Sunday, December 31, 2023

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                                              12/31/23

The Song of Simeon

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Simeon is one of the most familiar strangers in the Bible.  We are familiar with him through his prayer, which we sing each week.  We call it the "Nunc Dimittis", which is the Latin for the first two words in the Latin Version, "now let your servant depart".  We all know it, and we sing it week by week, and yet I wonder how often we sit down and think about it and what it meant, and what it was like to be there the first time those words were ever spoken in the church of God.  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 live long enough 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 Him 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 many of 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 this morning is the prayer which he spoke, which we sing week to week.

First, Simeon calls on the Lord to fulfil 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 would not 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 what his eyes had not seen, but what the Word said, and the Spirit had revealed to Him.

He makes an interesting point, however.  Our salvation is not just 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!  And 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 thing 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 a Jewish thing – 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 also includes 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.  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)

Sunday, December 24, 2023

That 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.

Sermon for Fourth Sunday in Advent          12/24/23

 That Voice in the Wilderness

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Many times people confuse the Church with what they see around them when they come to church.  Sometimes it is a harmless thing.  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, That 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 the 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 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.  Jesus even refers to this and says that Elijah did come - and suggests that John was him.  If he isn't the Messiah, they said, maybe it would be Elijah.  He sounds 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 He 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."

This was one person who was actually prophesied, but he was the one person who they did not expect, they did not recognize, and they did not grant 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 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 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.

Everywhere I have gone as a pastor, there have been those who niggle and complain about Pastor Fish.  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 does not know their sin, has no sense of their sinfulness and does not face their own 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 simply 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 shout from the rooftops, 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 and 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 with that, 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 the Savior from great and serious sins, because I know my guilt And so I cannot paint you a sinner, for I want you to know the Savior from deepest sins who died to save sinners, among whom I, too, and 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 even suggest that I am above criticism -- but 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 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,'."

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

Thursday, December 21, 2023

The Holy Highway of Jesus

 Isaiah 35:1-10

The wilderness and the desert will be glad, And the Arabah will rejoice and blossom; Like the crocus It will blossom profusely And rejoice with rejoicing and shout of joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, The majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They will see the glory of the LORD, The majesty of our God.

Encourage the exhausted, and strengthen the feeble. Say to those with anxious heart, "Take courage, fear not. Behold, your God will come with vengeance; The recompense of God will come, But He will save you." Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, And the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. Then the lame will leap like a deer, And the tongue of the dumb will shout for joy. For waters will break forth in the wilderness And streams in the Arabah. And the scorched land will become a pool, And the thirsty ground springs of water; In the haunt of jackals, its resting place, Grass becomes reeds and rushes. And a highway will be there, a roadway, And it will be called the Highway of Holiness. The unclean will not travel on it, But it will be for him who walks that way, And fools will not wander on it. No lion will be there, Nor will any vicious beast go up on it; These will not be found there. But the redeemed will walk there, And the ransomed of the LORD will return, And come with joyful shouting to Zion, With everlasting joy upon their heads. They will find gladness and joy, And sorrow and sighing will flee away.

Sermon for Advent Three 2023 12/20/23

The Holy Highway of Jesus

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

One of the more difficult things about prophecy is that it is not necessarily linear. We tend to think in straight lines, more or less. We tend to read what we read in the same way. A story starts and progresses to the end. When it does not, take the case of a flashback, for example, we want the story to tell us what it is doing. Many a fine story has been spoiled, and abandoned by many readers because it did not cue the reader in to the fact that there was no linearity to the account.

Prophecy is not necessarily linear. It can be, but often it is less like telling a story, and more like describing a picture. Our text tonight is like that a description of a picture with details added here and there, out of place it seems, to describe the coming salvation of our God. Let us look at this prophecy, which is the entire 35th chapter of the book of Isaiah, and see salvation pictured as the Holy Highway of Jesus.

The prophet begins by filling in the scenery. Joy is depicted. We see the desolate wilderness blossoming and rejoicing. The desolation and the wilderness are images of the human soul in sin. We are desolate, without hope if we must rely on our own resources. This sudden change in the wilderness is caused by seeing the glory of the Lord, literally the glory of Yahweh. That means seeing Jesus, the One in whom the glory of God is finally revealed. Did the prophet understand it this way? We don't know, but Jesus did, and so did the Apostle Paul who wrote: For God, who said, "Light shall shine out of darkness," is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. We understand that this Glory, being revealed in the prophecy, is Jesus Christ.

Then the prophet depicts encouraging the exhausted, strengthening the feeble, and comforting those who are worried and anxious. Those troubles also describe man's condition in sin but here it is intended to describe the burdens of the faithful of God. They are exhausted by waiting and living for God. They are so burdened by sin that they are feeble in their efforts and faith. The fear is that they cannot last in the face of the dangers and enemies of this life. The encouragement, strength, and peace are wrapped up in this: "Behold Your God!" God is here! Rescue is at hand.

Then we have judgment talk: "Vengeance," and "recompense". God is coming to winnow His people and destroy the wicked. He is the Judge! And the Judge is the Savior! The prophet says: And He Will Save You. That sentence in English is just one word in Hebrew, (jisha'achem) from which the name "Jesus" comes. That is why the name "Jesus" is significant it is a literal fulfillment of this prophecy. The judge is even named "And He shall save you." Jesus said the same thing in John 3:17: For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him. But He will judge! He is coming one more time at the end.

As a result, nature rejoices! The blind see. The deaf hear. The lame leap about like deer. The dumb shout for joy. These remind us of the miracles which Jesus performed. These are the miracles that Jesus reports to the disciples of John when they ask in last Sunday's Gospel, "Are you the Expected One, or shall we look for another?" But the real blindness is spiritual blindness. The real deafness is deafness to the Word of God. The dumb cannot speak the truth of God, and the lame are crippled by their sins. The coming of Jesus, and the giving Holy Spirit, cure those spiritual ailments. We see and understand, we hear and believe. We know and speak, and How blessed are the feet of those who bring good tidings!

Then the prophet continues with what does not sound so familiar. The dry places become swamps and luxuriant growth. The empty and desolate areas become lush and productive. Minor growth is replaced by strong, sturdy, thick, overwhelming growth. I do not need to draw out the contrast of man in sin to man in the power of the Holy Spirit. But that is what it is! Nature is rejoicing here. Contrast that to nature groaning as in labor pains, as Paul describes it in Romans 8:22: For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. Paul is trying to show clearly how Jesus, and all that God worked through Him, fulfilled this prophecy!

Finally, the scenery is complete. Then Isaiah talks about the highway of holiness. In this unexpected place, there will be a highway. It will be the highway due to the glory of God. It will be the highway of "Behold Your God." It will be the highway that John the Baptist was calling out to prepare and to straighten. It will be called the highway of holiness or the holy highway. Jesus spoke of this road in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 7:13-14: Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it.

This Holy Highway is that narrow road; the straight and narrow we often have called it. We call it straight because it is marked by holiness and righteousness. You shall be holy, God declares, for I the Lord your God am holy. And righteousness is what Christ gives to us. It is also interesting to note that the Greek word Jesus chose to describe that narrow highway refers to being narrow by reason of persecution, pressure, and difficulty. The road is not just physically narrow. It is narrow by virtue of all of the pressure to push you off. Not just anyone can walk on it.

The unclean shall not walk on it. They are all walking the wide and easy way, just because it is easier to do. Fools will not wander on it. The Hebrew uses the word "wander" as if one is aimless, and going nowhere in particular at least not deliberately. But this highway only goes one place one way, and those on it do not wander aimlessly. They are going somewhere, and purposefully. No, the fools will walk on the wide and easy road.

Wild animals were a real danger to those who traveled in those days. They generally traveled by foot. Lions were always a threat. The prophet notes that, and notices that there will be lions along this road also, but they shall not walk on the road. They will be waiting in the thickets if you turn either to the left or the right. But only a fool would wander on aimlessly on such a road, a narrow and difficult road to stay on. There will be lions: people who want to catch you, push you off the road or invite you to join them on the wide and easy road. There will be traps, temptations, and snares along the sides of the road, cul-de-sacs, and turnoffs leading nowhere, but there are no deadly lions or anyone who will harm you on this road.

Who will be on it? The redeemed will walk there. This is the Holy Highway of Jesus. These are those who have been called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified. These are the Children of God. The next phrase indicates that also. It says the ransomed of the Lord will return there. They will return to their God.

Isaiah says that those on the road will come to Zion with shouts of joy and Zion is where God chooses to be present with His people present in Word and Sacrament. This is Zion, the body of Christ on earth. And there is also the heavenly Zion. The highway takes you to both for rejoicing with shouts of joy. He is risen! Hallelujah!

Then Isaiah says, Gladness and joy will overtake those on the road. What a beautiful image. We can always conceive of danger pursuing us and catching us, the footsteps in the dark behind us, the terror of that unknown noise. But here God pictures gladness and joy as the pursuer. They will move so steadily and certainly, that gladness and joy are inescapable. They will overtake everyone who walks on the road.

Sorrow and sighing, on the other hand, will flee away. Isaiah says that the people of the road will walk with everlasting joy upon their heads so that sorrow and sadness will have no place to roost or to rest on them, so those twin evils will have to flee. But consider, if the joy is everlasting, then the life which knows such joy must also be everlasting and Jesus said that this is the highway that leads to life.

But the road is narrow and persecuted and hard. Those who are not on it do not want you on it. They are certain they are going the right way. Then there are those lions Satan and his crew. He does not want you on the road there you are safe from Him. He will seek to lure you off. To distract you from watching the road. You all know how easy it is to drive off the road if you take your eyes off of it for just a moment and look at something off to the side. This road is for walking, but it is so narrow and there are all sorts of pressures to push you off, and traps and temptations to lure you away. It requires determination to walk on the holy highway of Jesus. It does not come easily for anyone. Walking on the holy highway of Jesus will require deliberation just to stay on it, and the guidance and blessing of God. But for those who do stay on it, gladness and joy will overtake them. And the destination is life everlasting!

God grant you the power of His Holy Spirit this Advent season, and the faith and the strength to walk this Holy Highway of Jesus!

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

Sunday, December 17, 2023

Why Are You Here?

 Matthew 11:2-10

Now when John in prison heard of the works of Christ, he sent word by his disciples, and said to Him, "Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?" And Jesus answered and said to them, "Go and report to John what you hear and see: the BLIND RECEIVE SIGHT and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the POOR HAVE THE GOSPEL PREACHED TO THEM. And blessed is he who keeps from stumbling over Me."

And as these were going away, Jesus began to speak to the multitudes about John, "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings' palaces. But why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I say to you, and one who is more than a prophet. This is the one about 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 12/17/23

Why are You Here?

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Some questions are repeated, in the Bible. In Ephesians, two years ago, we confronted the question "Why are you here?". Here it is again, this time in the Gospel of Matthew, from the lips of Jesus.

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 as 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 many today have. 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 "heck of a nice 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 heard in Him. Jesus mentioned in specific the things which He had done, that the Messiah was going 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 actually come – who does not stumble over the real Jesus or 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, 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.

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 feel good, you are not seeing reality. If you see the messenger of Christ as simply opinionated and peculiar, or even as a nice guy and easy to listen to, and do not listen to, and inwardly digest the Word preached and if 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 an 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 are forgiven and we already possess 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 being here or living this life as His servant will feel good, 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, then 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 was still all that 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 understand every detail or enjoy every moment. He has not called you to feel good or be 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, 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.

So, why are you here? All that 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. But if you have come for the false, let us show you the true Jesus, and let us show you the true mysteries – the wonders of God and of God's love for you.

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

Sunday, December 10, 2023

Watch and Pray

 Luke 21:25-36

"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 12/10/23

Watch and Pray

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Something is coming. Advent means "coming". The message about coming can become old and tired in our minds, if we are not careful, just like living deliberately in the light of your faith can get old pretty quick. That's part of the challenge of the life of faith, patiently enduring and continuing in well-doing, continuing to do what is fitting for the child of God, and maintaining our focus in a world that doesn't want to hear it, does not share our values or our hopes, and which does nothing to help us keep faithful, but rather tries to subvert our faithfulness and seduce us away from Christ.

Advent means "coming". We talk about it so often to reinforce 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 Lord, and my attention is 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." This morning I want to look at what Jesus said in our text and talk about this 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 certain 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 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 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.

This prophecy might be talking about the world's anxiety over the environment. Some scientists are making frequent statements about global warming and how it will make life so difficult and different. There is still no hard scientific evidence for global warming, but it is the current buzzword, and there are movies about environmental catastrophes caused by our careless use of fossil fuels and such. The world elite are trying to change our lives like telling us we cannot continue to eat meat. 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 to be ignored. These signs political, natural, environmental, and cosmic are the heralds of Jesus' final return. The problem is, that 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 we are to "stand up straight, and lift up your heads, for your redemption is drawing near!" Those who are crushed by fear stoop over, curl up, and hide. But our response to these signs 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 to show by our demeanor that we have faith in God. And, we are not to hide, but to bear the good news of God and of our salvation to those who are being crushed and destroyed by the fears and the troubles 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. 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 Rhubarb. When they are popping open or popping up, 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 will 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 would be evident and obvious before the first generation of Christians 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. And how much more now than two millennia ago? Remember last week's epistle? "For now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed." That means, of course, closer now than when we first believed -- and much closer to us now than when the first Christians first believed!

Today the Christian Church, so-called, is pretty comfortable. Very few actually expect Jesus to return at 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 contrary to the command of Jesus to love one another. That is what our Epistle lesson spoke against, "Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus; that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Wherefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to 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, when it accuses us of sin, or it makes us uncomfortable. We can treat worship, communion, and Bible Study as optional activities for those weeks when we have something else we 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 what has happened throughout the modern world is that 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.

Another distraction for many Christians is the "worries of life". That weighs many of us down. We worry about all sorts of things: the next paycheck, or the weather, or terrorists, or we worry about our health. 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. They are just as natural as can be. One or another of them is 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 knowing that these temptations are coming and that you have no strength in yourself to withstand them, and so you call on God and then you trust in Him to bring you through.

Jesus tells us that these days are coming and that they will come upon everyone who lives on this planet. The temptation is to surrender your expectation that these days will come soon and to get busy living like everyone else in this world. 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 victory. Your sins have been forgiven! Jesus has poured out on you the gift of everlasting life and resurrection 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." 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)

Thursday, December 07, 2023

The Mountain of the Lord

  Isaiah 2:1-5

The word which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. Now it will come about that In the last days, The mountain of the house of the LORD Will be established as the chief of the mountains, And will be raised above the hills; And all the nations will stream to it.  And many peoples will come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, To the house of the God of Jacob; That He may teach us concerning His ways, And that we may walk in His paths."  For the law will go forth from Zion, And the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. And He will judge between the nations, And will render decisions for many peoples; And they will hammer their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nation will not lift up sword against nation, And never again will they learn war.  Come, house of Jacob, and let us walk in the light of the LORD.

Sermon for Advent One 2023                                                   12/06/23

The Mountain of the Lord

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Prophecy is a difficult type of Scripture for most people to understand. It seems to speak about one thing, and then we find it ultimately referred to another.  Some people claim to have special insights to prophecies, and use those insights to control others, or to build big reputations, or to sell books.  The only insight I have into prophecies is that they are always clearer in the light of their fulfillment, and only when a prophecy has been clearly fulfilled can we be confident of our understanding of it.

That was true of many of the prophecies of the Old Testament about Jesus.  Modern scholars often point to a passage of the New Testament which says that this act or this fact fulfilled that prophecy and they say that the New Testament is wrong!  They argue and debate with the Bible.  One of our fundamental Biblical interpretation principles is that the Holy Spirit is the only safe interpreter of Holy Scriptures, so when "scholars" debate the Bible, they always begin in the wrong.  During our Advent services this year we are going to take a look at some of the familiar prophecies of Isaiah and see what they really prophesied, and how they might apply to us today.  Our focus this evening is on the mountain of the Lord.

This prophecy of Isaiah was spoken, or so scholars believe, at the end of the long and prosperous reign of King Uzziah.  Isaiah tells us himself that His prophetic ministry began under Uzziah and continued through the reigns of the next three kings for a period of almost fifty years.  He tells us in chapter six that he was called by God to the prophetic ministry in the year king Uzziah died.  Judah had just come through a long, stable, and prosperous time under a good king, and with the change of kings came enormous uncertainty and the threat of dangerous changes.

In that sense, we live in similar times.  We are looking forward to electing a new president next year, or so many people hope, and so thing are uncertain, and we live in times of change – often confusing, frequently troubling, sometimes downright frightening.  Our world is moving swiftly away from Christian ideals and ethics.  Our view of how the world, or even our neighborhoods ought to be is no longer the dominant view.  The courts do not function impartially as we had come to expect them to function.  Medicine is terribly expensive, just at the time when horrifying diseases seem to be springing up, and some doctors seem more intent on dealing death than fighting for life.  Abortion, Euthanasia, COVID deaths, and mercy killings are increasingly a reality, not simply open for debate.  Today you can buy abortion in a pill.  And what we were raised to believe was to be a neutral and protective media now seems hostile and partisan.  These are times when the good-old-days sound awful good, and we wish there was somewhere to run away to and be safe from the crime, the fear, and the uncertainty.

Isaiah's prophecy invites us to come to the mountain of the Lord.  He invites us to look to that time in the last days when God will do something new and end the uncertainty.  Isaiah promised those troubled people of ancient Israel that the day was coming when God would seize control and reign in peace.  No matter how it seemed to them at the moment, those children of God were invited to draw courage and comfort from the certainty that God was going to act.  And Now He has!

Yes, we are living in those last days!  Check out the New Testament.  See how often one of the Apostles mentions that these are the last days, or the end of time, or the "end of the ages" as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10: 11.  We live in those last days, so we do not have to look forward to those days, as the Old Testament peoples did, but we can – and we must – live in them.  We have our comfort and our assurance right here, right now!

The mountain of the Lord shall be lifted up, Isaiah said.  The mountain of the Lord is where the Lord is worshiped.  In prophecy it always refers to the place where the glory of God dwells.  But that place is no longer a place, it is a person!  And the person is Jesus Christ.  We hear a hint about this when Jesus is dealing with the woman at the well in Samaria.  She asks Jesus whether the Jews are right worshiping in Jerusalem, or if the Samaritans are right worshiping in their places of worship - on their mountain.  Jesus tells her that the Jews know and understand what they do and who they worship - at least confessionally.  It is sort of like our Synod.  We have a good confession on paper, even if not all of our pastors and people hold faithfully to it.  Then He tells her that the day is coming when they will not worship in Jerusalem or on the Mountain of Samaria, but that God is a Spirit, and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.

Jesus is the mountain of the Lord - and He was lifted up.  The prophecy of Isaiah goes on after our text to tell the people that the destruction of Zion will come before Zion can be lifted up.  Jesus was destroyed, crucified for our sins.  He was lifted up, nailed to the cross on our behalf.  And then raised again for our salvation.

Isaiah says that when this shall happen, when the mountain of the Lord shall be lifted up, the nations, the goyim, the Gentiles, will come to it.  Jesus Himself said that the Son of Man must be lifted up that He may draw all men unto Himself.

The result of the lifting up of the mountain is that many peoples will say, ‘come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord and to the house of the God of Jacob, that He may teach us concerning His ways and that we may walk in His paths.'  The Christian church throughout the whole world has drawn men from every nation to the Lord, to learn of His ways and His love.

Isaiah says: For the Law will go forth from Zion and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem.  The word for "Law" is Torah.  But that Torah is the entire Word of God, not just Law per se, as rules and condemnation, but also the gospel.  In fact, the prophets often used the word "Torah" in a wide sense, just as we will often say "Gospel" to mean both law and gospel as a totality.  In Romans 3:27, Paul refers to the Gospel as a law, speaking of the "law" of faith.

Jerusalem is the prophetic place where God acts in judgment and in salvation definitively.  And He did.  Jesus died in Jerusalem.  He said it could not happen anywhere else.  There God dealt definitively in judgment against our sins.  There God acted definitively in salvation, buying us back from our own guilt and sins and giving us eternal life and the hope of the resurrection for all those who believe.

Zion, on the other hand, is the place where God is really present among His people, just as He is really present among us in Word and Sacrament.  Jesus promised it, wherever two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them.  So the Gospel flows out of the Church, and Jesus comes to us from that decisive act of judgment and salvation.  It was, in fact, their identification of Jesus as that Word of God that made the Jews crucify Him.  It was the confession that Jesus is Lord that drove the early Christians from the synagogue, for the Jews understood that "Jesus is Lord" meant "Jesus is Jahweh!" The Christian confession of Christ is that Jesus is the God of the Old Testament, in the flesh.  And He has come among us.  That is what Advent is about.

Jesus is the One who will judge, and Jesus is the One who rules even now, and Jesus is the One who will create peace.  Isaiah is predicting the Church in this passage, the kingdom of Grace where Jesus creates peace, and men beat their weapons into tools of productive enterprise.  Jesus will judge between nations, and render decisions.  Not later, but now.

And all that Isaiah prophesies here is for the purpose that Jesus may teach us His ways.  This means that we might come to know God, and His good will toward us, and depend on Him and find our refuge in Him, and seek security and encouragement in Him.

It is important to note that Isaiah ends this wonderful promise of comfort and peace with the invitation and exhortation, Come, 0 house of Jacob, and let us walk in the light of the Lord.  He invites us to live from our faith, in the light of what we know and what we believe about God and about sin, and about salvation, and about His will for us!

Where are we to turn in times of change?  We are to take refuge in the Mountain of the Lord.  Where are we to go in times of anxiety and uncertainty? We are to flee to the Mountain of the Lord.  We are to answer every fear and every threat of the world and of life by faith.  We need to learn to pray.  We need to learn and then believe that He is active in our lives and in our world.  Things aren't out of control, but He rules on our behalf.  He judges even the nations and renders decision between people.  He watches and protects you.

And His purpose is peace - your peace.  That peace is built on the confidence that Jesus is here and is with you in times of trouble and change and uncertainty.  Jesus spoke through Isaiah to the Old Testament people to comfort them with this prophecy of the day to come in the last days.  It should comfort us even more now, as we realize we live in those last days when the mountain of the Lord has been raised up, when God Himself is teaching us, and drawing people unto Himself

Those days are no longer merely future, but now.  Even though the world is changing, and events are frightening, we can have peace through faith in Jesus Christ, who saved us for eternal life, and also for life in this age!
Come, o house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

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

Sunday, December 03, 2023

More than Meets the Eye

 Matthew 21:1-9

And when they had approached Jerusalem and had come to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied there and a colt with her; untie them, and bring them to Me.  And if anyone says something to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of them,' and immediately he will send them."

Now this took place that what was spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, "SAY TO THE DAUGHTER OF ZION, ‘BEHOLD YOUR KING IS COMING TO YOU, GENTLE, AND MOUNTED ON A DONKEY, EVEN ON A COLT, THE FOAL OF A BEAST OF BURDEN.'"  And the disciples went and did just as Jesus had directed them, and brought the donkey and the colt, and laid on them their garments, on which He sat.  And most of the multitude spread their garments in the road, and others were cutting branches from the trees, and spreading them in the road.  And the multitudes going before Him, and those who followed after were crying out, saying, "Hosanna to the Son of David; BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD; Hosanna in the highest!"

Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent                               12/03/23

 More Than Meets the Eye

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

No matter what the Gospel lesson sounds like, this morning is not Palm Sunday.  Of course, you knew that.  The lesson leads us to consider that day and that ride, but the purpose is entirely other than the purpose on Palm Sunday.  

There is more here than meets the eye.  On Palm Sunday, we are looking forward to the betrayal and the crucifixion, and Jesus is heralded King of the Jews before His slaughter.  This time of year we do not look forward to those things, but to the birth, and to the question of the Wise Men, Where is He who is born King of the Jews??  The Gospel begins our Advent preparation for that question by showing us the coronation ride of the King.

On the scale of human events, this Palm Sunday ride doesn't really seem so big.  It was humble.  Jesus rode on a donkey.  He sat on a saddle of coats -- outer garments, actually, which served as coats, and cloaks, and blankets at night, and protection against sand storms, and as an all-around, multi- purpose garment.  That is what the disciples threw on the backs of the donkeys.  Others lined the road with their cloaks, and still others cut branches off of the local palm trees and carpeted the path of Jesus with those.  Some took the Palm Branches and waved them and called out "Hosanna."  It wasn't as outwardly impressive as we might think, but there was more than meets the eye.  And so that is our theme this First Sunday in Advent, More than Meets the Eye.

It is true, this ride wasn't much by our modern standards.  We have no way of knowing how many people actually witnessed it.  The Bible speaks of a "multitude".  But what size is a multitude?  Jesus had sent no press agents.  This affair was basically the disciples of Jesus.  There is more than one gate to Jerusalem, so Jesus could only enter by one – and even if it were the busiest, He could well have missed the attention of most of the people in the city.  He may have had a crowd of only a couple hundred, perhaps as big as a couple of thousands, cheering like an impromptu rally, and calling out the Hosannas.  But there was more going on here than meets the eye.

We can be fairly sure that His ride took Him to the Temple, because Mark tells us that in his Gospel.  And this was the week before the Passover, so there were lots of very religious tourists in town, many hoping fervently for the coming of the Messiah.  The ride He took was deliberately very much like the ride of the ancient Kings of Israel, which they took on the day of their coronation.  The cries of the people were the praises called out to one being led into the city and to the temple to be crowned king.  And Jesus drew a lot of attention, attention that was not appreciated by the priests of the temple.

What was happening was the coronation ride of the King, the One who was promised of old to sit on the throne of David forever.  It was among the reasons that the high priest looked for a way to destroy Jesus.  It contributed to the death on the cross.  But first it was the testimony borne of necessity that this One was the Messiah, the promised King.

In Advent, we look forward to the coming of the King, and we remember how He came.  We look forward by looking back.  It doesn't matter that the crowd was small, or large.  The crowd proclaimed, perhaps unwittingly, the truth that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the promises of the prophets.  Their testimony tells us that we are awaiting the coming of He who will fulfill the promise to us.  We aren't looking forward to His death, or the work of redemption.  They were, but we do not look forward to that because we can see by looking back that He has already done it.

The Prophets told us that we could expect One who would come, who would suffer and die, who would purchase us back from our own sins, from death, and from Hell.  We heard that promise just a couple of weeks ago, in the words of Ezekiel, through whom God promised that He would shepherd His sheep.  We hear it in the words of Isaiah, familiar prophesies at this time of year,  Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted.  But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed.

That is, in fact, the point of this Advent season.  Jesus has fulfilled the promises on our behalf.  He has lived like any one of us, except without sin.,  He has endured all that it is to be truly human, and yet kept the Law of God which none of us has been able to do – or willing to do , if we are honest with ourselves.  Isaiah continued, All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him.

We look forward to His return because He died in our place, and lifted the debt of sins from our shoulders.  Because of Jesus, we are forgiven.  Because of Jesus we will rise from our graves to new and eternal life.  Because of Jesus we have hope in this life and in this world, and comfort when we consider the end of this life and leaving this world.  Jesus died for all, that those who believe might live in Him and for Him.  And it is that return that we look forward to in Advent.

We look forward by looking back at what Jesus did and how He kept the ancient promises when almost all had abandoned hope and trust in God.  They had been waiting for thousands of years, and when He came, He came to a small nation under foreign domination, and rode a humble donkey into Jerusalem with a small entourage leading and following and singing the praises of the King who would not ascend the golden throne they imagined, but the throne of the cross.  On a world-scale it looked small and unimportant, but it was more than meets the eye.

So now what?  We look forward to the coming of the King.  We are a small entourage – ridiculously small if you compare us to world population, or even to the population of those who claim to be Christian.  We look forward to the coming of a King, but not like those of old, exactly.  They were often confused about who the King would be or what He would do.  We know.  Many who call themselves Christian are confused, but we know.

We know what He did for us.  He died on the cross.  He took our sins and their guilt and nailed them to the cross in His body.  He turned the wrath of God away from us, and restored us to His love.  He won forgiveness and life and salvation for all of us, and it is received by those who know it, and believe it, and trust in Jesus and not in themselves, or their works, or their prayers, or their decisions, but in Jesus, His life and His death, and His resurrection.  We know who the King is and what He did, and what He will do.  We just don't know for sure which day, so we have to be prepared every day.

In the meantime, we go about singing His praises and calling out our "Hosanna's" just as that multitude of old did.  We do not have donkey and the parade -- we have instead the Sacrament, where receive the true body of our Lord Jesus in and with and under the form of the bread, and we receive the true blood of Jesus – the blood shed for us on that cross – in and with and under the form of the wine.  His body and blood are truly present for us to eat and to drink that we might receive Him within us, and forgiveness, and strength, and greater faith.

We don't need to cast our cloaks into the mud for the Lord to ride on, but we confess with our words and our hymns and our communing together that here is the Lord of the Palm Sunday ride, coming to us in His body and blood to rule in our hearts by His grace.  Just as they shouted "Hosanna!"  We shout the "Amen!" to the words of Jesus in the Institution of the Supper, not asking how it can be, but hearing our Lord, and trusting Him even when we do not know how, and confessing Him and His gift before men.  We want to tell the world that here, in this Holy Supper, is also more than meets the eye.

And we keep  faith with the people of God throughout the ages and wait and watch for the advent of our King, a coming promised so long ago.  But we wait with true faith, for we know who is coming, and what He has done, and we know what He has promised to do when He comes -- to bring us to eternal life, and destroy sin and death forever.  And so we watch and pray and wait faithfully, observing the promise of Advent all the year long.  We know that in Jesus is and always has been more than meets the eye.

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

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Looking Forward to Heaven

 Isaiah 65:17-25

"For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; And the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I create; For behold, I create Jerusalem for rejoicing, And her people for gladness.  I will also rejoice in Jerusalem, and be glad in My people; And there will no longer be heard in her The voice of weeping and the sound of crying.  No longer will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, Or an old man who does not live out his days; For the youth will die at the age of one hundred And the one who does not reach the age of one hundred Shall be thought accursed.  And they shall build houses and inhabit them; They shall also plant vineyards and eat their fruit.  They shall not build, and another inhabit, They shall not plant, and another eat; For as the lifetime of a tree, so shall be the days of My people, And My chosen ones shall wear out the work of their hands.  They shall not labor in vain, Or bear children for calamity; For they are the offspring of those blessed by the LORD, And their descendants with them.  It will also come to pass that before they call, I will answer; and while they are still speaking, I will hear.  The wolf and the lamb shall graze together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent's food. They shall do no evil or harm in all My holy mountain," says the LORD.

Sermon for the Last Sunday in the Church Year                        11/26/23

Looking Forward to Heaven

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

How would you describe the color of the sunset to a man born blind?  How would describe the delight of your favorite piece of music to a person who was deaf from birth?  The challenge in either situation is that the words we might choose to convey a concept would have no meaning.  Our references would have no correlation in the experience of the person to whom we are speaking.  Without vision, color is a meaningless word.  Blue is not cool, or berry flavored.  It is blue - but if someone has never seen anything, and has no experience of color or light, the words we could use to describe the sunset, or even just the single color of "blue" would be as empty of meaning to them as the incoherent babbling of an infant is to us.

That little exercise in imagination was to help you understand the difficulty confronting the Prophet as he tries to put into words the heavenly realities pictured for us in our text.  Now, Isaiah had help, great help.  God was inspiring him.  Still, the task exceeds the power of language to accomplish with any clarity.  God is describing heaven here, but He must use symbols and images that we can understand to describe a place that is largely unlike anything we have ever experienced.  This morning, through the words of Isaiah, and along with him, we will be looking forward to heaven.

This is the last Sunday of the Church Year, and so we are looking forward to the end of the world.  The odd thing about such forward glances, is that we are living at the very end of the world, so some of what the text describes is already, and some of it is not yet, because it looks past the end of this world and into the next.

It gets more difficult than that – and more delightful.  Most of what our text says applies both now and in heaven, after the end of the world and the creation of the new heavens and the new earth.  What we discover, as we consider the Word of God, is that we are in heaven already!  It just doesn't feel like heaven, does it?  Nor does it look like heaven.  It looks like Bartlett Township.   But right now, for us, heaven is not a geographical place, entirely.  Heaven is where God is, and where His people are, and where His Word is preached and the heavenly gifts of God are handed out – gifts like Holy Baptism, the Holy Absolution, and the Lord's Supper.  So, heaven is in the Church.

Look closely at the text.  Gods talks about rejoicing in Jerusalem.  The Jerusalem He rejoices in is the Church.  We who believe in Him, we are what God rejoices in.  He doesn't rejoice in our sins, and our quarrels.  He rejoices in our faith, and in our belonging to Him.  He rejoices in His people that they can and do accomplish holy deeds, and work the works which He has planned for us.  They shall not labor in vain, He says.  That is just like the promise He speaks about His Word, which He promises will accomplish what He spoke it to do!

He also has a wonderful promise here about prayer. "It will also come to pass that before they call, I will answer; and while they are still speaking, I will hear."  This promise is for us, right here and right now.  God will answer your prayers.  He will answer according to His wisdom - and power - and our need – so that we may pray, and God will answer even as we pray, and may begin to answer even before the words are out of our mouths.

The reason that it is hard to distinguish between heaven to come and heaven right now is that the death and resurrection of Jesus changed everything!  The old world ended and a new one began on that day.  Our sins were forgiven, and the Law of God was fulfilled for us.  Now the question of salvation, of where we will spend eternity, does not rest in our behavior, or on our accomplishing a standard of righteousness, or our repaying God for our sins, as in penance.  It is the gift of God, according to Ephesians 2:8.

Now God deals with us differently.  Jesus said it would be so; "Truly, truly, I say to you, if you shall ask the Father for anything, He will give it to you in My name.  Until now you have asked for nothing in My name; ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be made full.  In that day you will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I will request the Father on your behalf; for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me, and have believed that I came forth from the Father."

Now God is dealing with us as special, because we are His people through Jesus Christ.  He is blessing us, and He is guiding us, and He is using us to accomplish His work here on earth.  He favors us because we are His.  He loves us because we believe in Him and in His Son.  So, all of these promises of blessing are true right now to one degree or another.  This is heaven - particularly here, and now, in the fellowship of the saints, gathered to hear the Word of God and to receive His gifts!

Of course, then there is Heaven -- the one that is a geographical place.  This passage also points our hearts and minds forward to that new world which will follow this one, when Jesus returns.  God is urging us to expect that day soon, just as He does through the Gospel parable of the Ten Virgins awaiting the Bridegroom, and as He does in the Epistle, in which Paul warns us to be on the lookout for that day, which is coming like a thief in the night!  We are to be looking forward to heaven.

It is in describing the realities of the coming age that Isaiah needs all of the pictures, and none of them do it justice.  First, God tells us that there will be a new place.  It will be a planet, and a universe - new heavens and a new earth.  When it comes, the sorrows and the troubles of the past will be forgotten.  Those who wonder how they will feel about their family and friends who do not join them in heaven can find comfort here – "the former things will not be remembered or come to mind."  We will not know, nor sorrow.  All of God's people will be there, and it will be right and seem right to us.

All of the language about the youth dying at the age of one hundred and such is just a way of describing the incredible length of life in eternity with God.  What they called youth, we call teen-agers.  The prophet is picturing life so long that living what seemed to be almost unimaginably long in their time was just a short life.  That's talking about eternal life, when you begin to sing "We've only just begun to live" at one hundred years of age.

The promise is that in this new earth, "There will no longer be heard in her the voice of weeping and the sound of crying."  There will be no sorrow.  The New Jerusalem is for rejoicing!  Infant mortality will be gone.  I don't know if there will be any child-bearing in heaven.  The Bible is silent about that.  But in this world, babies dying is a major cause of pain and sorrow – and it won't happen there.  Nothing will make us cry.  Nothing will interrupt our joy!

It sounds like this "new heavens and new earth" will be a place of productive labor.  We won't just sit around on clouds, strumming harps.  We won't be laying on cushions and eating delicacies all of the time.  We will be doing stuff.  God created us to participate in His creation, to manage and to develop and to garden and to shepherd and to build.  So, I suspect we will be doing so there.  Our text says so.  "And they shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall also plant vineyards and eat their fruit.  They shall not build, and another inhabit, they shall not plant, and another eat; for as the lifetime of a tree, so shall be the days of My people, and My chosen ones shall wear out the work of their hands.  They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they are the offspring of those blessed by the LORD, and their descendants with them."

This is where prophecy gets tricky.  How much of this stuff is picture language, and how much is just what it seems?  It seems we will build.   It is clear that there will be no war, no stealing.  The evils that befall men in this world will not be there.  In these verses we are reminded again of the long life of the people of God who will be there.  You will outlive trees.  You will wear out the things you make - buildings and such.  And in heaven, I doubt that planned obsolescence will be part of the manufacturing strategy.  Some of the promises speak of descendants and offspring.  I am uncertain if there will be children born in heaven.  In the resurrection, Jesus tells us in Matthew 22:30, there is no marrying or giving in marriage, but [that we] are like the angels in heaven.  So, when the prophet writes about our descendants and offspring, he may be writing about those we have here, who follow us there.

In any case, it is a good place to go - and a wonderful promise.  A promise of immediate communication with God.  He will hear and answer our prayers there, too, only more immediately and more readily perceived by us there than here.  And peace shall be the rule.  Even the creatures of the wild will be calmed, and there will be no violence or death.  Lions will eat hay like cattle.  Wolves will graze next to rather than upon the lambs.  The powerful will not hurt or take advantage of the helpless.  The serpent will be no danger to anything anywhere.  The Serpent also points our minds to the great serpent, Satan.  He will be of no danger to anyone either.

Of course, we know that already.  He has been destroyed, robbed of all his power already by Jesus.  All of these wonderful promises, eternal life and happiness and peace and joy and contentment, all of these promises are because of the cross of Jesus, and guaranteed to us by Him.  He has won the battle.  He has paid the price!  He has done all that needed to be done, and made us His people, and pours out all of these riches for us.  Your sins, whatever they may be, are forgiven.  That doesn't mean that they were okay, or inconsequential.  It means that Jesus has been punished for them already, so that you don't have to be.  "Go, and sin no more."  That's how Jesus put it to the woman caught in adultery.  It is the faithful response to hearing the Gospel, that your sins have been forgiven.

Because of the cross you have been cleansed of guilt and sin by Jesus.  He has made you to be one of His holy people.  He makes these promises, and tells you what lies ahead, so that you will be always looking forward to heaven.  It is not an "iffy" proposition.  It is a sure thing for all those who trust in Jesus Christ.  They are the ones referred to in our text, this morning, as "My people" and "those blessed by the Lord."  You, you are the people God meant in this text, who he calls "My chosen ones."

These promises, Old Testament and New, are for you.  They are repeated so frequently in the Bible so that you will know that God has not forgotten, and that the promises are real, legit, valid, and that God will do them.  God knows that life is hard, and that we walk by faith, and not by how things seem.  That is what faith is about, and, frankly, life hurts often.  God wants us to know what good things He has prepared for us, so that we do not lose heart, and so that we are always looking forward to heaven.

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