Sunday, January 31, 2021

God's Choice


Matthew 20:13-16

"‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius?  Take what is yours and go your way, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you.  Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own?  Or is your eye envious because I am generous?'
"Thus the last shall be first, and the first last."

Sermon for Septuagesima                          01/31/21

God's Choice

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

The parable in our Gospel lesson is one of the most difficult lessons to hear in the entire Bible.  It flies in the face of our nature and our own reason.  Even when we are the ones receiving the good part of the deal, it tends to stick in our craw.  You have heard and perhaps read of those who are visited with sudden good fortune, great wealth or huge success.  They many times have trouble handling it.  They question.  "Why me?"  They fear that since it was so quickly gained, it will also disappear just as quickly – and sometimes they are right.

But let it be on the other side of the equation, and we observe someone else, equally undeserving as ourselves – or more so – and the vagaries of what seems to us to be "chance" becomes incomprehensible and aggravating.  Just as it did those workers who were hired first, in the parable so long ago, this sort of thing smacks of injustice and unfairness, and creates in our minds an attitude of deprivation and a victim mentality which can be crippling.  Here is where the lesson behind the parable of the laborers serves and teaches us to live in the circumstances we find ourselves in.  Our text is the parable, and our theme is, God's Choice.

The parable paints a pretty clear picture.  The employer goes to the labor pool and hires his help, negotiating the standard compensation contract before actually sending them to work.  He happened to be a landowner and the location of the labor pool of the first century in Israel was the marketplace, where those who needed work would go and stand and wait for the wealthier neighbors to come and hire men for whatever chores they needed done.  In this case, there was a great deal of work to be done in the vineyard.

Now, the vineyard is a common image in Scripture for Israel - and judging by what Jesus was intending to say to the Jews around Him, it would be safe to understand the vineyard as Israel, the church, rather than the political nation Israel.  The owner of the vineyard is God - self-evident in this understanding of the parable, and also a common image in prophecy for God.

Anyhow, the day passes, and as it passes the employer continues to check out the labor available at the labor pool, and finding additional workers, he hires them on the spot.  There seems to be a need for a lot of workers – or the employer is simply a nice guy who wants to see everyone working.  He doesn't come to a contract agreement with these later hires, as he had the first ones hired, he merely promises to pay them "whatever is right".  I imagine that they were just glad to get a job when they showed up so late.

If you want to make much out this story, you can preach about each time of hiring and who that might be and how there is always a need for more workers in the vineyards of God.  You can do that, and some preachers do, but a parable doesn't necessarily apply in every detail, but only at the "tertium", the point of comparison.

Finally, the day is done and everyone lines up to get paid.  It was like a modern temp-job, you got paid every day.  The employer tells the paymaster to pay those hired last, first.   Already we see the final proverb of the story proving to be true: The last are first, and the first are last to be paid.

When those hired just an hour before quitting time come to the paymaster, they each receive a full day's wages - exactly the same as the first ones hired agreed to.  This was done in front of everyone else, so those hired first saw it and simply assumed that their wages were going to be proportional to those hired last.  When they came to receive their pay, they got exactly the same as those who had just started, a denarius – which was a normal day's pay.  As you might expect, it rankled.  They figured that their entire day's work in the heat of the day, and such, worth more than the short time of the ones who had worked just an hour or so.  Working from the hours worked to the paycheck, their cause seemed reasonable.

But it was not.  They had contracted with the landowner - they had agreed to a specific sum for their day - the typical day's pay.  They allowed themselves to get distracted by what others got, and under which apparent circumstances, and cried - "This isn't fair!"  The landowner reminded them of their contract, and pointed out that he was not being unfair with them, but generous with the others.  They had received what they had bargained for.

Jesus asked two pointed questions, "Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own?" and "Is your eye envious because I am generous?"  The answer to both questions is usually "yes."

This parable was aimed at the Jews.  They had been the Chosen People for centuries, even millennia.  They had come to believe that they deserved something for all that time and whatever it had demanded of them.  Jesus was telling them that others were going to come into the Church, into the number of the Chosen People, and that they would receive possibly the same as the Jews who had long been faithful.  It further made the point that the Jews did not deserve anything for their time, except what the original contract - the Old Covenant - had stipulated.  They were receiving precisely what they had bargained for.  The Jews were going to think it was unfair, and they were going to envy the Gentiles who came in, and they were going to think that they ought to be in charge by virtue of seniority.  And all of that happened.

Jews originally taught that Christianity was just a twisted form of Judaism.  Some still think that way.  They cry out against what they call "supecessionism", the idea that Christianity is what Judaism was supposed to become with the coming of the Messiah.   The Judaizers of the Apostolic era were Jews who tried to seize control and shape the church and her doctrine according to their traditions and desires - which means holding the Law first and foremost, and making the Gospel a different thing, a thing you had to merit.  If they had succeeded, Christianity would probably have faded away millennia ago.  

The one thing that was going to gripe them was the freedom of the Gospel.  God forgiving was okay, but only after a certain "earning" of it.  Cutting the connection between my works and my salvation is something most Christians and most denominations still find objectionable - but it is the Gospel.  Gentiles were welcome in Israel, but only as a second-class citizen.  The "proselytes at the gate", as they were called, were never permitted to enter the court of men, or the holy place.  They were let in to the gate, and had a second-tier kind of standing in Israel.

Well, Christianity undid all of that.  The Jews were a minority very quickly, and they were not allowed to impose their own religious peccadillos or the ancient laws on the Gentiles.  Very quickly, the Gentiles were dominant, and not just in numbers, but in authority.  As soon as the Jewish authorities understood that Christianity was not a sect of Judaism, they began to outlaw it and persecute it, and bar Christians from the Temple and Synagogues, and declare as ‘dead' those who would convert.  That was their "grumbling."

But it was also the plan of God.  The Christian Church was God's choice not the choice of the Jews.

This would be a nice history lesson, if that was all that the parable meant.  It also applies to us, however.  We have been Christians, most of us, for a long time – perhaps all of our lives.  We have been decent people in a worldly sense and we have gone to church more or less faithfully.  In that way, we have been working all the day long in the vineyard.  Now and again, we have a problem with those who join us late in the game.  People who come from lives of carefree sin and indulgence that often appeals to us.  They have had the things we gave up, and we miss those things.  Such people are, alternately, not "our kind" of people.  We have a sense that they don't belong here.  Sometimes.

On the other side, when new people come in, or the young (not a great problem here, of late), we are often willing to take their money and welcome them to sit in the pews, but we don't want them challenging us or taking over some things.  We want the decisions, they can have the work.  Again, this is not much of a problem here, yet.  We scarcely have enough bodies for the work.

What Jesus is telling us is that it is all God's Choice.  We should not be looking from one man to the next and trying to see if we have our fair share of God's goodness, or be worried about who does more or who does less.  It is good to be concerned that each of us is present for Word and Sacrament, because, then we are like the landowner - going out all day long searching for those who still need what He has to give.  We want the best for each other, and for those who have not yet heard and believed.  The important part is that each of us, and those who are called by God to be part of us, are here, and hearing, and receiving.  Our status or our reward is not the issue.

That has already been decided, and it is abundant.  Our sins are forgiven even before we are fully conscious of them.  We have been justified, made right with God, and given a new and eternal life.  We don't need the pleasures, or the riches, or the honors others may receive.  We
may admire them, and even desire them, but we do not need them.  We will have what God deems right for us.  But we already have the day's wages guaranteed because God has chosen to be generous with us in Jesus Christ and bring us each to eternal life in glory with Him.

Our salvation, our church, our place in the over-all scheme of things is God's choice.  After all, He redeemed us, bought us out of sin and death.  Now He owns us.  And doesn't He have the right to do what He wishes with what is His own??  He has chosen each of us, in grace, and called each of us by our name, in Baptism, and personally fed us with His holy food in the Holy Supper.  We can give up competition, and work together, and rejoice in the good things of God promised to us.

Remember, every single one of us stands in the place of the guys hired at the eleventh hour, in the parable of Jesus.  We are each receiving what we did not earn and do not deserve, just because God is generous.  We stand at the paymaster's desk, and receive the full day's pay - eternal life and salvation -not by our beauty or goodness or charms, but because God is generous, or, as the Church is wont to say, gracious.  It is all about God's choice.

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

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Looking Forward - Looking Back

 Matthew 17:1-9
And six days later Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John his brother, and brought  them up to a high mountain by themselves.  And He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light.  And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him.  And Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, I will make three tabernacles here, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and behold, a voice out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!”  And when the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were much afraid.  And Jesus came to them and touched them and said, “Arise, and do not be afraid.”
And lifting up their eyes, they saw no one, except Jesus Himself alone.  And as they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.”


Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday         1/24/21

Looking Forward -- Looking Back

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Crossroads.  Have you ever come to that point in your life?  To crossroads?  That is the point you come to when you have reached one goal and you're about to start on another, or when one crisis is past and you are ready to face everyday life one more.  There are a lot of different kinds of crossroads at different times of life, and we all come to them, now and again.  When you come to crossroads, you tend to stop for a moment and look around, to look forward to what lies ahead, and to look back at what has come and gone before.  Then, usually, we take a big breath and square our shoulders, and set off on another leg of the journey through life.

Our Church-Year is at the crossroads this morning.  We have scaled the giddy heights of Advent and looked out from the inspiring peaks of Christmas joy, and then we descended on the pleasant slopes of Epiphany.  Now we stand at the crossroads, looking down the road into the gloomy abyss of Lent, leading into the death valley of the Church calendar.  We call this crossroads Transfiguration Sunday.

From any crossroads, we can look back, and look forward, and wisdom suggests that it is a good idea to do just that now and then.  Transfiguration Sunday actually does it for us – it looks back, and it points forward.  Let us pause, this morning, and look from this crossroads at the view afforded us by the Transfiguration of our Lord on the mountain.  Let us look forward and look back to see what the Transfiguration has to show us.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has just heard the disciples confess Him as the Messiah, the Son of God.  Then He foretold how He was to die.  But His disciples were not ready to hear it.  Peter tried to persuade Jesus not to endure the cross, actually saying God forbid that this should happen to you!

Jesus was preparing for the road to Jerusalem. It was in this context of preparation that He took three disciples up on the mountain with Him.  He took three because by Jewish Law it took three eyewitnesses to establish testimony as fact.
Jesus took Peter, and James, and John.  Luke tells us that they went up the mountain to pray.   Although Jesus knew what they were going to see, they did not.  While they were praying, the disciples began to nod off.  Jesus kept praying, but they were beginning to sleep, just at that point where they were semi-aware of their surroundings, and halfway to slumberland, Suddenly, Jesus was transformed!  His physical body began to change.  He began to show the glory that was His as the Son of God.  What that did to His body we do not know, all that the disciples recorded for us was that He began to glow and shine with the glory – shining brighter than the sun – His clothes became brighter than bright and whiter than white.

Just as suddenly, the disciples were wide awake, and amazed and terrified and bewildered all at once.  They stared at the transfigured Jesus, and suddenly they noticed two others standing there with Him.  From the conversation they were having with Jesus – or just from how they looked – the disciples knew that these other two were Moses and Elijah – and they, too, had glorified bodies!  And the disciples heard them calmly discussing with Jesus the death He was about to die.  There could be no doubt about it, not even for Peter, Jesus was heading for a death on the cross.  This was about all the disciples could handle.

But suddenly there was more.  A cloud of light overshadowed them – a bright cloud – as though it shined instead of casting a shadow, but our language simply doesn't have a word for cloud-shine.  The cloud glowed with an eerie and unearthly light.  It seemed like it filled the whole sky above them.  And then the voice of God boomed out of that cloud.  This is my beloved Son, in Him I am well-pleased.   Listen to Him!
Much the same words had been spoken from the heavens at the Baptism of Jesus.  The “well-pleased” was the same as the good will and good pleasure of God about which the angels sang at Bethlehem those many years before.

This was, however, too much to deal with for the three disciples.  Our text tells us that they curled up on the ground and hid their heads in fear.  Peter had begun to speak incoherently, not even really thinking about what he was saying, or so Luke tells us, but the voice of the heavenly Father stopped even that, and they all hid their heads in stark terror.

Then Jesus touched each one of them, reassuring them, and when they lifted their heads, there was only Jesus, plain, old, ordinary Jesus, just as they had always seen him.  No cloud shining, no face shining, no clothing glowing, no Moses and Elijah, just Jesus, Himself, alone.

Now, what did they see?  What was the view from their mountaintop crossroads?
Looking back, they saw Mount Sinai.  They saw Moses and the Law.  They saw Moses coming down off the mountain with a face shining with an unearthly light in the reflected glory of God.  They saw the man who had been entrusted with the Law and the covenant.  They saw a dark and ominous cloud hanging over Mt.  Sinai, terrifying the people with its flashes of fire and the awful, fearful rumblings.

But in Jesus, they saw something greater.  In Jesus they saw a face which shines with its own glory, unreflected and, as the hymn says, unborrowed.  In Jesus they saw one who fulfilled the Law instead of simply delivering it to us.  In Jesus they saw something greater than Moses - but something that Moses had himself promised - Deuteronomy 18:15, The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him.  And that is what the voice told them to do, Listen to Him!

The cloud they saw was bright, not dark and ominous.  They did not hear the rumblings, but the clear voice of God, a voice which may have terrified them, but it spoke of good pleasure and blessings, not of fear and threatenings.  It is that well-pleased of which the voice spoke which is underlying our gospel.

Looking back, they saw Elijah, the great prophet.  They saw Him, but in Jesus they saw an even greater prophet, and the one who fulfilled all of the prophecies.  Elijah prophesied doom.  Jesus prophesied forgiveness and grace.  Elijah prophesied the coming Messiah, the Suffering Servant.  Jesus was that Servant, and He not only prophesied, He fulfilled all that He promised by the word of the Lord.  Something greater than Elijah was on that mountain.

And what did they see looking forward?

Looking forward, they saw the death of Jesus Christ.  They heard the great giver of the Law and the great prophet of old speaking about the death which Jesus had to die.  There was no longer any room for denials.  They finally understood, only briefly perhaps, and not with utter clarity, but they finally understood that Jesus had to pass through death to enter glory.  And because of that death, we have only to pass through death to enter that glory also.

Although it is hard to say for sure what they understood, they saw the sacrifice.  God was declaring that Jesus, with whom He was well-pleased when He had begun His course at His baptism, was still well-pleasing to the Father.  God announced on that hill that He was well-pleased with the One who would die for us.  Hearing the voice then terrified them, but looking back in later years, it was the assurance of fitness of the sacrifice, and validation of all that they had heard and read in Holy Scriptures before.

Because Jesus was well-pleasing to the Father, He could die on the cross for the sins of many.  His righteousness was perfect, so His death was unneeded, and He could exchange with us, His holiness for our sins, His life for our death.  He died for our sins, not any of His own.  He was made sin for us, the Bible says, [He] who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.  And so it is!

Because while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly, we can now “put on” the righteousness of Christ, which He freely traded to take up our sins.  We can have forgiveness.  How?

By faith.  When we believe that Christ has paid the full price for us, and when we take God at His Word that, for the sake of Jesus Christ, God forgives us and gives us eternal life, we are forgiven – and we possess that eternal life, and we will walk in glory with Him one day.

When we look from the crossroads of the mount of the Transfiguration, we see our forgiveness – the worthy sacrifice, the willing exchange, the free gift.  We see who it really was that died for us, and how He can be so bold as to say, Your sins are forgiven – go and sin no more!  He revealed Himself in that shining moment of glory.
And Jesus showed us what we could look forward to.  We see the resurrection and the reality of the eternal life which we have been promised in the two who stood and spoke with the Lord.  Just as the Bible says, when we see Him we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.  There they were, Moses and Elijah.  Long dead, and yet they were there, alive and recognizable!  We, too, shall have bodies, and we shall be who we are - except without sin.  We shall have bodies of glory, like Jesus and Moses and Elijah.  We shall see and commune and converse with our Lord and with one another.

And we can see that the portal to transfiguring glory is what we dread and fear and call “death.” But death is swallowed up in victory, Christ's victory.  Moses and Elijah spoke of the necessity of death for Jesus, and if we are to follow Him, it must be through that same portal.  This truth alone should teach us not to fear death, but to view it as the door to eternal life with Jesus – and it should comfort us that those who have passed through those gates before us are not dead and gone, but live in transfigured glory, like Jesus, and with their Lord.

While we may not be able to commune with Jesus in that holy place today, as Moses and Elijah, or to see the wonderful transfiguration with our own eyes, as did Peter and James and John, we can share with them in the communion with Christ at this holy table, and here receive the blessings which He has won for us – life and forgiveness.  And having paused at the crossroads, and having refreshed ourselves with this holy Meal of the body and blood of Jesus, we are ready to continue.
We take a deep breath, and we begin our descent through Septuagesima and Sexagesima and Quinquagesima into Lent.  We begin to live again – walking on the path which He has given us to walk. Let us thank God, and with Peter, humbly confess, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here!’

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

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Listen to Jesus

 John 2:1-11

And on the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there; and Jesus also was invited, and His disciples, to the wedding.  And when the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to Him, "They have no wine."  And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what do I have to do with you?  My hour has not yet come."  His mother said to the servants, "Whatever He says to you, do it."
Now there were six st
one waterpots set there for the Jewish custom of purification, containing twenty or thirty gallons each.  Jesus said to them, "Fill the waterpots with water."  And they filled them up to the brim.  And He said to them, "Draw some out now, and take it to the headwaiter."  And they took it to him.  And when the headwaiter tasted the water which had become wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the headwaiter called the bridegroom, and said to him, "Every man serves the good wine first, and when men have drunk freely, then that which is poorer; you have kept the good wine until now."

This beginning of His signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him.

Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany            1/17/21

Listen to Jesus

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

The account of the wedding at Cana is a familiar and often preached Gospel text.  It is used in weddings, and, of course, it is a Gospel lesson during the season of Epiphany.  There are a number of lessons one can draw from this text.

One lesson is the compassion of Jesus.  Look how He helps those in trouble.  Another might be Jesus' respect for His mother.  One could look at the providence of God or the richness of Christ's blessings.  As an Epiphany theme, one could even speak about the glory of God shining through the humanity of Jesus in this, His first public miracle.  This morning I want to begin from the words of Mary, Jesus' mother, "Whatever He says to you, do it."  Our theme is, Listen to Jesus.

The account is simple.  Jesus is attending a wedding, with His disciples in tow.  This is the wedding feast which follows the year of betrothal.  The bride and groom have been husband and wife for a year, legally, and tonight they will consummate their union.  They will begin to live as husband and wife from this day on.  This is the sort of wedding feast that Jesus intends everyone to relate to as He tells the parable of the Five Wise and Five Foolish Virgins.  There is feasting and drinking and dancing and great merriment.  Everyone they know is invited.  Such joy and feasting was a community affair.

Unfortunately, the couple – and their parents – underestimated the appetites and thirst of their guests, and the wine ran out.  That would naturally be a party-killer.  Now Mary comes to Jesus.  People have speculated that there is a family connection here.  Cana is just about 15 miles north of Nazareth by road, less if you walk cross-country.  Mary seems to know that they have run out of wine before most of the other guests.  She comes to Jesus and lays this problem at His feet.  She doesn't directly ask for Him to fix it, although that request seems to be implied.  

We are also not given any reason why Mary would expect Jesus to do something, or what she thought He might do.  We make assumptions because we know the whole story and who Jesus is.  We don't know if and when His powers might have been used at home.  We don't know if she thought Jesus might just go get some extra wine.  We don't know if the Holy Spirit prompted her, or if she was just your typical Jewish Mother.  We only know that she lays this problem at His feet, and, by the brief exchange between her and Jesus, we can tell that she clearly expected Him to do something, possibly something miraculous.

Jesus' response to Mary is remarkable.  "Woman, what do I have to do with you?  My hour has not yet come."  Some people have imagined that Jesus was being rude to His mother.   Some suggest that Jesus was telling her that He did not want to do anything, or that she should leave Him alone.  His response, though cryptic, must be understood as coming from our Holy Lord.  It has to make sense in the context in which was spoken, and be consistent with His character.

What He said to her, translated into idiomatic English – the kind of English we speak – would be something like, "Things are different now, and this is My responsibility, not yours.  When the moment is right, I will take care of things."  His words tell His mother that she is no longer in charge of His life, now that His ministry has begun.  He lets her know that He is going to take care of things, but at the right moment.  Though terse and cryptic, His answer to Mary is a promise to help, and a gentle instruction for her to understand that He is no longer merely her little boy.

So, Mary steps out of the way.  She gives the whole thing to Jesus and tells the servants of the household to listen to Jesus and obey.  And Jesus tells them to do things that make no sense in the circumstances.  He tells them to fill six stone pots with water.  That's twenty or thirty gallons each.  Those servants were working hard for a while!  Then Jesus tells them to scoop out a ladle full of water and take the water to the steward of the feast – the guy in charge of the party arrangements.  Headwaiter, from our translation, is just a little misleading.  Doing the water filling had to seem nonsensical.  Taking the water to the Steward of the feast had to seem equally pointless.  But they did, and WOW!  What a result!  

Jesus not only answered the need, He answered it abundantly!  He provided somewhere between 120 and two hundred gallons of wine.  And what Jesus provided was good stuff.  The response of the steward of the feast tells us that.  No one knew what Jesus had done, at least at first, but Jesus, the servants, and probably the disciples.  What He did was not about an urgent need, but about the need of the moment, significant for that couple, but only for the night.

So, what can we learn from this Word of God?

There are several possible lessons.  First, is the lesson which forms our theme, Listen to Jesus.  Nothing would have happened that night if the servants had simply ignored Him.  They could have, He had no specific authority in that house.  Like them, we need to listen to Jesus, and to follow His direction.  Not all that seems to be pointless is.  Sometimes God has hidden blessings in doing things His way, even when it doesn't make sense to us.

To listen to Jesus today, you need to listen to the Word of God.  That means more than simply allowing it to flow over you.  You want to pay attention, you want to think about what is being told to you, what Christ commands in His Word – and everything God tells us is a command.  We ignore the Word of God in any topic at our peril.  God knows.  He knows what is true.  He knows what we are like and what we are dealing with.  He knows how to bring us blessings.

What God tells us does not always have to make sense to us.  Those servants did not understand the water thing, as they filled those large pots.  You don't have to understand what or how or why either.  Admittedly, it is nice to understand, but sometimes it is just faith, trust in God, that we need to listen to, and do it as God says to do it.  

A good example of this principle is all of the grumbling that goes on in churches.  God tells us to take our troubles to the ones who are troubling to us – directly, one-on-one.  If you have a concern about me, or about someone in the parish, you are to take it to them personally, and hash it out there.  That hasn't always happened here.  We have had people grumbling to one another about someone else, instead.  The result has been the discontent and division in our congregation.  And when people are encouraged to do what God's Word teaches us to do, they frequently have said that it is not reasonable, and that it would never work, and that the destructive course of grumbling and gossip is better and more useful.  But God's way is the way of healing, even if it doesn't seem that way or to appeal to us.

God's way doesn't need to make sense or appeal to us.  In fact, it is human nature that God's ways would not appeal to our flesh.  It is, none the less, God's way, and it will be effective for accomplishing what God wills.  His way is usually effective in bringing relief and peace to His people, too. No one thought at the time that Jesus should die on the cross, except His enemies.  No one thought that Jesus would be able to do something positive with so terrible a thing.  But He took your sins and mine there.  He nailed them to the cross in His body, and He died the death that you and I have earned.  Because He died for our sins, God forgives us.  Those who know this truth, and trust God, and take Him at His Word, are called "the children of God" and are given eternal life, and are promised by God that they will rise even from their graves to life of both body and soul - with Jesus - forever.

It doesn't have to make sense to us from the "get-go".  We need to listen to Jesus.  He will help.  And our need doesn't need to be the real important stuff either.  Jesus cares about us.  He cares about the little things, too.  He helped this couple with the need of the moment – a little extra wine.  You can take anything to God.  And everything He tells you to do is what you should do.  

I don't expect God to talk to me personally out loud, and neither should you, but His Word tells us what we are to be like, and how we ought to behave, and doing it – whatever "it" may be – Jesus' way is always the right way.  There is nothing God speaks to us that we can brush aside and say, "Aw, that isn't important."  If God says it, it must be important, and we should listen to Jesus.  God will help you in your troubles, and He will guide you in your way.  

Another truth of this Gospel account is that God can and will bless abundantly.  He provided more wine than they could reasonably use that night.  He fed the five thousand with baskets full of left-overs.  He forgives your sins abundantly too.  He pronounces forgiveness in the absolution.  He speaks His forgiveness in the sermon.  And He feeds you with His love and forgiveness in the Holy Supper, as you eat His true body and drink His true blood hidden under the form of the bread and wine in the Sacrament.

Do we need this forgiveness upon forgiveness upon forgiveness?  The question is an impious question.  God gives it.  One might assume, rightly, that any one absolution is sufficient for the moment, but God is so superabundant in His giving that He gives and gives, and pours out more and more upon us for our comfort and our assurance.  Who are we to ask the question of need?  God gives – and gives richly and abundantly!  He gives so that if you can imagine that He did not intend you to be forgiven in the absolution that you cannot doubt that He knows your sins, and He knows you are there, and forgives you as He gives His body and blood into your hand and your mouth, personally!  Listen to Jesus!

You see, the question about listening to Jesus is really the question about who is Lord here.  Our flesh is always tempted to push God aside and take charge.  That is what Adam and Eve did in the garden.  That is what Mary began to do at the Wedding at Cana.  Jesus reminded her, gently, that He was in charge and that He would handle the situation according to His own timing and wisdom.  The question each of us needs to answer in every situation where we are tempted to put our own wisdom and our own ways first is, "Who is the Lord here?"

Who do we trust – ourselves, or Jesus?  Who knows and understands how things work better – us or the Lord?  Who is in contact with truth and reality more firmly and reliably?  God demonstrated on the cross that the unthinkably awful could serve His holy purpose.  Because of that death, you are forgiven, and Jesus pours out on you eternal life.  Jesus shows us in Cana how compassionate and abundant He is.  Mary tells the servants of the house, and reminds us, to listen to Jesus, and to do whatever He tells you to do.  It worked then, even though it wasn't clear until Jesus was finished just what He was going to accomplish.  It isn't clear for us, either, many times, what Jesus is planning to accomplish.  But as it was in those days, so it is today.  Listen to Jesus.

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

Sunday, January 10, 2021

What Does This Mean?

 Matthew 3:13-17

Then Jesus arrived  from Galilee at the
Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him.  But John tried to prevent Him, saying, "I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?"  But Jesus answering said to him, "Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness."  Then he permitted Him.
And after being baptized, Jesus went up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens, saying, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased."

Sermon for 1-SAE                                              1/10/21

What Does This Mean?

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

It is the most Lutheran of questions.  We grow up with it in the Catechism.  "What does this mean?"  It doesn't always mean that we don't know what something means, when we ask the question.  It is simply the Socratic method of teaching – asking questions.  We see the method at use in the Christian Questions and Answers in our Catechism, building the understanding by means of questions that direct one to think clearly about an issue.  It is also the nature of a Catechism to ask questions and then to answer them.

But this morning, it is not a Catechism question, nor is it intended to be the Socratic method of inductive learning.  It is simply a question aimed at getting into the meaning of a very familiar account.  We all know about Jesus' Baptism.  It is the Gospel for the first Sunday after Epiphany, this year, focusing on the Baptism of Jesus.  What we want to do is think about what it teaches us, and learn the lessons it presents at the start of this New Year.  Our theme is, What Does This Mean?

John was preaching repentance and was baptizing those who confessed their sins with a baptism of forgiveness.  He did it at the Jordan River - because there was plenty of water there, which is where all our Baptist friends get the idea that Baptism is supposed to be by immersion.  They picture John baptizing in waist-deep water, dunking people under to symbolize their new birth and washing clean from sin.  And it is a wonderful symbol.

It just doesn't happen to be what John was doing, in all likelihood.  These were people who believed that the water – bodies of water – was the domain of demons.  They did not know how to swim - not even fishermen, generally.  They were terrified of water, particularly deep water.  That is why the parting of the Sea and the parting of the Jordan by Joshua was so significant.  It demonstrated God's power over the devil's domain.  That is what the "walking on water" of Jesus mean to those who saw it.  He was treading on the domain of the devil.  It wasn't simply mastery of the surface tension of water, or some ability to float on the soles of His feet.  It was that demons were supposed to live in the water.  That was a common superstition of the time.  Jesus was demonstrating His mastery over the demonic kingdom by walking above it - on it, not allowing those devils to grab Him and drag Him under and slay Him as they seemed to have done to so many for so long!

So these people were not likely to want to walk out into deep water and be plunged under.  It would have suggested precisely the opposite to them from the symbol we imagine today.  Instead of representing a cleansing and new birth, it would have pictured being plunged into the domain of Satan.  

My grandmother on my mother's side was from Kansas.  She could be an illustration.  She grew up in a dry land, without lots of lakes.  She was terrified of water in lakes and rivers.  Knee-deep was as good as she could get.  I am sure not every person in ancient Israel was terrified of water, but I would guess that most of those who gathered to hear John were.

So John was standing in the shallows, pouring water over their heads in a ritual washing – as most of their washing were – to picture for them the forgiveness which God was working through their repentance and Baptism at the hands of John.  He was washing their sins away.  His Baptism was very much like ours.  And Jesus came to be baptized.

John took one look at Jesus, and He knew who He was.  I don't know if John recognized his cousin, or not.  Probably did.  But John was filled with the Holy Spirit, as the great prophetic forerunner of the Messiah, and he saw, and he knew instantly, that this One was the Son of God, the Savior, and without sin.  So John said, "I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?What does this mean?

It means that John understood who Jesus was, and asked Jesus to Baptize Him instead.  And, let's face it, Jesus did not need forgiveness.

Then Jesus replied, "Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness."  Scholars have been debating the meaning of those words ever since.  Jesus asked John to baptize Him, even though Jesus did not need forgiveness.  He did not argue with John about His assessment.  He simply asked John to let it be, and do the baptism.  He said it was "fitting for [them] to fulfill all righteousness."  What does this mean?

It means that it was the right thing to do.  Jesus was righteous already, no sin.  So what He did was not for forgiveness, but for us.  In part, this was Jesus taking over for John.  He received from John what John was doing.  He didn't need to, in any absolute sense, but it was important for people to see that Jesus was "coming after" John.  He was John's successor – the one John was preparing the way for.

Jesus was also showing that He had assumed everything that is part of us, in order to save us.  He humbled Himself and stepped through the waters of Baptism, just as each of us who hope in Him must also come to Him through the waters of Baptism.  In a sense, He prepared the waters of Baptism for us by His baptism – placing His righteousness into baptism, so that it would have the power to cleanse us from our sins.

He also recapitulated the history of Israel with His life, and, just as Israel had passed through the waters – which Scriptures call a "baptism" into Moses – so, Jesus passed through the waters – and then went into the wilderness for 40 days, instead of the 40 years.  He is the better Israel, for He did all things well, and did not sin, and did not fail to be and to do all that God called Him to be and to do.

It was fitting, for God wanted Him to do it.  It connects Jesus to the Old Testament people walking with Moses, and it connects Him with us, Baptized as He was, and cleansed by Him as we are.

Then Jesus came up out of the water – He walked to shore and stepped out of the river – and the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on Him in the form of a dove, and the voice of the heavenly Father spoke, saying, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased."  It is interesting to note that God's Word sounds different to different people, sometimes.  Mark and Luke report Jesus' hearing of the words, "Thou art My beloved Son, . . ."  John, and anyone else who may heard and understood the words, heard "This is My beloved Son, . . ."  God's Word comes to us, always fitting us as we hear it.  We dare never assume that the Word we hear is aimed at anyone but us!

What does this mean?

First we see the Trinity.  Jesus is standing in the water, the Holy Spirit is perched on His shoulder - or head - in visible form of a dove, and the Father is speaking out of the sky.  All three persons may be observed, if not seen.  Father in heaven, Son on earth by the river-bank, and Holy Spirit descending upon and resting on Jesus.

Secondly, we hear that Jesus is "well-pleasing" to the Father, as He begins His public ministry.  This is the judgment of God that Jesus is holy and without sin.  He is fit to begin the great work of our salvation.  We will hear the same judgment of God spoken from the mount of Transfiguration on January 24th, as Jesus sets His face to descend into Jerusalem to die for us.  This is God the Father acknowledging His Son, and declaring that He is fit and holy and righteous as He begins His great work of His public ministry!

I want to take this opportunity to focus your minds on the song of the Angels to the Shepherds outside of Bethlehem.  "Peace on earth, good will to men" is better translated "Peace on earth among men with whom He is well-pleased."  This "Well-pleased" spoken over Jesus here, at the beginning, is what is accounted our own in connection with Jesus Christ, by grace through faith.  These words here mean He is ready to be our Savior, and He has what we need, as He begins.  Right here, right at the beginning of His public work, Jesus has what we need from Him to have peace with God and to end the wrath of God against our sins.

Why is this our post-Epiphany Gospel?  Because it speaks of revealing Jesus.  Jesus is revealed beginning His great work prepared, equipped, and worthy.

Are you ready to step forward in faith?  Are you prepared with faith, equipped with the gifts of the holy Spirit, and worthy by virtue of repentance and forgiveness, and confidence in God?  Yes.  This sermon is just a reminder that You begin again this week with God, Jesus is your constant companion – He said, "Behold I am always with you."  The Holy Spirit has been poured out on you in your baptism.  He has been given to you as a pledge and a guarantee of God's presence, power, and blessings – and your salvation, too.  You share, by the grace of God, in the "in whom I am well-pleased" spoken about Jesus on the day our Gospel records.

What does this mean?

It means we may live in faith, with hope and trust in God, confident of His mercy, blessing and presence with us and among us!  Our sins are forgiven, and we are beloved of God in Jesus Christ.  That's what it means!

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

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Spoken Through the Prophets


Matthew 2:13-23

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, "Arise and take the Child and His mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him." And he arose and took the Child and His mother by night, and departed for Egypt; and was there until the death of Herod, that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, "OUT OF EGYPT DID I CALL MY SON."

Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its environs, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the magi. Then that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled, saying, "A VOICE WAS HEARD IN RAMAH, WEEPING AND GREAT MOURNING, RACHEL WEEPING FOR HER CHILDREN; AND SHE REFUSED TO BE COMFORTED, BECAUSE THEY WERE NO MORE."

But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, "Arise and take the Child and His mother, and go into the land of Israel; for those who sought the Child's life are dead." And he arose and took the Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he departed for the regions of Galilee, and came and resided in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He shall be called a Nazarene."

Sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas 01/03/21

Spoken Through the Prophets

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

God has chosen to work in us and with us as a sort of partnership. He does it all, and it is by His power, and in His good time, and according to His will and plan – and yet He works it in such a way that we participate - and participate in a meaningful way.

Let me give you a familiar example: God creates faith. He chooses us, by His grace and for His own reasons and purposes. He then causes us to hear the Word preached, and by that Word, He creates faith in us by His power and His will, not any of our own. He gives us the desire to believe and the ability to believe and the faithfulness which we possess, and then He let us do the believing. We hear, we respond, we feel, we think, we believe, we choose to act, although by His power and guidance through Word and Sacrament and by the working of the Holy Spirit. It feels to us like we are the ones doing it all - and yet God tells us clearly that He is the One working it all out. It is kind of thrilling, when you contemplate it, that God is at work in you, and yet God is calling on you to work, to believe, to feel, and to care. He makes you want to listen and makes the preacher preach, and gives us the high and holy privilege of participating together with God in the work of the Church and of faith. It is hard to think clearly about it, and even more difficult to speak clearly about it, so I hope you are following my meaning and sensing the wonder of it all.

Our text brings this partnership to mind as we study the account of Mary and Joseph and Jesus fleeing to Egypt to avoid Herod and the killing squads - what the Church has come to call "the Slaughter of the Innocents". In our text, Joseph and Mary are partners in the work of keeping the Baby Jesus safe, and partners in fulfilling the prophecies of old. Look how often our text says something very much like, "That what was spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled" That is the wonder of how God works with us, and that is our theme, this morning. So I invite you to consider the flight into Egypt, with the theme, Spoken by the Prophets.

The Wise Men came to visit Jesus. God arranged it. He left enough clear in the Old Testament Prophecies, that when these ancient astrologers (that is what they were, among other things) noticed the new and bright star, they could identify it with the constellation and the Old Testament prophecies and they came to see this new king, the Messiah. I am sure that they figured that if they could figure it all out, surely the whole people of Israel were delirious with joy over the birth. Obviously, they were in error on that point.

When they left, God spoke to them in a dream and sent them home by another route. Then He spoke to Joseph again, also in a dream, telling him what to do, and why, and where to go. God had prepared the world for such nation hopping by seating the Roman Empire over all these lands. He set the stage with the bringing of the Wise men, and then He guided Joseph by the hand to get Jesus out of Bethlehem, and into Egypt. And all of this was briefly foretold by the prophets.

Now God knew what was going to happen long before it did. He could see the circumstances of the holy family and the dangers that hovered around, and He had it all planned for and under control, even though it may have seemed and felt differently to Mary and Joseph at the time. That is one of the lessons of this account. God knows, and He can handle it! It doesn't matter what "IT" is, God knows, and He has a plan. He could see what was coming for Jesus so far in advance that it was spoken through the prophets. He also spoke about the rescue through the prophets.

Note, too, that God doesn't plan just fun and easy for His people. Mary and Joseph did not ask to be chosen for their roles as the parents, but they were. Then God put them through the terror and the uncertainty of the pregnancy, and then the tax, then the Wise Men, then the attempted assault by Herod the Great, then having to move back and living in fear of Archelaus. It sounds much easier today than it was. When they were in the middle of it, they were in the middle of fear and stress and worry, to be sure. So, God may ask you to go where you don't really want to go and allow you to face troubles that don't seem to be fair, and others aren't facing, and may not appear to have any real connection with the mission of the Church or with your own life of faith. Trust God. If it is happening, it is connected - and God knows and has planned how to rescue and how to protect you and how to save you.

God could have taken care of Jesus without moving Mary and Joseph. God could have stopped Herod cold. He could have chosen to do things in other ways, but the reality of it is, He did not. And that is our reality many times, as well. We like the choices that we can see and feel the benefits of - like choosing us to be Christians or filling our pockets with good things. Every other choice is just as good, just not as fun, perhaps, and God has the plan fixed so that what should happen will happen if we are faithful.

The prophets never got to actually witness what they wrote about - and Peter tells us in His Epistle that they spent time trying to figure out the who and the where and the when of it all-and God revealed to them that the messages they were giving were not for their benefit - but ours. They had their benefit too, don't worry about that. Those faithful men are with Him in glory even now. But the work of the prophet was rarely for the comfort or the benefit of the prophet. They were like men laying out the pieces of a giant puzzle, that they dearly wanted to put together - but they were only allowed to see part of the puzzle and some of the pieces and were to be content with the truth that their part was all they were going to get, and it wasn't going to make a lot of sense necessarily for them.

The prophets, however, got to do their part in the partnership between God and those He was saving. If they had not, we would not have known that Jesus was really who He is. The prophecies are like identification for us. And so did the Wise Men, and Mary and Joseph. Each had an important role, and trouble for the sake of it. Herod took the no-nonsense approach of the ancient world to potential threats to one's power - he killed all of the children who were possibly old enough to be the promised King in the entire region around Bethlehem because the Wise Men visited somewhere in that region. In spite of Herod's strategy, God kept the Baby Jesus safe. He can do the same for you, even when your adversaries are really nasty and really determined. Trust God - that is part of the message of our text, this morning.

The slaughter of those children was unfortunate, but it shows us that Jesus grew up in the real world, not some faerie tale. It also fulfilled the prophecy. That wasn't something God wanted to happen, but something He could see was going to happen when Jesus was born, and so He spoke of it through the prophets. Ramah is the region around Bethlehem, and it is called "Rachel" because Rachel was buried there. It is a grisly testament to the vile evil of humankind, and to the frantic determination of the old, evil foe to stop the gracious plan of God for our salvation. But He failed, just as the prophets foretold.

Finally, when Herod the Great had passed away - which historians tell us happened in 4 B.C. - God summoned Joseph and Mary back to Israel. He did it to fulfill what He had spoken through the prophets. The fact that Matthew tells us about Joseph's fears of Archelaus, the first son of Herod to reign in Judea, underlines the suspicion that Mary and Joseph originally had intended to move away from Nazareth, and settle, possibly in Bethlehem. The fear of Joseph caused him to do precisely what had been spoken through the prophet.

Mary and Joseph were partners with God in the work of bringing Jesus into the world and bringing Jesus up. - and they did their part faithfully so that all that was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled. Even though they were chosen by God to be parents of the Son of God, come in the flesh, their lot was not easy. Even though they were guarded and guided by God, they did not pass through life without fears. But they listened to the Word of God and acted accordingly. They were among God's faithful people - and in spite of all of the obstacles and dangers they faced, God brought them through.

We don't have the angel Gabriel telling us what to do - nor are we having dreams to guide us in our real estate transactions or our dwelling choices. But we do have the Word of God. God tells us what we must know, and He creates faith in us to believe - and we are left only with the doing of it. We can choose to hear the Word of God and to receive it in the visible form of the Sacraments. Our part is to listen, just as it was for Mary and Joseph, and believe all that God tells us. Our part is to do faithfully what God lays before us - and since we have no direct, personal messages giving us specific directions, we have to pray and think about it, and trust God to guide us, and act in ways that are faithful to the Word and to God's grace. Like the Wise Men, we have to face the reality of the world around us, from the foundation of God's Word and act in ways that seem reasonable and appropriate to us in the light of the Word.

And we can learn from our text to trust God, and not fear or expect the worst. If it were to the purposes of God, He would have been able to have a Scripture written about us and our troubles and our testings and our faithfulness. We just need to know that God is still at work and that we are the present-day partners in the work He is doing. He will fund the mission through your stewardship. He will share the Gospel through your speaking it to your neighbors, friends, and even your adversaries. He will teach you by preaching to you His Word through faithful pastors. He will give you faith and love and wisdom - and leave it to you to do the believing and loving and exercising wisdom which is rooted in the grace and love of God, the forgiveness of your sins, and the promises of resurrection and everlasting life in glory through Jesus Christ. He will give you the will and the actual doing of these things, and share with you the high and holy honor of doing the works which God gives you to do while it is still day before the night comes when no man can work.

You are partnered in this holy work with God. He doesn't need you, but He loves you and shares this work with you, to His glory and your salvation. It is just like in our text, when He shared it with the prophets, and Mary, and Joseph and caused it all to be spoken through the prophets.

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