before they did, once the angel had delivered his message, suddenly there was a whole crowd of them - a multitude - of the heavenly host - the armies of God, singing in the sky.  Not just one bright light, but a sky full, and they sang a blessing.  We have all grown up hearing it in 16th Century English - "Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, good will to men."  It sounds pretty good that way, too, but what they actually sang was more like, "Glory in the highest to God, and on earth, peace among men with whom He is well-pleased."

The "peace" is the peace with God and peace from our sins and the condemnation due to us because of them - given to us in Christ.  That is why the angels sang of it.  And the judgment of well-pleasing is the judgment that is ours in Christ.  He was Well-pleasing to His Father at His Baptism, as He began His public ministry.  And He was well-pleasing to His Father on the Mount of Transfiguration as He began the descent into Jerusalem and to the cross.  When our sins are forgiven, that is when God declares us well-pleasing to Him in Christ, and we are at peace with Him and at peace with one another in Christ.  The blessing sung by the angels was nothing other than the Gospel, only in words that those who do not know the Gospel could not decipher.  That is why the world loved the "Peace on earth, goodwill toward men", but despise the Prince of Peace, and reject the gift of Peace which He brings.

So, when the angels had gone away from them back into heaven, the shepherds began to talk about what had just happened, and they decided that they had to go and see what it was that God had revealed to them.  So they went – Luke says that they went with haste.  And they found everything just as the angels had said.  They told Mary and Joseph about the angels and the revelations of the night.  Mary and Joseph were amazed too.  And then, on the way back to their fields and flocks, they couldn't help themselves.  They had to tell everyone what they had seen and heard, and how everything the angels had told them came true and was just as they were told.

That was the first evangelism team.  They believed, and so they had to speak.  They didn't know everything you and I know, but they knew about God coming in the flesh – Immanuel, God with us.  They knew that the little one in the manger was the Savior.  They knew God was doing something new and miraculous – and they just had to tell someone - in fact they just had to tell everyone they saw.  Oh, the wonder of it all!

We are here to sing the song of the angels tonight, and see the sights the Shepherds saw.  It is a wonder-filled story of love and grace.  When you believe it, it makes you want to tell someone - anyone.  So let's sing about the glory of God - which is Jesus Christ, and God's love for us poor sinners.  And let us rejoice in God's promise of peace and love and grace through Jesus.  Glory to God!  And peace to you - you whom God counts as well-pleasing in His Son.  OH, THE WONDER OF IT ALL!!

 In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

Sunday, December 20, 2020

A Voice in the Wilderness


John 1:19-28

And this is the witness of John, when the Jews sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?"  And he confessed, and did not deny, and he confessed, "I am not the Christ."  And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" And he said, "I am not."  "Are you the Prophet?"  And he answered, "No." They said then to him, "Who are you, so that we may give an answer to those who sent us?  What do you say about yourself?"  He said, "I am A VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, ‘MAKE STRAIGHT THE WAY OF THE LORD,' as Isaiah the prophet said."  Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.
And they asked him, and said to him, "Why then are you baptizing, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?"  John answered them saying, "I baptize in water, but among you stands One whom you do not know.  It is He who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie."  These things took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

These things took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent                                  12/20/20

A Voice in the Wilderness

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Many times today people confuse the Church with what they see around them when they gather for worship.  Sometimes this confusion is a harmless thing.  Certainly, some of what they see and hear is the Church.  Sometimes some of it is not.  The Church is not the way we sing.  Some Sundays our singing is full and sweet, and other times it is thin and a just a little wobbly.  Some people confuse the pastor with the message.  While a faithful pastor is the bearer of the message, he is not the message.  You don't have to like his personality, or the way he chants, or the inflection of his voice while he preaches.  The Word of God is the message, words which the Pastor proclaims, but which do not belong to him.  The people around you, beloved or somewhat obnoxious, are not what we come here for, they are here, too, because they need the Word of God and all of His gifts to live from one day.

It is important that we do not confuse what we see with that which is greater.  It is also important that we do not confuse ourselves for something or someone that we are not.  Our text is a good illustration of that – both of those who confuse one thing with another, and an example of how not to permit that confusion to gain a foothold.  Let us consider our Gospel lesson, this morning, under the title, a Voice in the Wilderness.

They came to John.  Enemies.  They were looking for some way to shut him up.  They didn't like what he preached.  He preached sin and repentance.  No one likes to hear about sin.  No one wants to be told that they heed to repent.  Just who does he think he is?!!  Obviously he had to be stopped.  The priests and the Levites were confident that religion was what they said it was and church was what they said, so they had to shut him down.

The way they chose to do it was to challenge his authority.  Are you the Christ?  John had to answer, I am not the Christ.   The first challenge to his authority was for them to ask him who died and made him God, so to speak?  The Messiah had the authority to preach like this, but no one else.  Of course we know that when the Messiah came and preached like this, they crucified Him.

Well, if you are not the Messiah, are you Elijah?  There was this legend among them that before the Messiah would come, Elijah would return.  If he isn't the Messiah, maybe he would be Elijah.  He sounded a lot like they may have expected Elijah would have sounded.  Elijah would have the authority to preach like that!!  And John said, I am not.

Well, what then?  Are you the Prophet?  You see, they expected a prophet.  Moses had promised that God would raise up a prophet just like him, one who spoke to God as a man speaks to a friend, face to face.  He would be the greatest prophet of all times!  And they believed that this prophet was to come just before the Messiah.  Actually the Bible didn't say that last part.  That was popular lore.  Moses promised the prophet, and they just figured that He would come just before the Messiah.  So, if John were the prophet, then he would have the authority to be kicking up a ruckus out in the wilderness, otherwise, just who does he think he is!?  And John answered, "No."

Then who the heck are you?  Where do you get off telling people how to be, or deciding what worship is, or preaching how  people get to be the people of God?  He said, "I am A VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, ‘MAKE STRAIGHT THE WAY OF THE LORD,' as Isaiah the prophet said."

John was the one person who was actually prophesied, but he was the one person – like Jesus – who they did not expect, they did not recognize, and they did not grant him the authority which the Word of God granted to him.  So, they challenged his authority.  Oh, he seemed to have some sort of excuse for all that preaching, so it wasn't politic, theologically speaking, to challenge that -- but the Bible didn't say anything about Baptizing, so that was the point at which they would challenge Him, And they asked him, and said to him, "Why then are you baptizing, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?"

John's answer really didn't answer their question, but for some reason it satisfied them for the time.  John answered them saying, "I baptize in water, but among you stands One whom you do not know.  It is He who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie."  John's answer was very much like saying, "Don't worry about me, guys.  I just baptize with water.  The One whose herald I am is the One you should be worried about.  He will baptize with the Spirit of God or with judgment and destruction.  I would focus on that One first."

John's answer was clever.  It was inspired.  It was the Word of God.  John simply shifted the question of authority.  He claimed no authority of his own.  He pointed to Jesus, the Coming One, and said whatever I do, it is by His authority.  If you want to take issue with my teachings, take issue with Jesus.

You know, nothing changes much in this world.  Ecclesiastes 1:9 says, There is nothing new under the Sun.   The disciples did not always agree with Jesus.  Peter rebuked Him and cried out, Oh, God Forbid!, when Jesus taught about His crucifixion, death and  resurrection.  The Apostles had false teachers  and enemies undermining them every step of the way.    There was the Holy Ghosters with their tongues-movement.  There was the circumcision party, claiming that you needed more to be a Christian than grace.  There were those who denied that a physical resurrection would ever take place.  And all of them called themselves true Christians -- and accused the Apostles themselves of being false and misleading, and having an evil and personal agenda.

The preaching and the teaching of the Word of God always has its nay-sayers, even in the church.  Those outside of the Church are no problem.  It is those on the inside, niggling and politicking and seeking to sabotage the Word of God or the servant of the Word among us, that create such havoc and heartache.  Luther had those who thought they understood the Lutheran Reformation better than the man who started it -- close friends like Carlstadt and Melancthon.  Walther, first president of our Synod, had enemies and critics who were never at peace with Walther's insistence on pure doctrine, always wanting to remake the Synod of which Walther was the premiere theologian.  There were many who quietly celebrated when Walther finally died.  Today the theology of Walther's enemies has largely replaced Walther's faith in the Synod.

I hear from most faithful pastors that they face the same sorts of things.  There are always who niggle and complain about the faithful Pastor.  He preaches too much Law.  He is too narrow-minded.  He should be lighter, more cheery, more Gospel and sweetness than all of this gloom and sin and such.  There truly is nothing new under the sun.

I preach the Law because it is the Word of God, and it is true and it is still applicable, and it is God's Will for us.  I also preach it because anyone who is not aware of their sin, who has no sense of their sinfulness and does not face their corruption due to sin cannot truly appreciate the Gospel.  If you do not face your sins, then forgiveness is a chimera, a mythical creature.  If you do not confront your total corruption in sin, you cannot fathom or treasure your forgiveness.  If you are not crushed by your guilt, you will not delight in your forgiveness.  If you cannot bear to hear the Law, then you probably don't actually believe the gospel either.  The Gospel is not merely about your "salvation" -- it is about your great sinfulness having met and been covered by the great grace of God in forgiveness because Jesus died for you.  If you say to me, or whisper behind my back, don't tell me about my sin, then you might as well stand up in the congregation and shout, DON'T TELL ME ABOUT JESUS!!

I don't know how this strange idea gained a foothold among Lutherans, that you do not need or want to hear about how sinful you are, but it is dead wrong.  You want to know your sins so that you may know the sweetness of forgiveness and the value and utter importance of your salvation.  If you do not know the depth and size of your sin, you will never appreciate the greatness of God's love or His grace in forgiving you.  Jesus said it once, He who is forgiven little, loves little.

Luther wrote about those who wanted to ignore their sinfulness and only hear the sweetness of the Gospel .  He accused them of only wanting to "be painted" a sinner.  The problem according to Luther was that such preaching made Christ a "painted Savior" -- not a real Savior for great sinners, but a pretend Savior for those who have few sins and little guilt or shame.  I, however, need a real Savior from great and serious sins, because I know my guilt, and so I cannot pretend that you are "painted" sinner either, for I want to know and proclaim a real and powerful Savior from deepest sins who died to save sinners, among whom I, too, am chief.

For those who are troubled that I preach such stern stuff, I can give you no better answer than John gave those sent by the Pharisees.  Don't worry about me.  Look beyond me to Him who sent me, whose Herald I am and whose Word I preach.  He will not simply speak.  He will judge.  He will measure each man and woman against the truth, and painted sinners will not stand in that day -- only true sinners, who have seen their sin and guilt and despaired of themselves, and now find their comfort in forgiveness and grace won for them on the cross of Calvary.

I do not mean to ever suggest that I am above criticism -- but if you want to argue with me, take me to the Word.  Examine my preaching against the Scriptures.  If I am not teaching what they teach, or if I am not telling you of Christ's death on the cross and of the forgiveness of sins, then take me to task.  And do me the Christian courtesy of coming to me, and not to others without speaking to me.  But let your critique be grounded on the Word of God.  If your problem is that you simply don't like to hear God's Word clearly preached, then your argument is with Jesus, not with the preaching of Pastor Fish.  Then my answer is very much like John's, "I am A VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, ‘MAKE STRAIGHT THE WAY OF THE LORD,'."

I don't mean to suggest by preaching this that there is a problem here.  The only problem we might have here is our flesh, which is never comfortable with Christ or His Word.  We must be ever vigilant, however.  The temptation to find fault and excuse ourselves from the accusing of the Law of God will always be present.  Thankfully, the Gospel of Jesus will always stand present for our comfort and strengthening as well.  John said, Look past me.  He is the one that counts.  I would encourage you to do the same.  Look past the messenger to the message, and past the servant to the Master who sends him.  After all, I, too, am no more than a voice crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord!

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

Thursday, December 17, 2020

PURPLE: Royalty and Repentance

 Sermon for Third Wednesday in Advent                              12/16/21

 PURPLE -- Royalty and Repentance

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

The colors of Christmas.  We finish with them tonight because next week is Christmas, and we must be ready.  The color red focused on the anger of God over sin and the blood of Jesus Christ which takes away our guilt and sin.  Last week the color was green, and we considered the life He gave and the life which He gives to us through faith.  The color of Christmas we look at this week is the color of Royalty and the color of repentance, the color Purple.  It is the color we see also in Lent, draped around the shoulders of our Lord as He is led to the cross to die.  He wore it then as a Roman mocking of His title "King of the Jews."  The color of kings draped on the shoulders of one sentenced to die by the cowardice of Pilate and the envy of the Jews.  Let us look at this final color, the color of repentance.

Repentance is an appropriate topic for Advent.  Advent is a penitential season.  It is a season of preparation for facing God in His final advent on the last day; and what could be more appropriate for that preparation than repentance?  We sinners will stand before the Holy God!  We need to repent.

But repentance is not a hot topic in today's world.  I doubt that it ever was, especially as I read the Old Testament Prophets.  Their call was always to repent - and it appears it went generally unheard and unheeded.  When it was heard, the hearers persecuted and even killed the prophets for proclaiming it!  It always sounded so ugly, and nobody wanted to hear it.

God often called His Old Testament people a harlot – comparing them to a wife who had begun to sell herself to anyone and everyone.  Listen to these passages from Jeremiah chapter 2: "Long ago I broke your yoke And tore off your bonds; But you said, ‘I will not serve.'  . . .  On every high hill And under every green tree You have lain down as a harlot.   . . .    How can you say, ‘I am not defiled, I have not gone after the Baals'?  Look at your way in the valley!   Know what you have done!  You are a swift young camel entangling her ways, A wild donkey accustomed to the wilderness, That sniffs the wind in her passion.  In the time of her heat who can turn her away?  . . .   As the thief is shamed when he is discovered, So the house of Israel is shamed; They, their kings, their princes, And their priests, and their prophets, Who say to a tree, ‘You are my father,'  And to a stone, ‘You gave me birth' .  .  .  "Can a virgin forget her ornaments, Or a bride her attire?  Yet My people have forgotten Me Days without number."    . . .   "Also on your skirts is found The lifeblood of the innocent poor; You did not find them breaking in.  . . .  But you are a harlot with many lovers; Yet you turn to Me," declares the Lord.  "Lift up your eyes to the bare heights and see; Where have you not been violated?  By the roads you have sat for them Like an Arab in the desert, And you have polluted a land With your harlotry and with your wickedness."

And what was the sin of the nation Israel?  They had forgotten God and turned to other things which seemed to them more pleasant or more profitable.  Then when God called them to repent, He did not sugar-coat His message, but called them prostitutes and accused them of murder and deceit.  It is no wonder that they found the call to repentance hard to hear.

But the hardest part was that the call to them, and His call to us, is not a call to say "I'm sorry," or to feel bad about what they had done – it was and is a call to change.  It was a call to the total re-orientation of their lives and their personalities.  It was a change that would affect their sense of right and wrong, their attitudes and decisions, their words, and their behavior.  It meant to turn away from sin deliberately and to pursue righteousness.

Psalm 51:17 still applies, just as it did then: The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and a contrite heart, 0 God, Thou wilt not despise.

Worse yet, repentance is a change that only God can accomplish.  It is not something that a human works up in themselves by simply knowing that they are wrong.   That's why Psalm 51 also says in verse 10: Create in me a clean heart, 0 God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me.   And God answers the prayer of the Psalmist in Ezekiel 36:26: "Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh."   And again, in Jeremiah 31:33: "But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days," declares the LORD, "I will put My law within them:, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people."

As I said before, repentance is still not a hot topic.  Still today, no one likes to hear that they are sinful.  But they are – we are.  We may not build shrines to foreign deities and indulge in ritual prostitution under their cover, but we often have sold ourselves to sin also.  What else is it but sin when we cannot take time for daily devotions and prayer?   What else is it but sin when we cannot find time outside of that hour or two on Sunday to serve our congregation?   What else is it but sin when we find it easier to support our pleasures and our hobbies than to support our congregation's ministry?   We have other things to do.  We have more important things in our lives, or so we seem to be saying.  We expect God will always be there, stuck in that comfortable corner we have built for Him.  We may not feel that we need to offer Him any extra time or attention.

What else is it but sin when we can watch others walk the road to hell and not speak a word to rescue them, friends, neighbors, family?  What else can it be that allows us to accumulate treasures for ourselves, blessings from God, and then not spend money to help those who have not yet heard?   Do we really think that God has given us our wealth so that we can pamper and pleasure ourselves while people die without knowing the Gospel and without even having heard of the love of Jesus?   What else can it be but sin?

Sure, we don't go playing the harlot after idols, we do it after vacations or farm equipment.  We worship the good life, the boat, the car, the herd.  We say that we must make sure we have enough and more for the future, as though there is no God in heaven to bless us and care for us - or who can take it all away so quickly.  We act as if we do not know, or at least do not really trust, the will of God toward us.  And what is the will of God for us?

What else is it but sin when we refuse to bow to the Word of God?  We set ourselves up as the experts – "I may not know much about religion, but I know what I believe!"  Some of us regularly find excuses to miss the study of His Word.  Bible study?  Not this week, maybe not ever.  I've got to make dinner!  I've got company!  I don't like to drive at night!  I've got too much to do!

Well, I've got news for you.  None of those other things is going to help you into heaven.  Only Scripture has the power to give you the wisdom that leads to eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.  And what else is it but naked idolatry when we will place anything and everything in our lives before we will take the time to study God's Word?  Why study?  Psalm 19:7 says The law of the LORD is perfect, restoring the soul; The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.

What does the pastor want from us?  The point is that this Pastor wants you to see your sin, and repent.  None of us, including your pastor, is without sin, and none of us live out our confession well.  We are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags!

Purple is the color that cries out to us to remember the price paid for our sins - the mocking and the crucifixion of our Lord - and to REPENT.  But the call to repentance doesn't ask us to simply acknowledge that we ought to have done it differently or better.  It is a cry to change!  Change how you think.  Change how you act.  Change how you speak. Change how you value things.

Place God first.  Measure His grace against your sin and give thanks.  Hear the word and invitation of God: Romans 2:4: Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?

Repent.  That is the simple cry of the purple of advent – the color used on the altar in this season – REPENT.  Re-orient yourself toward God.  Count the things which will always matter as more important than those things which are perishing.  Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.  And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Learn to call on God for every good thing and every blessing first.  Do not make prayer a desperation thing, or only at mealtimes, and as you drift off to sleep.  Pray always.  Give thanks.  Count on God and count Him as always your Lord, and your Benefactor.  Pray and give thanks - and repent.  Stop caring for yourself as though there were no God to love you and bless you, and start to care about Him and caring for others.  Repent and begin to live as though the things you confess in church are really true, and you really believe them.

That's what the purple says - REPENT.  Remember the Word of God which says: If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.  If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

The colors of Christmas:  Red, and Green, and Purple.  One reminds us of our sins and our salvation, another reminds us of life as His gift, the third calls on us to repent - to turn toward our God and find mercy and forgiveness, life and salvation.  If we can see these truths in these colors, then we shall be prepared to have a genuinely Merry Christmas.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Why Are You Here?

 Matthew 11:2-10

Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?" 4 And Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 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. 6 And blessed is the one who is not offended by me." 7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is he of whom it is written, "' Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.'

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent                                        12/13/20

Why are You Here?

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Our Gospel lesson this morning revolves around two questions – the question of John to Jesus – Are you the Coming One,
or shall we look for someone else?
, and the question of Jesus about John, What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?  What did you go out to see?  Both of them are questions that we could consider – one of them we must consider.  The question about John, though, is not so significant to us unless we translate it into our modern age, and place our congregation and its mission here in the place of the prophet John.  When we do that, we change the question of Jesus into the theme of our sermon this morning, Why are you here?

First, however, is the question John asked of Jesus.  Are you the Coming One or shall we look for someone else?  That is the question that rings through the ages in one form or another – What do you think of Jesus Christ?  Is He God, or simply a good man?  Is He really and fully human, or does it just seem that way?  Is Jesus Savior, or is He Judge?  Is He the Center of your existence, or simply an embellishment to it?  Do you believe in the Jesus of the Bible or the modern, politically correct, socially sensitive, humanistic Jesus?  Was Jesus the One, or are you still looking for someone else?

It sounds silly, doesn't it?  The question seems out of place here in a Lutheran Congregation.  Unfortunately, it is not.  It is never  out of place.  The devil is at work all of the time, trying to get us to imagine a "Jesus Christ" other than the One who existed and who died for us, and then to believe in that Jesus.  In the days of Jesus, the people who were waiting for the Messiah were often waiting for someone else.  When they met the Messiah, they didn't want to believe that this humble man was the One.  They wanted someone else.  

Their problem was just the same as ours.  They had come to look for the One they wanted, not the One actually promised or the One who came.  Today, many people want another Jesus.  They want the "Sweetheart of a Guy" Jesus who takes everyone just the way they are, and asks for nothing, expects no changes, overlooks anything and everything.  Or, perhaps, they want the Ecumenical Jesus, the one who doesn't care if we know Him, who measures us by our public niceness to others, and who is pleased if people simply learn to pay lip service to the existence of a deity of one sort or another.  Others have a Jesus in mind who changes His opinions as frequently as they do, and always agrees with them.  Doctrine, morality, history – these people believe that they are all in flux because these people are not willing to commit themselves to anything, and their Jesus is just like them.

Jesus gave John the answer: look at the Jesus who IS, and know Him.  Jesus told John's disciples to look at what they saw and hear in Him.  Jesus mentioned in specific the things which He had done, that the Messiah was prophesied to do, according to the prophets.  Then Jesus said, And blessed is he who keeps from stumbling over Me.  In other words, blessed is the one who believes in the Messiah who has come – who does not have another Jesus, a preferable Jesus, in mind.  Jesus told John to face the reality that was reported – for us, that is the Jesus of the Bible, with the values and morality and doctrines of the Bible.  We cannot have Jesus if we reject Him and what He taught just because it feels good, or because someone we love has already rejected Him, and we don't want to face an uncomfortable truth about their spiritual life – or lack of one.

Which leads quite naturally to the questions of Jesus for the crowd.  He asked them why they had come, pointing to John rather than Himself, but asking them if they were about reality – the man that was out in the wilderness – or about some fantasy – something not real.  But when Jesus pointed to John, He was actually pointing to Himself.  John was His messenger.  The conclusions they drew about John would also shape the conclusions they drew about Jesus.

So, why are you here?  Did you come here to confront holy mysteries and deal with Jesus as He is, or did you come here for some other purpose, with another agenda in mind?  Did you come for heavenly food, or a symbolic meal?  Did you come to be shaped and instructed, or just to feel good?  Why are you here?

If you see this congregation as here for you, rather than you here for everyone else, you are not here for Jesus.  If you see a worship service as simply a place one can go to in order to feel good, you are not seeing reality.  If you see the messenger of Christ as simply opinionated and peculiar, or as a nice guy and easy to listen to, and do not listen, and inwardly digest the Word preached and you accept or reject the message you hear proclaimed out of hand, without examining what is taught and preached in the Word, you have not come to see Jesus.  If you have come expecting something like a fast-food place where you can get your religion served up hot and fresh and just the way you like it, you have not come to see Jesus.  You want the nearest Burger King.

This is the assembly of Christ's holy people.  He has gathered His holy priesthood together here.   We have come here by His invitation, to eat of His body and drink of His blood in this holy Meal before us, and to hear His holy Word.

 We are to expect to be refreshed and strengthened.  He has promised it to us, and we believe His promises.  He has promised that our sins will be forgiven and we will have eternal life on account of what He has accomplished on the cross.  He has promised that those who remain faithful will rise from their graves in glory unto everlasting life and joy.  

He has not promised, however, that all of this will feel good, or please our intellect, or appeal to any part of us that may be included in the description "our sinful flesh."  His doctrines may not appeal to you – but if they are His, drawn clearly from His holy Word, they are also ours to keep and to believe and to confess.  He has also called us to serve Him in good times and in difficult times.

God may ask you to stand firm in the face of persecution.  If you have come to see Jesus, then you will.  It won't be fun, but it will be what you will want to do, if it is what God lays before you.  Or enduring illness.  Or facing certain death.  Or patiently confessing Christ, or some truth about Him drawn from His Word, before those who will not accept it, and who will not accept you if you do not change – oftentimes people whom you respect and from whom you covet approval.  In each of these circumstances we can see the pain, the pressure, the difficulty, but we cannot imagine the blessings and we cannot see what God is at work accomplishing through our faithfulness.  But it doesn't matter.  He is God, and we are "poor miserable sinners" who have been redeemed and saved by Him.

We often cannot imagine what difference it would make if we did what we ought not to do, or if we surrendered some piece of the truth, seemingly inconsequential, in order to achieve some goal or maintain some imagined good.  We have not been asked to imagine.  We have been asked to be faithful.  And that is the course of the Christian who has come here to see the Jesus who is.  Trust in the LORD with all your heart, And do not lean on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He will make your paths straight.  We do it His way, and we trust His Word because it is His, and we are His.  He is God, after all, and we are not.

Jesus asked them what they went out to see when they went out after John.  Of course, the only thing they really could see was that which was there – the prophet of God.  Even if they denied that he was the prophet, that is still all that there was out there for them to see.  Even when people deny the truth, or want God and their religion on their own terms, there is still only one God, and one true faith – and only one salvation.  If they come with any other agenda than God's agenda, they come in vain, without purpose and without success.

God has called you to His Word, and to His Supper, and into His family.  He has forgiven you all of your sins for Jesus' sake, and set His great love on you.  He has called you to know Him and His Word.  He has called you to serve Him by loving one another, and by faithfully living in the light of His great love day by day, in whatever circumstance you find yourself right now.

He has not called you to understanding every detail or enjoying every moment.  He has not called you to feeling good or being happy.  It is okay if you do, it is wonderful if you can, but it is not part of the promise – at least not for life in this world.  He has promised us sorrow, and pain, and the hatred and persecution of the world in this life.  And He has given us His Word and the Sacraments  –  and each other  –  for strength and comfort and encouragement as we stand faithful by His power and through His grace.

Why are you here?  All there is here is the mystery of God's love in Jesus Christ, the purity of the Word, the refreshment of the Sacrament, and the fellowship of the saints.  In it and through it all God gives us forgiveness and resurrection and eternal life for the sake of Jesus Christ.  If you have come here for anything else, you will be disappointed.  If you have come to find any other Jesus than the One the Bible teaches us about, you have come to the wrong place – but even if you have come for the false, let us show you the true Jesus, and stick with us and let us show you the true mysteries – the wonders of God and of God's love for you.  You will be glad because that is what you need, and we will be all be here for the right reason - to be strengthened in faith in the Jesus who gives us everlasting life.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

Thursday, December 10, 2020

GREEN - The Color of Life


Sermon for Second Wednesday in Advent                                      12/09/20

 GREEN- The Color of Life

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

 This year we are looking at the colors of Christmas for our mid-week sermon series.  Red was the color of Christmas for last week.  Red focuses on the anger of God over sin and the blood of Jesus Christ which takes away our guilt and sin. The color of Christmas we look at this week is the color of the Christmas tree, the color Green.  The green we associate with Christmas was used before Christmas by the pagans as they celebrated the winter solstice and the return of the sun in the pagan celebration of the Saturnalia.  It happened about this time of year.  It was a holiday of gluttony and intoxication and wanton sensuality.  In other words, it was a great deal like the modern American Christmas of our secular society.  We call our pagan celebrations "office parties" and "Christmas Parties" - and then we overeat and drink too much and, unfortunately, often many people will use the holiday as an excuse for gratifying all sorts of the lusts of the flesh.

Christians back in the first and second centuries of the Christian Church faced the same types of dilemmas we face today - our young people look at the world's celebration and think that they are missing something if they hold fast to the celebrations of the true Church, and limit themselves to them alone.  So too in those early days of the Christian Church.  

The early Christians celebrated the birth of Christ at the same time as the culture around them celebrated the Saturnalia, replacing vulgar and bawdy entertainments with a sober and pious reflection on the great gift of God in the birth of His Son.  Then Christians gave one another gifts, telling each other that these gifts served as reminders of the gift of the Christ Child.  When Christians celebrated, they did not celebrate the return of the sun to warm the crops and bring life to the fields, but the coming of the Son of God to bear our sins and give eternal life to all who believe.

Christians seem to have spent more of their lives thinking about their faith, back then.  They had to, it was illegal and could be fatal to be a Christian.  When Christians laughed and made merry, it wasn't under the influence, frantically dodging the difficult realities of life for a few hours.  Christians were celebrating life itself, eternal life!  That is why the Christmas tree became such a popular symbol - an evergreen: even in the darkest and bleakest of winter it remained green and alive.  It was a promise and a hope in vegetable form.  It was a symbol of life in the midst of death.  And so, green became a color of Christmas - green, the color of life.

Green is a good color for Christmas, because that is what we celebrate.  We celebrate life.  We celebrate Him who is life as John wrote in his Gospel, In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The green of Christmas should remind you of the Creator and giver of life who came down to bring life and immortality to light.

In that sense, Christmas is a double edged holiday.  On the back edge, if you will, we see this gift at Christmas.  God sent His Son to take on human nature.  He didn't put it on as a robe, however, as something which might later be discarded.  He became flesh.  That is the doctrine of the Incarnation.  He took the humanity into His being, becoming not only what Adam and Eve should and could have been without sin, but becoming something much more.  He took on human nature, human flesh, and a human soul, never to set it aside again.  God has become like us – except in sin – so that we might become something like Him, also without sin..

The front edge of the holiday, if you will, looks forward to Jesus Christ coming again in glory, when God shall give life and immortality to all those who have loved Him.  What we will be on that day is more than what we would have been without sin.  Scripture teaches that we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.  Even here, God takes the worst - sin - and turns it around into a blessing for us just as He promised.

In Christmas, Jesus became man and dwelt among us as Immanuel, God with us.  He showed us what righteousness was like by doing it.  He demonstrated what life without sin was.  He kept the whole law for us.  Because He was man He could take our place under the law and do perfect righteousness for us.  That is why Scripture teaches that Christ is our righteousness.  Because He is one of us, He knows our state.  He knows our sorrows.  He knows our temptations.  And He knows it all by experience.  As Hebrews 4:15 says, We do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are.  But He did not sin.  He did righteously for us all.

But we have sinned.  We have earned death.  So He took our death for us.  He could do that as man also.  His human nature made Him an appropriate and proper substitute for us.  The fact that He was still and always true God made His substitution of surpassing value - surpassing the value of us all.  He could substitute for each of us because He is truly a man, and for all of us because He is true God.

He took our death and gave us His life.  He took the wrath of God and gave us the love of God.  He bore the curse and laid upon us all the blessings.  Therefore, as Hebrews 4:16 concludes: Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need.
The Christmas tree has always been a symbol of life in the midst of death.  That is where we find ourselves in Jesus Christ.  We are buried with Christ by Baptism into death, and then raised by that same baptism into eternal life before God.  But at this point in time, this mystical union with Christ is spiritual.  The flesh is still caught in sin and dying.  So we are, like the Christmas tree, alive in the midst of the winter of death.  Saints and sinners at the same time.  Alive forever in Christ, and yet perishing in the flesh due to sin.  How we need to understand an believe that grace in these evil times!

The green of Christmas reminds us of that life within which will one day become life on the outside as well.  We look forward in the Advent season to the coming day when God the Father will send His Son to earth again in glory.  On that day, He will separate His faithful from the unbelieving world, and will give unto all those who trust Him eternal life of both body and soul together.  And we shall have life in the fullest.

This will be life without sin - and without the possibility of sin.  This will be life without the effects of sin.  There will be no death - not the little pieces of death we call sickness, nor any results of death such as sorrow, fear, and pain.  It will be life in capital letters.  We will live righteously.  We will know the will of God and delight in it, and do it with joy.  We will be reunited with one another, and with all of those who we have known, even if only dimly - St.  Paul, Luther, Walther, and those godly ancestors who preserved for us the Word of God that we might hear it plainly and believe.

And this life is symbolized for us in the green of the evergreen, and the green of the holly, and the green of the mistletoe.  Life where no one would expect it.  Life shining out of the darkness of the death of winter around it.  It is a good color for Christmas.

You and I are, in a sense, also Christmas trees.  We are life in the midst of death.  We look back on the spring of Bethlehem and the bright summer of Easter.  People can see that in us - if we reflect it.  We stand as living symbols of the coming spring of the resurrection of all the dead, when the glory of Jesus Christ shall shine down on the graves of His faithful ones and warm the seeds there planted and produce a harvest of immortal and incorruptible and eternal flesh to inherit all that the Father has promised.  It is our holy calling to reflect that life in the midst of our dying world - reflect it by word and deed.

The Son-rise is coming.  That is the message and meaning of Advent.  Then everything will turn green, the color of life, or will be melted away and burned up by the heat of His coming.

Think of those evergreens which turn brown in the winter have no life, but only corruption and decay.  The coming of the sun of summer does them no good, but hastens their collapse.  Even so, the green of Christmas reminds us that there is that other reality, where the green is not.  Unlike pine trees, however, we can spread the green by sharing the truth of God's love - starting with the realities of sin and death, and ending with the promises, certain and sweet, of eternal life through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

John 5:26 says Just as the Father has life in Himself, even so he gave the Son also to have life in Himself.  The green of Christmas reminds us that the Son has given us life from His abundance, and has swallowed up our death on the cross.  Just as we look at the evergreen and see the hope of the life of the coming summer, we can look at the green of Christmas and see a reminder of the coming of the Son of God - that's what Advent is all about - to give eternal life to us.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

Saturday, December 05, 2020

Watch and Pray



"And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth dismay among nations, in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting from fear and the expectation of the things which are coming upon the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see THE SON OF MAN COMING IN A CLOUD with power and great glory. But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

And He told them a parable: "Behold the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they put forth leaves, you see it and know for yourselves that summer is now near. Even so you, too, when you see these things happening, recognize that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away. Be on guard, that your hearts may not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life, and that day come on you suddenly like a trap; for it will come upon all those who dwell on the face of all the earth. But keep on the alert at all times, praying in order that you may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent 12/06/20

Watch and Pray

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Something is coming. Advent means "coming". Advent means "coming". We talk about it often to re-enforce the steadfastness of faith. We all think we know what is coming. Many of us have been Christians for many years and have heard the sermons. Jesus is coming! Heaven is coming! Something wonderful is coming!

Well, all of that is true. Still, there is something about the way that it is presented to us in the Bible that suggests that it is not all happy-faced and delightful. For the child of God on that day, it will be glorious! The experience of life as we slowly approach that day, however, will not seem or feel so glorious. I suspect that it will be somewhat different than we expect – not because we haven't been told what to expect, but because we don't always take God at His Word, and we sometimes imagine that what God is doing will be done the way we would do it. But God always does things His way.

With that thought in mind, I read the words of our text and my attention was drawn to the warnings, "keep on the alert at all times, praying in order that you may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man." What is coming is wonderful at the last, but the way it will come, and the days that lead up to it may not be all delightful. They will, in fact, require divine help and God-given strength. So, this morning I want to look at what Jesus said in our text, and talk about the admonition, our theme is Watch and pray

The last day is coming. I wish I could give you the date, but God refuses to reveal that. He even warns us against trying to predict it too closely. He simply tells us that it is going to come and that when it comes it will be awesome! Before the day arrives, there will be specific signs that it is about to arrive. There will be signs in the sun and the moon and the stars. They may be the sort of things that only astronomers or astrologers would pay attention to, or they may be singularly catastrophic events. The text doesn't say, but it seems to suggest something widely seen and widely frightening.

Then there are the signs on earth. "Dismay among nations." That one is hard to fix since there seems to be dismay most of the time. The ongoing war on terrorism and fear of how it might impact our lives personally might be what the text is speaking about, or not. The dismay seems to be connected to natural events as well as world events. "and upon the earth dismay among nations, in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting from fear and the expectation of the things which are coming upon the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken." This could speak of natural catastrophes, like hurricanes and floods, fires and droughts, and such. We seem to be having a lot of those - and the doomsayers are all busy telling us how it means deprivation and death to us - and it is all caused by us. Mother Earth is getting a little cranky with us. They say she is trying to shake us off like a bunch of fleas!

This prophecy might be talking about the international anxiety over the environment. Some scientists are making frequent statements about climate change and how it will make life so difficult and different. Climate change is always happening, but it is the current buzzword, and there are movies about environmental catastrophes caused by our use of fossil fuels, and such. People are being herded towards fear by the gloom and doom predictions -- at least men and women who don't trust God. Many people could be described as "fainting from fear and the expectation of the things which are coming upon the world."

Then again, it could be something much bigger, since it says that "the powers of the heavens will be shaken." This could be speaking about something catastrophic coming from the skies - like that asteroid they keep promising us - you know, like the one that killed off the dinosaurs! On the other hand, it could mean that the very fabric of the universe will appear to begin to unravel. The scene painted here is terrible and frightening and not something that is easily ignored. These signs – political, natural, environmental, cosmic – are the heralds of Jesus' final return. The problem is, they are so ambiguous that they could apply to the world today, or centuries ago, or maybe they still await their final fulfillment. We just don't know. And, by the way, that is just the way God wants it. But those days will be terrible, and wonderful, and frightening to live in! That is in part why we have to watch and pray.

When those signs appear – and I think we can all agree that we may very well be seeing some of them now – we are to "stand up straight, and lift up your heads, for your redemption is drawing near!" These days will be terrible and frightening days - and those who are crushed by fear stoop over, and curl up, and hide. But our response to these things is to know what is happening and to stand without fear — and instead of fear, to look towards the heavens, as the place of God's appearing, and expect our Lord Jesus to come and rescue us! In other words, we are not to be frightened, but to trust God. We are not to curl up, but to bear the good news of God and of our salvation to those who are being crushed by the fears and the trouble of these end-time days! Those people - our friends and neighbors, and perhaps even our own families - are our mission field!

Then Jesus told a parable. The parable was simple – it was the natural course of Spring as it brings the trees to leaf. If Jesus lived in Minnesota, He might have had the parable of the lilacs and the apple trees. When they are in bloom, we know Summer is just around the corner. In precisely the same way, we are to know what to make of the terrible fears of mankind, the political, the military, the natural disasters, and the environmental worries. We are not to get wrapped up in them or terrified by them, but to understand that they are the signs of the coming of the end. They are, in a manner of speaking, the evangelism program of God. The world gets frightened, and we don't, and the difference is so painfully obvious that they want to know why we are different – and then, we get to do what Peter counsels in His first epistle, "but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence."

And when Jesus finished the parable, He promised that the signs will be evident and obvious before the first generation of Christians has passed away. In other words, this state of expectation and anticipation and persistent and bold faith and witness is to be the ordinary condition of the Christian Church. But how much more now than two millennia ago? Remember last week's epistle? "For now salvation is nearer to us than when we first believed." That means, of course, closer now than when the first Christians first believed!

Today the Christian Church, so-called, is pretty comfortable. Very few of us actually expect Jesus to return at just any moment now. We have the time, according to our expectations, to make plans a year or more in advance, without ever thinking to add, even in our private thoughts, "God willing". Christians in many congregations today think they have so much time and such security in this world that they can fight with one another, and form parties in the church - against the command of Jesus to love one another. That is what our Epistle lesson spoke about, "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."

Some people feel such a lack of urgency about faith and salvation that they can set aside the Word of God whenever it is inconvenient, or it accuses them of sin, or it makes them uncomfortable about the spiritual well-being of their children or other family members. They make worship, communion, and Bible Study optional activities useful only for those weeks when they have nothing else, nothing they prefer to do. Face it, most Christians today do not really expect Jesus to appear in the skies and to end the world – at least not during their lifetime.

Jesus knew that this was going to happen. That is why He said, "Be on guard, that your hearts may not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life, and that day come on you suddenly like a trap; for it will come upon all those who dwell on the face of all the earth. But keep on the alert at all times, praying in order that you may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."

The simple truth is that many modern Christians have been ‘weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life.' Dissipation is wasting your life on things of no significance or value. We probably think of it as living like an alcoholic. Just drinking and wasting life on a grand scale. But dissipation actually is any pursuit that has no real value. Pornography addiction would be one. Just wasting your life watching television qualifies, too. Focusing your life on having the biggest and best toys would be another form. ‘Reaching for all the gusto you can' and making the most of the pleasures of this world could be called dissipation too. And, of course, regular drunkenness is also dissipation.

Another thing that distracts many Christians is the "worries of life". That is what weighs most people down. We worry about all sorts of things: the next paycheck, or the weather, or terrorists, or we worry about our health and Covid. Life is every day, and dangers, threats, worries, and fears are always clamoring for our attention.

Which ones have your attention?

Jesus tells us to be on guard against just such things happening. They are just as natural as can be. They are darned near impossible to avoid. So how can you keep that sense of expectation, and not give in to the worries and temptations of life? By being on guard, and "on the alert at all times, praying in order that you may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place and to stand before the Son of Man." You do it by vigilance, and prayer; constant, regular, fervent prayer. You do it by remembering that these temptations are coming and that you have no strength in yourself, and so you call on God and trust Him to bring you through.

After all, you didn't become a Christian by your own power or choice. Why would you imagine that you could hold yourself in faith and readiness by your own power or choice?
Jesus tells us that these days are coming, and will come upon everyone who lives on this planet. The temptations to surrender your expectation that these days will come soon, and to get busy living like everyone else in this world, is a temptation that will assault everyone. That is why you are called to watch and pray.

The battle for your salvation has already been fought. Jesus fought it on the cross and rose from the grave to declare the victory. Your sins have been forgiven! Jesus has poured out on you the gift of everlasting life and resurre
ction from your grave if the world does not end before your body goes to the grave. He poured those gifts out on you in your Baptism, and He feeds you with the Medicine of Immortality each week in this blessed Sacrament of His body and blood. Jesus said, in Matthew 24, "But the one who endures to the end, he shall be saved."

The one thing we want to be sure to do is to stand firm, that is, to be faithful. We want to straighten up and lift up our heads and confidently expect the Lord. We want to do what Jesus has instructed us to do so that He may accomplish through us all that He has planned. Mostly, we want to believe, because "he that believes and is baptized shall be saved." And losing our sense of expectation is a form of unbelief and the beginning of the total collapse of the faith. So, as Jesus said, Watch and pray.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)