Cruce Tectum

Cruce tectum, hidden under the cross, a blog for Epiphany Lutheran Church, Dorr, Michigan

Location: Dorr, Michigan

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (C)

January 31, 2016
Text: Luke 4:31-44

            Our Lord forgets not the afflicted (Ps. 10:12).  He hears their desires and strengthens their hearts (v. 17).  Which is to say, He forgets not your afflictions, your sorrows, your grief, your sickness and pain and regret.  These things sin has wrought in this fallen world and in your life.  These bitter things are symptoms of the death to which we are all condemned, to which our first parents enslaved us by their rebellion in the Garden.  It would certainly not be unjust of God to forget us in our afflictions, to abandon us in our rebellion, and let death takes its course to hell, and drag us down with it.  But that is not who our God is.  Our God is the God who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6; ESV).  He does not abandon us.  He does not forsake us.  He is the God who arises, who lifts up His hand (Ps. 10:12) to defeat our enemies, to rebuke demons and fevers and heal our afflictions.  He lifts up His hand to be pierced, affixed to the wood, to bleed, to writhe in agony, to go limp in death to save us from death and hell, and then to be filled with life again, and, nail-print intact, to grab ahold of us and raise us up out of our death and rebellion to life and righteousness and eternal salvation.  He forgets not the afflicted.  Heal heals and He saves.
            So it is that we find Jesus this morning casting out unclean demons and healing diseases and afflictions.  This morning’s Holy Gospel follows fast on the heels of last week’s (Luke 4:16-30).  Jesus preached in Nazareth.  He proclaimed.  The most important thing, as we learned, is the proclamation, the preaching that creates reality.  Jesus preached that He is the fulfillment of Isaiah 61, in other words, that He is Messiah, come to save His people from their sins.  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).  Then, having rolled up the scroll and sat down, Jesus begins His sermon with the words, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21).  Jesus preaches, He proclaims this good news, and in the proclamation, it is accomplished.  The poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed… these are relieved of their afflictions in the preaching.  The Kingdom of God has come in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth.
            Now Jesus is in Capernaum, and once again He is preaching.  He is teaching them in the synagogue, and the people are amazed because He preaches with authority.  That is to say, once again, His preaching is creating reality.  He doesn’t just speculate.  He doesn’t just talk about God’s Word.  He speaks God’s Word, and that Word forgives sins and restores sinners to the Father.  And now amazing things begin to happen.  A man with the spirit of an unclean demon is in their midst.  He cries out in their midst that Jesus is the Holy One of God, a rather curious thing for a demon to say.  Isn’t it interesting that demons know what the rest of the crowd does not?  It is as St. James writes: “Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (James 2:19).  This teaches us something about faith.  Faith is not simply believing things to be true.  Faith is trust that these things are true for you.  Demons believe the facts about Jesus.  You believe the facts about Jesus are true for you and for your salvation.  Now Jesus commands the demon to be silent and come out of the man.  And when Jesus speaks, things happen.  Even the demons must obey.  Jesus is the God even of the demons.  The demon throws the man down and comes out of him.  And because Jesus is on the scene, casting out the demon, the man is unharmed.  The people are amazed, not simply by the miracle, but by the power of Jesus’ Word: “What is this word?” they exclaim.  “For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out!” (v. 36).  Jesus speaks, He preaches, and His preaching creates reality.
            And here we learn about the new reality in His Kingdom.  Where Jesus is, there is no more room for demons.  Jesus comes to cast out Satan and His minions.  So also, He comes to undo all the damage they have done.  His Word undoes real afflictions.  He raises Peter’s mother-in-law out of her fever.  He heals all those brought to Him that evening who are sick with various diseases or oppressed by demons.  The miracles prove His authority.  They are confirmation of His preaching.  He is who He says He is.  He has come to do what He says He has come to do.  He is God in the flesh.  He has come to save His people.  First there is the preaching.  Then there are the miracles that confirm the preaching. 
            Now, you’ve probably never thought of it this way, but is this not the very pattern of how our Lord deals with us in the Divine Service?  First there is the preaching, what we call “The Service of the Word.”  You can easily see how that part is the same.  There are the Scripture readings, just as Jesus opened the scroll in Nazareth to the appointed reading of the day from Isaiah 61.  Then there is the sermon, just as Jesus preached to the people in Nazareth and in Capernaum.  There is the liturgy of the Synagogue to accompany and complement the preaching, and so there is here at Church in the Divine Service.  But what about the miracles that confirm the preaching?  Where is the miracle?  I mean, if we did miracles here after the sermon, one would think we’d be bursting at the seams with people who want to be healed of their afflictions.
            Christ Jesus grant recovery of sight to the blind and open your eyes to see.  What greater miracle could there be than that Jesus speaks and bread and wine become His true Body and Blood?  First you have the preaching, then comes the miracle.  And the miracle is for your healing.  It goes right to the heart of the problem, the mortal disease, inherited from Adam, that is your sin.  The very Body of Jesus, the hand of God lifted up to be pierced, the very Blood of Jesus, the Blood that poured out of His hands and streamed down His arms and His Body onto the ground at Golgotha, that Body and that Blood are given to you under bread and wine for the forgiveness of your sins.  But not just for forgiveness.  For strength.  For fortification against temptation and the attacks of the devil.  For protection.  To protect you against the fiery darts of the evil one.  For healing.  Spiritual healing, certainly.  That is the forgiveness you receive and the faith in Christ that these gifts impart.  But also mental and physical healing.  Oh, this is not to say that suddenly your cancer will be gone if you take Communion.  But it is to say, who knows how many sicknesses you have not suffered because you received this medicine of immortality, and who knows how many sicknesses you’ve recovered from because of the Great Physician’s remedy.  At the very least, we know because of the Lord’s Promise, that this holy Meal is a down payment on the perfect healing you will be granted in body and soul on the Day of Resurrection.  The Body and Blood of Jesus Christ is given to you for life.  Eternal life.  The Lord of Life gives you Himself.  He is your Food, and you are what you eat.  So, for the same reason the people in Capernaum brought all the sick to Jesus, that He might lay His hands on them and heal them, you come here with all your afflictions of body and soul.  Jesus remembers your afflictions.  He hears your desires and strengthens your heart.  He touches you with His Body and Blood, and you are healed.
            And what a beautiful picture it is of the Christian life when the people, after hearing the preaching, bring their loved ones to Jesus for healing.  Peter and the disciples ask Jesus to help his mother-in-law.  They pray to Jesus, and He heals her.  The people bring the sick to Jesus for healing.  They pray to Jesus on their behalf, and they bring them into His presence.  They pray and they bring them to Church, and He heals them.  You pray for your loved ones, especially when they are suffering.  You pray to Jesus and, if they’ll let you, you bring them here into the presence of Jesus, where He does the miracles.  You bring them to Church.  You do this because you, likewise, know the healing of the Lord.  You’ve heard the preaching.  You’ve received the miracle.  And now you live in the reality of the Kingdom.  Like Peter and the crowd in Capernaum, you bring your loved ones to hear Him and be healed by Him.  Like Peter’s mother-in-law, you get up to serve, doing works of love for your neighbor.  Jesus frees you up from your afflictions so you can do this very thing. 

            There is the preaching.  There is the miracle.  This is the Divine Service.  Jesus sets the pattern.  And this is why you come to Church.  Because you know you need this healing and this life.  The world is a fallen place, and you live the midst of many dangers and afflictions.  There is only one sure remedy for all that ails you.  It is Jesus.  It is the forgiveness of sins.  It is His Word, His miracle, His Meal, His healing.  The remedy for death and hell is Christ crucified and risen for you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.         

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Third Sunday after the Epiphany (C)

January 24, 2016
Text: Luke 4:16-30

            “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21; ESV).  Today it is accomplished.  When Jesus, the Word made flesh, speaks His Word, that which He speaks happens.  His Word is performative.  Jesus, the Word of our Father now in flesh appearing, comes to reveal the Word of our Father to the flesh of Adam.  Jesus comes to preach.  So it is that Jesus comes to His home town of Nazareth, to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as is His custom, and He stands up to read from the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me” (Luke 4:18; cf. Is. 61).  This was fulfilled in our Lord’s Baptism in the Jordan River, where the Spirit descended on Him in the form of a dove, thus anointing Him for His ministry, and the Father spoke from heaven, proclaiming Jesus His beloved Son, with whom He is well pleased.  Notice, the Spirit of the Lord (the Father) is upon Me (the Son).  Jesus begins His preaching ministry in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  And what is He anointed with the Spirit to do?  To preach!  To proclaim good news, Gospel, to the poor.  Liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind.  The year of the Lord’s favor, which is to say, the grace of God for sinners.  Three times in the text He says He has come to proclaim.  And He comes to accomplish what He proclaims, namely, “to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (v. 18).  You see, when Jesus preaches, His preaching creates reality.  He is, after all, the Word by which the Father created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them.  Now our Lord speaks, and His Word accomplishes what He says.  The preaching of Jesus brings forth the New Creation.  It happens as He says it.  Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.
            And it is not simply that on that day, long ago, at the synagogue in Nazareth, the Scripture was fulfilled.  It is fulfilled this day, today, at the congregation in Dorr, in your hearing and for you.  Preaching is not an academic lecture or an exercise in listening to speeches.  We don’t do sermons at Church because that’s what people used to do for entertainment before television and the internet.  Nor is the purpose of the sermon to inspire you or touch your heart or make you feel good.  There are plenty of preachers out there who do all of the above, and they’ll preach you into hell if you let them.  That is not he preaching of Jesus Christ.  We do sermons in the Church because the Word of the Lord still does what it has always done.  It creates.  It performs.  It accomplishes.  The Word of the Lord does what it says.  It condemns and it saves.  It kills and it makes alive.  It does not return to the Lord empty, but accomplishes that which He purposes and succeeds in the thing for which He sent it (Is. 55:11).  Indeed, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).  So when the Word of the Lord is preached to you… when Jesus speaks… so it is.  Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. 
            Which is to say, you are free.  Good news for you who are poor, who confessed just moments ago that you have nothing in you but sin and death and helplessness.  You are free from your debt.  Jesus has paid it.  He has paid it in full with His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death on the cross for you.  Good news for you who are captive to death and the devil, to hell and your own rotten flesh.  Jesus comes to liberate you from bondage.  He has defeated the devil.  He has passed through death.  Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.  Heaven is open, and your Lord will lead you through the valley of the shadow to the light of resurrection life.  Good news for you who are blind in doubt and unbelief.  Jesus opens your eyes to see that He has done it all, everything for your salvation, that as He said from the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30).  Good news for all sinners, for all who are oppressed by the hoard of demonic foes.  Jesus sets you free.  Release, liberty, freedom.  The word used here literally means “forgiveness.”  Our Lord proclaims forgiveness to the captives.  The New Creation Jesus brings forth in preaching is the forgiveness of sins. 
            Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.  Your sins are forgiven.  Now, this is rather scandalous, because it is not the preaching Old Adam wants to hear.  To preach that your sins are forgiven is to preach that you have sins.  It is to preach that you are a sinner.  It is not very good for the ego, for, in fact, this is to preach the ego to death.  It is to preach that you have broken the Lord’s Commandments and made yourself an enemy of God, and that you cannot help but do otherwise, for you are a son or a daughter of Adam.  You have despised your neighbor and coveted what does not belong to you.  You are a murderer, an adulterer, and a thief, in your heart if not by your hand.  And you would determine good and evil for yourself, as your first parents did.  You would not have God tell you what is good for you, and what is bad.  Which makes you an idolater, a worshiper of false gods, for you reject God’s Word and you worship yourself.  It kills you to hear it, doesn’t it?  This is not an inspiring message.  The Law of God cuts you down and tears you up.  It kills you every time.  The Word is that powerful.  And it hurts.  We don’t like it.  But if Jesus is to release you from death and raise you to new life, you must first be good and dead.
            What do you suppose desperate sinners who don’t want to die will do in reaction to this preaching?  They will do precisely what the crowd in Nazareth tries to do to Jesus.  They will throw the preacher off a cliff.  To my knowledge there are no cliffs in Dorr, but the point is, they will reject the preacher.  The disciple is not above his Master.  If they rejected Jesus, they will reject His preachers.  Jerusalem rejected the prophets and stoned those sent to her.  The apostles died martyrs deaths.  Pastors are fired when they don’t grow the Church, and when they preach offensive sermons, people leave.  So it goes.  You see, those who do not consider themselves poor, captive, blind, and dead, have no ears to hear the good news of release, healing, and life.  They’ll kill Jesus before they’ll hear that kind of preaching.  Jesus’ own people from His own home town, those who “knew Him when,” who babysat for Him and changed His diapers, who mourned for Joseph and know and love Mary... These very people want to kill Jesus because they hate His preaching.  As it happens, they couldn’t get Him this time.  He passed through their midst and went away, for His hour had not yet come.  But it would, and they would get Him, at the Passover when the lambs are sacrificed.  They would nail Him to the cross.  You would nail Him to the cross.  The crowd in Nazareth had it right in spite of themselves.  The only way out of the Law and the sentence of death and hell is to kill Jesus.  So that is what we did.
            But today there is good news, and it is good news that raises the dead.  Christ is risen.  His death is the sacrifice for our sins.  And this is the Gospel proclaimed to sinners that grants us release.  Jesus speaks to you this morning.  He does it by the mouthpiece of this poor preacher, but it is Jesus Christ who speaks.  And His Word is as creative and performative as ever.  “Let there be light,” He said, and there was light (Gen. 1:3).  “Your sins are forgiven,” He said at the beginning of the Service, and they are forgiven.  “This is My Body, this is My Blood,” He will say of the bread and the wine, and so it will be.  Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.  Today good news is proclaimed to the poor.  Today you are set free from captivity and oppression, and you are given eyes to see Jesus, the Savior, in preaching and Supper.  Today Jesus proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor.  That is to say that on account of Jesus, God is for you.  God is your Father.  God loves you and is well-pleased with you.  What Jesus has done by His death and resurrection is made your reality in preaching.  Christ bestows it in the Word.  The Law of God kills you.  The Gospel raises you to life.  Jesus speaks reality into being.  Where the Lord opens His mouth, there is the New Creation.  Rejoice.  You are free.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


Sunday, January 17, 2016

Second Sunday after the Epiphany

Second Sunday after the Epiphany (C)

January 17, 2016
Text: John 2:1-11

            Wine in abundance is a sign that Messiah has come.  No room for teetotalling in the Bible.  The Prophets Joel and Amos both preach that in that Day (the Day of Messiah), “the mountains shall drip sweet wine” (Joel 3:18; Amos 9:13; ESV).  The rest of the prophets concur.  Benjamin Franklin famously said, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”  Old Ben was not a very good theologian, but on this one, he’s close.  Wine is proof that God loves us and gives us His Son.  So it is that Jesus comes to a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mountains drip sweet wine.  Our Lord speaks and water becomes the very best wine.  We often call this Jesus’ first miracle, but it’s so much more than a miracle, and that is not what St. John calls it.  “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee” (John 2:11; emphasis added).  St. John calls it a sign, not a miracle.  In other words, it’s not just an impressive magic trick.  It is a sign of who Jesus is.  It is a sign that Messiah has come and our salvation has arrived.  Wine in abundance, dripping from the mountains, is proof that God has made good on His Promise.  He has sent us a Savior.  “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory,” manifested, a word related to Epiphany.  He gave us an Epiphany that He is the Glory of God, God Himself, in the flesh.  “And his disciples believed in him” (v. 11).  They believed the sign.  And so do you, for this sign is manifested for you as you hear it in Scripture and preaching this morning. 
            What is amazing is that this sign is performed for those who least deserve it.  Jesus gives the very best wine to a bunch of rowdy drunks.  To run out of wine at a wedding feast brings great shame on the bride and groom and their entire family.  It is also an indication that guests were lubricated to excess.  What the family thought to be more than sufficient was not enough for this crowd.  They were abusing their right to the family’s hospitality.  They were abusing God’s good gift of wine.  Wine is a gift, but drunkenness is sin.  The guests are three sheets to the wind.  The master of the feast is angry because custom has been broken.  Everyone knows that you serve the good wine first, and after the people have “drunk freely” (v. 10), that is, after they are plastered and their taste buds are numb, you bring out the cheap stuff.  But the wine Jesus provides is the very best.  The master of the feast does not know the wine came from Jesus, from the 6 stone water jars.  He thinks the family paid good money for it.  He is outraged over the extravagance, the expense undertaken for those who are incapable of appreciating it.  But isn’t that just like Jesus?  He gives the very best gifts to those who take Him for granted, who despise His gifts and abuse them.  Still, He gives, and He gives in abundance.  The jars held twenty to thirty gallons each!  No more danger of running out.  Even this crowd would have trouble burning through that.  The mountains drip sweet wine.  Jesus gives wine to drunks.[1]  And in this way He manifests His glory, and His disciples believe in Him.
            It is not by accident that this sign takes place at a wedding.  Actually, this is the fulfillment of the Prophet Hosea’s ministry.  Remember Hosea?  We should talk more about him.  His name is related to the Name of Jesus.  Hosea means “salvation”, just as Jesus means “The LORD saves”.  God commands Hosea to marry a prostitute, Gomer, and in this way the prophet’s marriage becomes a sign of YHWH’s marriage to Israel.  Gomer is unfaithful.  She runs away from her husband.  She goes back to prostitution.  She sells herself to other men.  Just like Israel, “whoring” after other gods (the Bible’s words, not mine… Lev. 20:5-6; Ez. 6:9; Hosea 4:18; and numerous other examples).  But Hosea goes out to find Gomer.  He redeems her.  Literally, he buys her back, for fifteen shekels of silver.  Can you imagine, a broken-hearted husband slogging through the gutters of the red light district to find his unfaithful bride, having to pay for her to come back to him?  But he loves her.  And Hosea is a picture of our God and what He does for His beloved Israel, His beloved Church, what He does for us.  The Church is the Bride of Christ.  We are unfaithful to our Divine Bridegroom.  We whore after other gods.  We sell ourselves to the pleasures of this world.  Drunk and full of lust, we take our Lord for granted, despise His gifts and abuse them.  But He comes after us.  He comes for us, God in the flesh, God in man made manifest, to redeem us, to buy us back, not for fifteen shekels of silver, but with His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death.  He pays with His very life for us to come back to Him, to live with Him, to be His Bride.  Because He loves us.  “God shows his love for us,” St. Paul writes, “in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).  Christ is our Hosea.  We are His Gomer.  We are unfaithful, but He is faithful, to us and to God, for us and in our place. 
            Now, this is what it means to be married to Christ.  What is ours is His, and what is His is ours.  That is how it works in marriage.  All that belongs to the Bride becomes the Bridegroom’s.  All that belongs to the Bridegroom becomes the Bride’s.  Jesus takes upon Himself all our sin and uncleanness, our unfaithfulness, our idolatry, lust, and drunkenness, and He pays the penalty for all of it.  He takes our death and condemnation and all that goes along with it, our weakness and sickness and sadness, and puts it to death in His flesh on the cross.  In the meantime, we get all His righteousness, eternal life, salvation, and every good and gracious gift bestowed upon us by our God.  Luther says all of this is sealed by the wedding ring of faith.  Faith makes all of these things our own.  St. Paul writes about this in Ephesians, chapter 5, when he tells husbands to “love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (vv. 25-27).  As Jacob met Rachel at the well, so our Lord meets His Bride, the Church, at the well of the Font, where He gives us the wedding ring of faith.  And we are made clean, holy, spotless with the splendor of His holiness.  It is as Isaiah prophesied in our Old Testament reading: “as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (Is. 62:5).  You are beautiful to God.  You are precious in His eyes.
            So our Lord does the first of His signs at a wedding, and in this way He woos us to believe in Him and be His Bride.  And so also He honors holy marriage as a blessed institution, given by God in the Garden even before our first parents fell into sin.  One man, one woman, united in love and fidelity as long as they both shall live.  “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24).  Our Holy Gospel is a great comfort for husbands and wives, because just as Christ was present for the couple in Cana, so He is present in your marriage.  And He gives wine.  He gives joy.  He gives the Holy Spirit.  Even when you abuse His good gifts.  In fact, especially when you abuse His good gifts.  He is there, in the hard times as well as the good, in every argument, in every heartache, and even in your infidelities.  His Promise sustains your marriage, and He gives you joy.  He gives you to delight in one another.  He gives you to delight in Him.  So also our Holy Gospel is a great comfort to single people.  There were undoubtedly unmarried people at the wedding, singles and widows and maybe even divorcees.  They also get the wine.  Jesus, who is not married… He’s saving Himself for His Bride, the Church… is at the wedding for single people, too.  Being single does not make you less of a person, less of a guest at the Feast, or any less forgiven and redeemed and precious before God.  Singles have a particular cross to bear for as long as God gives them to bear it.  But you also get the wine.  And what is ultimately true for every one of you, single or married, child or adult, husband, wife, widow, or divorcee, is this: Jesus is your Bridegroom.  You are married to Jesus.  He is faithful to you.  He has redeemed you.  And all that belongs to Him, belongs to you.  All of it.  All things are yours in Christ Jesus who loves you.  For though His hour had not yet come at the wedding in Cana, it would come soon enough, on Calvary, where He shed His blood and gave His life to make you His own.
            “On the third day there was a wedding,” writes St. John, and there is more going on here than meets the eye.  The Holy Ghost chooses His Words very carefully.  On the third day Jesus rises from the dead.  On third day there is a wedding.  On the third day the preparations are complete.  The Bride, who was once a drunken Gomer, has been washed in water and the Word, and robed in the righteousness of Jesus.  The Bridegroom has prepared a Feast for His Bride, and at this Feast there is wine in abundance.  Here He manifests His glory.  Here His disciples believe in Him.  Beloved in the Lord, you are the Bride, and Jesus woos you.  Come to His Table.  Eat and drink, and rejoice.  The Bridegroom who loves you has arrived.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.    

[1] For this recurring phrase I’m indebted to the Rev. David Petersen.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Baptism of Our Lord

The Baptism of Our Lord (C)

January 10, 2016
(Modified slightly from Jan. 10, 2010)
Text: Luke 3:15-22

There are two Baptisms to consider this morning: Our Lord Christ’s Baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, and our own Baptism. The two go hand in hand, for our Lord Jesus Christ was baptized into us, that we might be baptized into Him. He was baptized into our sin, that we might be baptized into His righteousness. He was baptized into our death, that we might be baptized into His death. And we are baptized into His resurrection, that we may live a new life now, and so also that our bodies may be sealed for our own bodily resurrection from the dead on the Last Day. We are baptized into the beloved Son of God, that we might be beloved children of the heavenly Father, “God’s own child, I gladly say it!” We are baptized into the One anointed with the Holy Spirit, that we might receive that same Spirit through water and the Word.
            Why is Jesus baptized in the first place? John is baptizing for repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Jesus has no sin of which to be repentant and forgiven. He is the perfect Son of God made flesh as the Son of Mary. In Matthew’s account of this Baptism, John even says as much, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matt. 3:14; ESV). Jesus answers, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (v. 15). Jesus is not baptized for His own sin. He has none. He is baptized to soak up the sins of the world into Himself so that He can be our substitute and pay for our sin. Here He stands, the all-righteous Son of God, in the filthy waters of the Jordan River, the river in which countless sinners had just been baptized by John, and He soaks it all up. He is not baptized for Himself. He is Baptized for us, and for our salvation. Jesus is baptized, and notice what happens according to our text: Heaven is opened (Luke 3:21). What has been closed to sinners, closed to the fallen world is now open wide, because Jesus is baptized. And it is a Trinitarian act. God the Son stands in the dirty river, baptized into our sin and death to save us from sin and death. The heavens are opened and the Spirit descends as a dove, anointing Jesus for His saving mission and strengthening Him for the same. And the voice of the Father declares the divinity of the Son, and His love and pleasure in His Son and His work: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (v. 22). Heaven is open. We have access to God through Christ. God has come in the flesh to us poor sinners to save us and give heaven as our inheritance.
            And this is why our own Baptism into Christ is so precious. Jesus is baptized into us, that we might be baptized into Him. When our Lord Jesus was baptized in the waters of the Jordan, He “sanctified and instituted all waters to be a blessed flood and a lavish washing away of sin” (Luther’s flood prayer, LSB p. 269). And so each one of us enters and is united to the Body of Christ, the holy Church, through the water in the font. It is not just ordinary water, but the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word, His Name, the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19). And so it becomes a cleansing flood by which all sin is washed away, faith is created, newness of life is granted, the Holy Spirit is bestowed, and the seal of God’s Name is placed upon the Baptized. United to Jesus Christ, put to death with Christ, drowned in the water, the Baptized also rises with Christ to righteousness before God and newness of life now, and the promise of physical resurrection to come. Here the Baptized takes up the cross and follows Jesus. Here the Baptized enters upon a life of daily death and resurrection, the crucifixion of the old sinful flesh, the daily drowning and death of the Old Adam that the new man may daily emerge and arise to live before God, and the daily battle with sin, against temptation, against the devil, the world, and our sinful nature.
            In some ways Baptism makes life in this fallen world even more difficult, because in marking one as redeemed by Christ, the Crucified, we also mark that one for the devil’s attacks. And yet, Baptism is commanded by our Lord, with His certain promise of salvation. “It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare” (Luther’s Small Catechism).[1] “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16). “Baptism… now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21). “(H)e saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:5-7). Baptism is a great exchange. Jesus gets all our sin and death and we get all His righteousness and life. Thus we have salvation and eternal life. It is a blessed exchange for us. Now when God looks at us, He sees only the righteousness and perfection of His Son.
            This does not by any means give us an excuse to sin, however. “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:1-2). Don’t you know you are dead to sin? Don’t you know you have been freed by death from slavery to your old taskmaster, to the sin that once held you in bondage? You have been raised to new life to serve a new Master, God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That’s what your Baptism means. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life… So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (vv. 3-4, 11). We so easily fall into the trap of thinking that since God forgives us and loves us and we are His own in Baptism (which is most certainly true!), we might as well sin as much as we want. We’re covered. But that is not how Christians ought to live. That is not the baptismal life. And we have manifold warnings from John in our text about a Baptism with fire and the winnowing fork of the Lord: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17). Unrepentant sinners are the chaff that will be burned. The Lord’s “wrath is quickly kindled,” as we sang in the Introit (Ps. 2:12). That wrath is an all-consuming fire. But in our Baptism, we “take refuge in him,” even Jesus Christ our Lord. For in Him, all our sins are already punished. God does not excuse sin. He does not wink at sin. He does not sweep sin under the rug. In no sense is it “okay” to sin because God will forgive you. God punishes every one of your sins. But He punishes them in the flesh of Jesus Christ on the cross. And Baptized into Him, His suffering is your suffering, His death is your death, and you take refuge in His wounds. Therefore He says to you: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine… when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” (Is. 43:1, 2). Because Jesus walks through the fire for you! He undergoes the Baptism of fire in your place! He takes the full force of the wrath of God so that every one of your sins is dealt with by our righteous and holy God in Him! When He cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46), He does so in your place, suffers hell for your sake, is forsaken of the Father so that you don’t have to be. God’s beloved Son is forsaken of God on the cross, so that you can be His dearly loved child.
            And God has accepted His sacrifice for us. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. God is well-pleased with His beloved Son. And so just as His death is our death by virtue of our Baptism into Him, so also His resurrection is our own resurrection, a spiritual resurrection now, and a physical resurrection on the Last Day. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom. 6:5). This morning we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord in the Jordan, God in the flesh, and so also we celebrate our Baptism into Christ. What a great comfort in the midst of temptation and trial, sin and death, and every distress, that we can say to ourselves, “I am baptized into Christ!” That bold assertion drives the devil far from us and soothes our weary souls. Baptism is not just something that happened to you one day in the past, but your continual reality in Christ. So you can live each day in this reality. You do not need to fear. He has redeemed you. He has called you by name, His Name, in Holy Baptism. You are His, His own dear child. You are engraved on the palm of His crucified hand. Therefore rejoice. Come as the Body of Christ, the holy Church, Baptized into Christ, to the Supper of His body and blood. You can only enter through the font. And trace once again upon yourself His sign, that with which you were marked as one redeemed by Christ the Crucified, as you speak His Name given you in Baptism, the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] St. Louis: Concordia, 1986.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Second Sunday after Christmas

Second Sunday after Christmas (C)

January 3, 2016
Text: Luke 2:40-52

            The LORD comes into His Temple.  It has happened before, certainly.  Jesus came into the Temple 40 days after His birth for His redemption and His mother’s purification.  And St. Luke tells us that it was the custom of His parents to bring Him to Jerusalem every year for the Feast of the Passover (Luke 2:41).  There were three times a year when every able-bodied man among the Jews was expected to be at the Temple: Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles (or Booths).  Jesus’ family piety was such that the women and children came, too, so our Lord undoubtedly came to His Temple many times as a Child, in fulfillment of the Promise recorded by the Prophet Malachi: “And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple” (3:1; ESV).  But something is different about this time.  He comes at the age of twelve, a significant number for the Children of Israel and for the Church.  Twelve Tribes.  Later Twelve Apostles.  Jesus is twelve, and now He is bar mitzvah-ed, a Son of the Commandments.  Which is to say, He is a Jewish man.  He has come of age.  He has been instructed.  He reads the Scriptures.  And the faith confessed for Him by His parents at His circumcision He now confesses for Himself.  Twelve-year-old Jesus comes into His Temple as a man.
            The Temple is the dwelling place of God with His people.  Until the exile, it was the house of the Ark of the Covenant with its Mercy Seat, the throne of God between the Cherubim.  This is the place of sacrifice, blood shed for the forgiveness of sins, the place of liturgy and prayer.  Nothing united the people of God like the Temple where God promised to be for His people.  But now the Ark was gone.  The original Temple built by Solomon had been destroyed.  There was no visible presence of the Glory of the LORD in a cloud in this Temple, built by Ezra and Nehemiah and rebuilt by Herod.  The Jews had come back from exile in Babylon, but things were never the same.  The Davidic Kingdom was no more.  The religion of Judaism had become big business.  There were no prophets from Malachi to John.  God had gone silent.  Where is He?  Has He forsaken us forever?  Left us to the tyranny of the Romans and the abuse of the Pharisees and Sadducees?  No.  He comes.  The LORD comes into His Temple.  And on this particular day He comes, not in a cloud of majestic glory, but on the legs of a twelve-year-old Boy with His parents, our Passover Lamb who will, on another day, at another Passover, be sacrificed for the sins of the world. 
            Today we have a little foreshadowing of that sacrifice.  For when it’s time to leave, when the extended company of pilgrims sets out, Mary and Joseph depart for Nazareth, but Jesus stays behind.  He’s lost in the place of sacrifice, and He will not be found for three days.  Do you see what the Lord is doing here?  This is death and resurrection stuff.  As a Son of the Commandments, He does a dry-run of the Passover to come.  And the sword pierces Mary’s soul.  It is not all that strange that Mary and Joseph travel a day’s journey before they realize Jesus is missing.  Pilgrims travel in numbers for protection and company.  And Jesus is twelve, after all.  They assume He is with the other boys His age, somewhere in the crowd.  They expect to meet up with Him at camp in the evening.  But Jesus doesn’t turn up.  And if you have children of any age, you can imagine the thoughts that flood His parents’ minds.  Is He safe, or is He hurt?  Is He lost?  Did someone take Him?  Is He somewhere along the trail, or back in Jerusalem, alone in the big city?  And what if the worst has happened?  Twelve years old or not, this is Mary’s little Boy.  In desperation, Mary and Joseph retrace their steps.  They ask everyone they meet, describe Him, plead with their fellow pilgrims to think, to try to remember if they’ve seen a lost pre-teen wandering around.  When they arrive in Jerusalem, they search high and low for three long days.  And then they find Him in the last place they thought to look, and the first place they should have looked.  In the Temple, among the teachers, listening to them and asking questions.  The Lord is in His Temple, where His Scriptures are being read and studied, meditated upon and discussed.  Mary and Joseph had been looking in all the wrong places.  If you want to find the Lord, He will always be in His House, in His Scriptures, doing His Father’s business of accomplishing our salvation.
            The teachers and all who hear Him are amazed at His understanding and answers.  Jesus is, after all, Wisdom incarnate.  Solomon was given wisdom, but Jesus IS Wisdom in the flesh.  And what texts might they have been discussing there in the Temple?  Well, it is Passover.  Could it be they are discussing the Scriptures about the angel of death passing over the blood marked doors of the Israelites?  Could it be they are discussing the meaning of the Passover Lamb that is sacrificed, that the people of God may live?  Imagine the questions Jesus asked the teachers.  I bet their hearts were burning within them as He gently led them to connect the dots in the Holy Scriptures, demonstrating the Lamb’s connection to Messiah, to the Christ.  He is showing the teachers of the Law that the Scriptures are all about Him.  He is preparing them for their future meetings when Jesus is an adult, when they will be willfully ignorant concerning His salvation.  He is preaching the Gospel to them, that when they meet Him later they might recognize that Messiah has come to save them from their sins. 
            Now Mary is angry, as any mother would be.  She’s been desperately searching for her lost child for three long days.  “Son, why have you treated us so?  Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress” (Luke 2:48).  Mary should have known better.  Has she not been treasuring up and pondering the Word about her Son for the last twelve years?  “Why were you looking for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (v. 49), or as I prefer to translate it, “Did you not know that I must be in the things of my Father,” i.e. the things of our salvation, the Scriptures, the Gospel, the sacrifices and THE Sacrifice?  Did you not know, Mary, that the LORD must be in the Temple, where He has promised to dwell with and for His people?  Did you not know, Mary, that your Son is the Temple, the fulfillment of the stone building, the dwelling place of God with man in the flesh?  If you want to find Jesus, you will always find Him in the things of His Father.  And that goes for you, too, beloved.  Have you ever wondered if God has abandoned you?  Have you ever asked yourself, “Where is Jesus when I need Him?”  Have you ever searched for Him in desperation?  Like Mary, believed He was mistreating you?  Abusing you?  Hiding from you?  Here He tells you where you will always find Him.  In the things of His Father.  In His Father’s House.  In the Holy Scriptures.  At the altar, in the once-for-all Sacrifice of His Body and Blood here given you to eat and drink.  Sitting in the midst of His people.  In the Church.   That is where you’ll find Him.  Always.  In the flesh.  Speaking to you.  Teaching you.  Forgiving your sins.  Healing you.  Comforting you.  Feeding you.  Here Jesus is for you. 
            Notice, He is also here fulfilling the Law for you.  Because you all-too-often don’t seek Him in the things of His Father, even though He’s told you that’s where you can find Him.  In fact, you often refuse to find Him there.  You’d rather sleep in than go to Church.  You’d rather think about other things during the sermon.  You’re annoyed that the service is taking so long.  Repent.  You’ve sinned against the Third Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”  But here Jesus is, keeping holy Sabbath for you.  Never forget, He came not just to die for your sins, but also to keep the Law in your place.  And in Baptism, you get all the credit for His perfect keeping of the Law.  Jesus delights in the Holy Scriptures.  A twelve year old Boy with more patience than a 36 year old man, delighting to be in His Father’s House, immersed in the things of His Father.  For three days He sits in Catechism class, absorbing it all, asking questions, giving and taking with the teachers, and shining the light of His wisdom on all who would listen.  He gladly hears and learns the Scriptures, the Word concerning Himself.
            So also He fulfills the Fourth Commandment for us: “Honor your father and your mother.”  Mary thought He had broken this one by staying behind in the Temple, but remember, His first loyalty is for His Father in heaven.  So also yours.  Whenever there is a conflict between our loyalty to God and our loyalty to earthly parents and authorities, we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).  But when there is no conflict, we are to obey our parents and earthly authorities in all things.  Jesus does this.  He first of all honors His mother Mary and His adopted father Joseph by gently teaching them about His purpose and mission.  And then He goes back with them to Nazareth and is submissive to them (Luke 2:51).  He honors His parents for our sake, because we don’t honor ours.  Repent and believe the Good News.  Jesus fulfills this Commandment also, for you.

            And there is Mary once again treasuring up all these things in her heart (v. 51).  She is still learning her lesson, as are all of us.  Jesus never abandons us, even when we think He’s done just that.  He’s always where the Scriptures are proclaimed and where the Blood of the Lamb cleanses from sin.  He’s always right here, God in the flesh, for you.  Treasure up that Promise in your heart and never let it go.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  

Friday, December 25, 2015

The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Day

The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Day

December 25, 2015
Text: John 1:1-18

            The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us (John 1:14).  The Word, ὁ λόγος.  That is the Greek on the front of your bulletin, inscribed over the Baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.  And it is exactly right.  This Baby is the Word of our Father, now in flesh appearing.  He is the Word spoken in the beginning.  St. John chooses his words very carefully, by inspiration of the Spirit, and he takes us back to Genesis with the first words of the Holy Gospel.  “In the beginning was the Word” (v. 1; ESV).  That means that Jesus is the Word by which God the Father creates heaven and earth.  He speaks forth creation.  “Let there be light,” He says (Gen. 1:3), and there is light.  He speaks a thing, and it is.  Jesus is the speaking of God.  And not only that, “the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).  Jesus is God.  He is the eternal Son of the Father, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Creator of all things, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns to all eternity.  It is this Word, who is God, who in time becomes flesh and is born of the Virgin Mary.  This God is a Man.  The Creator comes to His creation.  Because everything has gone wrong.  Adam and Eve broke fellowship with God in the Garden.  They rejected His Word.  He came to His own in the cool of the day, but His own would not receive Him.  They hid from Him.  They covered themselves with leaves.  They were afraid because they were naked.  The darkness was taking over.  The serpent had deceived.  Man had earned sin’s wages, which is death.  And the creation which God had declared “very good” (Gen. 1:31), had fallen, held in bondage by the sin and rebellion of Adam and his sons.
            God brought about the creation of the world by the Word.  So if He is to redeem the world, He must once again speak.  And so it is God speaks His Word into the ear and womb of the Virgin Mary, and the Word becomes flesh and blood and be the Savior of all He has made.  The incarnation, we call it, the taking on of our flesh of the Son of God.  That is the theology of Christmas.  John presumes you know the Christmas story from St. Matthew and St. Luke.  We got that last night in the Christmas Eve service.  John gives us the theology of it all.  His is a theological Gospel, but that does not make it impractical.  The problem is sin, darkness, and death.  And you know this by personal experience.  You never measure up.  You are a constant disappointment to yourself, to your loved ones, and to God.  You never know where you are going.  Life is a continual groping around in the dark.  And in the end, you die.  And just so you remember that that is what happens to us all, your loved ones die all around you, and you get sick and suffer injuries, all as a reminder that this will not end well.  Except that God speaks, and Christ, the Savior, is born.
            He is born to die, so that you live.  That is why He must be flesh and blood.  He comes in the flesh to be one with you, to suffer your every weakness and temptation, only without sin.  He comes in the flesh to be your substitute, to take your sins into Himself and to be punished in your place.  He comes to make atonement.  Apart from atonement, there is no justice.  For God to be just, He must punish sin.  But your punishment happens there, on the cross.  God sends His Son, and punishes His Son, that He might be both just and the Justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:26).  The death of Christ on the cross restores creation to the Creator and sinners to the Father.  And so to all who receive Jesus Christ, who believe in His Name, He gives the right to become children of God, born of God (John 1:12-13), children of the heavenly Father, forgiven, restored, and renewed.  You don’t measure up, but Jesus measures up for you.  You continually disappoint, but Jesus doles out grace upon grace on you and all your loved ones, all people, and from His fullness we receive all we need (v. 16).  God looks upon you as perfect and righteous, because He sees only the fullness of His Son.  In Jesus, your sin is done to death, and you are righteous in full measure. 
            Now, you would not know this apart from the Word.  So again, God speaks.  The Light comes into this world of darkness, so that you who are born spiritually blind, may see your salvation.  God speaks Jesus into your ear and into your heart and mind and soul in preaching.  Jesus comes to you.  We often speak of the real presence of Jesus in the Supper, of His true Body and Blood under the bread and wine for our forgiveness, life, and salvation.  That is a very important consequence of Christmas, of the incarnation of our Lord.  When He says He is with us, He means in the flesh!  I have said to my family back home as they celebrate Christmas that I’m with them in spirit.  By which I mean that I’m not with them at all!  I’m half a continent away!  My word cannot make it otherwise.  When Jesus says He’s with us, He really means it.  The Word does not lie.  Jesus speaks Himself present on the altar, in bread and wine.  But consider this.  He is also really present in the speaking of His Word.  It is the living voice of Jesus you hear in Scripture and preaching.  It is the living voice of Jesus you hear forgiving your sins in Absolution.  He speaks a thing, and it is.  He is the Word that is spoken.  Preaching only has power because the Word became flesh.  We preach Christ crucified (1 Cor. 1:23), and that means the crucified and risen Christ comes to you in the preaching.  He comes to you in the flesh as He is preached into your ears, just as surely as He came into the ear and womb of the blessed Virgin. 

            Now, He is poured all over you in your Baptism, the water and the Word that washes away your sins and bespeaks you God’s own forgiven and beloved child.  He is spoken into your ears and your very being by preaching and Absolution.  He is spoken into bread and wine to open your lips and course through your veins in the Sacrament.  And what happens?  The Light comes to grab you up out of the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.  The prince of darkness is foiled again.  His reward is coming, and he also will have to suffer the weeping and gnashing of teeth for all eternity.  But not you.  Your sins are forgiven.  Jesus has paid your debt in full by His blood and death.  And He is risen.  You will not die.  In the end, your loved ones who died in the faith will be restored to you, and you will be healed.  That is the Good News of Christmas.  All that is wrong has been righted in the incarnation of our Lord.  Christmas is nothing less than the re-creation of the world, the restoration of what has been lost, God’s coming in your flesh to be reconciled with you and to clothe you with Himself.  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  And the Word is with you now, in the flesh.  The Word makes all things new.  Including you.  Merry Christmas.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.             

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Eve

The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Eve

December 24, 2015
Text: Luke 2:1-20

            Why did you come tonight?  Maybe it’s just because it’s Christmas Eve, and that’s the thing to do.  Perhaps some nostalgia brought you here.  On this night we wear our hearts on our sleeves as we sing the old songs about angels and shepherds and silent, holy nights.  The lights are dimmed and we worship by candlelight.  There is a romance about the whole thing.  Maybe you’re here because your parents dragged you here.  Your spouse told you the least you could do is make an appearance.  Or maybe you’re here for all the right reasons, because you know that here you’ll find the Baby announced by the angels, your Savior from sin and death, Jesus Christ.  But if I’m being honest, I have to say, I really don’t care why you’re here.  I just thank God you’re here.  Because there is incredibly Good News for you to hear tonight.  But I have to warn you up front.  You’ll probably be disappointed if you’re expecting a trite story about glowing stars and a serene birth and a little Lord Jesus no crying He makes.  Oh, we have the old traditional hymns, and we’ll have the candlelight.  But the real circumstances of Christmas are nothing like your Christmas cards or nativity sets.  Mary’s face is probably anything but serene.  She just gave birth in a stable.  There is no such thing as the Motel 6 in the New Testament, and it’s not an “inn” in the sense we think of where Mary and Joseph tried to stay.  Probably what happened is Joseph came knocking at the old family home, but there just wasn’t room for his fiancée who got pregnant out of wedlock.  If you want to stay here, you’ll have to stay with the animals.  She gives birth there, with no one to help, with the hay and the dung and the lowing cattle and bah-ing sheep.  She wraps her Baby in scraps of old cloth and lays Him in the feeding trough.  A beautiful scene, indeed.   Fitting for the birth of a King.  And the shepherds out keeping watch over their flocks by night?  Can you imagine the smell?  And it’s dangerous out there.  Robbers and wolves and mountain lions.  It’s dark.  It’s cold.  It’s probably wet.  These particular shepherds have to work the graveyard shift.  They probably haven’t had a bath in weeks.  Blue collar workers who don’t make much money to speak of.  This is the last place you’d expect angels to show up.
            It’s not very nostalgic, is it?  But that’s the point.  Christ wasn’t born into a beautiful manger scene.  God came down into the stench and poverty and scandal of the real world.  To redeem it.  God came down, in real flesh and blood, for shepherds and for unwed mothers and for sons turned out by their own families.  God came down, in real flesh and blood, for you.  So you stink like a stable or a field full of sheep.  Maybe you can fool others, but you know you’re full of sin.  You put on a smile and try to ignore it, but that tape of your failures plays over and over and keeps you up at night.  God comes for beautiful people in serene manger scenes, you think, but not for me.  I’m too dirty, too smelly, too guilty.  My sin is just too big.  Brother… sister… you couldn’t be more wrong.  Maybe we’d do better to craft more realistic manger scenes with apparent heartache and poverty, though they’d probably never sell.  You have to understand, this Baby is born, not for the righteous, but for sinners… for tax collectors and prostitutes, for murderers and adulterers and thieves and scoundrels.  Which is to say, for you.  Unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord (Luke 2:11).  Yes, unto you.  In all your sin and sadness.  In all your mess of a life, your guilt, and your death.  He was born for you.  And that is Good News of great joy, indeed. 
            That also takes all the pressure off of Christmas.  You’ve been running around frantically since Thanksgiving, skipping right over Advent, trying to make this the perfect Christmas, just like the ones you think you used to know.  Like Clark W. Griswold, you just want to deliver a “fun, old-fashioned family Christmas.”  But your sister isn’t speaking to your mother.  Uncle Bob is drinking too much and getting loud.  Your son is whining because, despite your best efforts, he didn’t get what he wanted for Christmas, and truth be told, you didn’t either.  Now your head hurts, your stomach aches (that second slice of pie wasn’t such a good idea), and reality slaps you in the face.  You can’t make Christmas.  But pass the aspirin and take a deep breath.  Of course you can’t make Christmas!  Christmas is made for you.  God comes down, to you, for you, in the middle of the messiness of this world and your life to redeem this world and your life. 
            To you the angels sing.  Good News of great joy for you and for all the people.  Unto you is born this day a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord.  He makes Christmas, the Christ-Mass.  He is the real gift, wrapped up in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger… wrapped up in the Scriptures and lying on the altar to feed the beasts, to feed sinners and forgive sins, to feed you with the Bread of Life that is His Body, born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem, the House of Bread.  If you came here for nostalgia, perhaps that’s disappointing to you.  But then again, perhaps it’s finally beginning to make some sense.  The reason we give presents and eat candy canes and gather together to laugh and sing is that this Baby was born for us.  And He gives Himself to us, to make all that is wrong right.  To take away sin and pay for it in His flesh.  To be mocked and accused and humiliated.  To be nailed to the accursed tree.  The cross looms large over the Christmas story.  This Baby is born to die.  But that doesn’t make the story morbid.  That is what makes it Good News for sinners.  No sin is too big that the death of God, born of the Virgin, cannot cover it.  This Baby is born, that by His death you be released from all that binds you.  You are free.  Hell has no claim on you.  Jesus took your place in it.  Satan cannot harm you.  Jesus crushed the serpent’s head by His own death.  Sin is undone.  The Law no longer accuses you.  Because this Baby was born under the Law to take your transgression of it into Himself and put it to death in His Body. 
            So you live.  He dies, and you do not die.  And He is risen.  Death could not hold Him.  Because He was innocent.  It is not His own sin for which He died.  It is yours.  But now it is done.  And He is risen.  He lives.  And He’s still in the same flesh and blood, born of the Virgin Mary.  He’s still a man, this God who came down.  He is a man for you.  He is Emmanuel, God with you.  And He gives Himself to you now, with all of His forgiveness, life, and salvation.  I don’t know why you came here tonight.  But don’t leave here without this Gift.  If there are no other presents for you this Christmas, this Gift makes the holiday, the Holy Day.  Jesus is born for you.  Your sins are forgiven.  Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace.  God is pleased with you for Jesus’ sake.  You have a Father in heaven.  You have a Savior who loves you.  You have a family, the Church, to sing and feast with you.  Tidings of comfort and joy.  Merry Christmas.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.     

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Fourth Sunday in Advent

Fourth Sunday in Advent (C)

December 20, 2015
Text: Luke 1:39-56

            Maybe we should call this In Utero Sunday.  On the face of it, the story is about the miraculous mothers, Mary and Elizabeth.  But in truth, the story is about the miraculous babies in their mothers’ wombs, St. John the Baptist, and our Savior, Jesus Christ.  Mary is the true Ark of the Covenant, bearing within her womb God Himself, enfleshed in her little Bambino.  She takes the same route King David took as he brought the Ark up to Jerusalem.  And as she comes to the house of Zechariah and Elizabeth, she serves as the spokesman of her Divine Son.  She greets her cousin, and as happens with the Word of the Lord, Mary speaks it and it fills the hearer with the Holy Spirit.  Elizabeth now knows things that cannot be revealed by flesh and blood, the things of faith.  She knows that the fruit of Mary’s womb is none other than the Lord come to save His people from their sins.  And John, the other bambino in utero, is also now filled with the Holy Spirit.  The Word spoken by Mary fills little John with faith and joy.  He leaps in his mother’s womb.  Already as a fetus, the prophet preaches Jesus.  Already in the womb, John points to Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
            The New Creation is breaking in here.  The Old is coming to an end in Zechariah and Elizabeth and John.  The priests and the prophets have reached their pinnacle.  The fulfillment of it all has arrived.  Christ has come.  John leaps because his salvation is here.  But so also John leaps because his own work has begun.  John prepares the way of the Lord.  Quite literally, that happens by his miraculous conception in the womb of an old woman.  John’s conception is a re-run of Isaac’s miraculous conception by Abraham and Sarah.  Two elderly parents, the mother quite beyond the years of child bearing, nonetheless have a child as the result of God’s Promise.  We could think of others as well.  The barren women of the Old Testament, like Rachel or Hannah, are given sons by the LORD’s intervention.  This says something about the miraculous birth par excellence.  John and his predecessors are miraculously conceived of old or barren women.  Jesus is conceived of a virgin.  John and the others are types of Jesus.  This is what we call in theology, “step parallelism”.  We’ve been talking about this in Sunday morning Bible Study.  What John does, Jesus does, only one step higher.  John goes first.  He prepares the way.  Jesus comes after on the way John prepares.  From miraculous birth through preaching and ministry and all the way to unjust execution by the state, John goes before the Lord.  But John must decrease.  Jesus must increase.  This is the beginning of it all, this prenatal meeting of the Lord and His messenger.
            And notice how even as an unborn Child, Jesus commands the scene.  It’s all about Him.  What a profound text this is as a testimony to the worth of the unborn.  Elizabeth rejoices, John leaps, and Mary sings as a result of this little Baby in Mary’s womb.  Jesus is already doing His saving work.  He endures all the stages of human life, to redeem humanity at every stage.  He is a Blastocyst for blastocysts, a Zygote for zygotes, and Embryo for embryos, a Fetus for fetuses.  What the Lord has redeemed by His incarnation, blood, and death, we dare not treat as disposable.  He is a Newborn for newborns, a Child and a Grownup for children and grownups.  He is a Man for us men and for our salvation.  What our Lord becomes, He redeems.  He takes on our flesh fully, and He saves it and sanctifies it.
            Then there is little Baby John in the womb of his mother Elizabeth.  6 months into the pregnancy, He receives the Word through the voice of Mary, believes, and rejoices.  And he preaches, leaping in the womb.  This is a great comfort for believing parents who have suffered miscarriages.  This little baby who is not even born, who cannot comprehend what is being said and cannot confess the faith, nonetheless believes on account of the Word.  We know that babies can hear in utero.  They are born already recognizing the voices of their mothers and fathers.  There have been wonderful experiments done where the unborn are exposed to musical stimuli and their physiological reactions and brain impulses are recorded.  Clearly babies can hear inside the womb.  What we know from John is that they also can believe.  Because faith is simply trust in the Lord Jesus.  Just like a baby is born trusting Mom.  He doesn’t know her name.  He can’t understand her words and he can’t say anything about her.  Still, he knows her.  He knows her voice.  And he trusts her.  And in fact, he loves her.  When Christian parents learn they are expecting, they come to Church so that they and their baby can hear the Word of God and know the voice of Jesus, and they can rejoice that their precious baby belongs to Jesus.
            Mary and Elizabeth are the model Christian mothers, and they teach us what it means to be the Church.  Elizabeth is the Old Testament Church.  She has been waiting all her life for Messiah to come and save His people.  She is married to the priest, and covered by the sacrifices.  And she bears within her the last of the Old Testament prophets, St. John.  Mary is the New Testament Church.  Messiah has come to her in mercy and she bears Him within her.  She hears the Word concerning Him and she believes it.  And for this reason, she is blessed.  She, who is poor and lowly and despised in this world, is exalted by God, for the Lord is with her… Literally with her, in her womb.  In the same way, the holy Church bears Jesus within her.  He comes to her in mercy.  She hears the Word concerning Him, and believes it, and for this reason she is blessed.  The Lord is with her.  Quite literally, in His Body and Blood in the Supper.  And then, having heard and believed the Word of the Lord, Mary sings it.  She confesses the faith in song, the Magnificat,My soul now magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:36; ESV).  It is the first Christian hymn, and Mary is the first Christian hymn writer, and the Church still sings her song today.  Her song is all about Jesus and what He has done, which is always what Christian hymns should be about.  They should clearly confess Jesus and His redemption for sinners.  Look how the cross is confessed in this marvelous song.  The Lord does His mighty things for the lowly, by becoming lowly, despised, and rejected… the lowest of the low, submitting to death on the cross.  And in this way He brings down the mighty from their thrones.  Those who are high and exalted in this world and in their own eyes, He brings down.  But He exalts those who are of humble estate, the nothings of this world, the poor, the despised, the sinners, you.  He fills the hungry with good things, but the rich He sends empty away.  Poor little Mary, teenage unwed mother Mary, is the Mother of God.
            And poor little Holy Church, despised in this world, mocked by the proud and exalted ones, persecuted by the mighty… She is the Bride of Christ.  You poor, despised Christians who know the weakness of your own sinful flesh, whose souls are tortured by the state of things in this world in these gray and latter days, the war and the bloodshed, the slaughter of the precious little babes, the rebellion against our holy and righteous God, like Lot in the midst of Sodom… Jesus calls you friend.  He is not ashamed to call you brother, sister, for you are His own.  He bought you with His Blood.  His Father is your Father.  You are God’s own child, baptized into Christ.  And He breathes His Spirit into you, the breath of faith, the breath of life. 
            So you sing this song, as Mary does.  What is true for her is true for you.  Your soul magnifies the Lord, and your spirit rejoices in God your Savior, because He has looked upon you in the destitution of your sin and death, and He has had mercy upon you.  He forgives your sins, dies for them, in fact, and He is risen and gives you life.  Therefore all generations will call you blessed.  His mercy is for you.  He shows His strength with His arm, the arm nailed to the tree for you.  He scatters the proud, the unbelievers, the scoffers, in the imagination of their hearts.  He brings down the mighty from their thrones.  But you… you he exalts, at the proper time, in the proper way.  You, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, He fills with Righteousness Incarnate, the Body and Blood of Jesus.  And you are satisfied.  The rich, who scoff at such meager fare, he sends empty away.  He helps you.  He remembers His mercy toward you and He helps you.  Because He promised.  It’s what He promised to Father Abraham.  It’s what He promised to Abraham’s Offspring forever.  The Lord keeps His Word, and you are saved.  So you sing.

            And you leap with the joy of Baby John, here safe in the womb of Mother Church.  For Jesus comes to you and greets you through the voice of Mother Church, through the voice of your pastor, in the Preaching.  And hearing, you are filled with the Spirit, and you believe.  And you are blessed.  “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (v. 45).  That’s Mary.  That’s the Church.  That’s you.  Christmas is coming, beloved.  Jesus comes.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.    

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Third Sunday in Advent

Third Sunday in Advent (C)

December 13, 2015
Text: Luke 7:18-35

            John asks the question on everybody’s mind.  Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Luke 7:19; ESV).  Everything rides on the answer to this question.  John asks from the dungeon where he sits in chains.  He will lose his head for preaching Jesus.  So he just wants a little assurance that this isn’t all for nothing, that it’s worth it in the end, that the Gospel is worth dying for.  And that Jesus is, in fact, the Savior who will deliver John and all who believe the Gospel from death.  Truth be told, this is your question, too.  Oh, you don’t ask explicitly, out loud, like John does.  You don’t have the guts for that.  Then others may not think you’re a good Christian.  You don’t even admit the question to yourself.  Because then you’d have to acknowledge you have your own doubts about whether you’re a good Christian.  But there it is, that nagging question.  Is Jesus the One?  Should I really risk it all on Him?  Is He worth dying for?  Will He deliver me from death?  Sin?  Hell?  Because it would be a lot easier to forget this whole Christianity thing and get as much as I can out of this life now; eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.  In many ways it would be easier to believe there is nothing but what can be seen and experienced here and now.  Then there would be no accountability.  Then there would be no limits, no commandments.  No God means I am the god of myself.  Repent.  Snap out of it!  If that fantasy is true, then everything is meaningless.  Which is exactly what Satan wants you to believe.  Still, the question is important.  It is the question of Advent.  Is Jesus the One?  Is He the Savior?  Or should we look for another?  Should we seek salvation somewhere else: Our own works, our spouse, our family, our job, our president, education, environmentalism, wealth, power, pleasure?  Should we rot in a dungeon and lose our head for Jesus?
            Interestingly, our Lord does not answer the question directly.  He tells John’s disciples to report back what they had seen and heard: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have the good news preached to them” (v. 22).  Then He adds a benediction: “blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (v. 23).  Blessed is the one who is not ashamed to be shackled and feel the cold of flashing steel for my sake.  For yes, this is all worth it John.  Your life and your preaching, your suffering and your death, are not in vain.  Jesus does not answer the question directly, but John would get the message loud and clear.  Jesus is doing all the things Isaiah prophesied He would 750 years earlier: “The Spirit of the LORD GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Is. 61:1).  “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy” (35:5-6).  Jesus does what God promised Messiah would do.  So you tell me, John.  Am I the One?  What does the Word say?  Jesus points John to the Word.  And so He points us.  The Word preaches Jesus into our ears and hearts and souls.  The Word answers the question.  If this is what Jesus does, should we look for any other?  Can our family or our job do this?  Can politicians deliver this?  Can all the power or money in the world buy this?  No.  So look no further. 
            And notice that all the miracles Jesus does physically for the suffering during His earthly ministry, He does for us spiritually now, and will do for us bodily in the resurrection.  Now, this is not to deny that miraculous healings happen today.  In fact, every healing we experience is a miracle.  It’s a gift from Jesus.  We’re just too used to it to notice, “Oh, I didn’t die from that cold I had last week.  Praise be to Christ!”  We’re a lot more like the nine lepers who went away than we are like the Samaritan who returned to give Jesus thanks (Luke 17:11-19).  But don’t miss how Jesus is performing all the miracles He did in His earthly ministry upon you as you hear His Word.  He heals you of the disease of sin, the plague of death, and He casts the evil spirits out of you.  You who are born in spiritual blindness: He opens your eyes and gives you spiritual sight, as we confess in the Small Catechism: His Spirit calls you by the Gospel and enlightens you with His gifts, so that you see Christ as your Savior even though He is hidden from your eyes.  The Word turns the lights on for you.  You who are lame: He sets you on your feet and gives you to walk in the way of His Word.  You whose sin eats you up like leprosy: He cleanses you with His Blood.  He bathes you in His Baptism and administers the medicine of immortality in the Supper of His Body and Blood.  You who are deaf: He opens your ears to hear His living voice in preaching and Scripture.  He raises you who are spiritually stillborn, born dead to Him… He raises you to new and everlasting life in a spiritual rebirth by water and the Word.  And you poor (and you are poor!  You have nothing with which to buy God’s favor and get eternal life!)… you poor to this day have the Good News preached to you, the Good News that Jesus is your Savior, that He has come for you.  And that is the greatest miracle.  Jesus loves you, oh sinner.  Jesus died for you.  Jesus is risen for you.  And by the preaching of that Good News, you believe in Him, and so you have Him.
            What He does for you spiritually now, He will do for you bodily on the Last Day.  Your Body will be raised without disease, without injury, without any affliction.  Perfect sight.  Lame men leaping like deer.  Skin soft and clear.  Perfect hearing.  Eternal life.  Death will be no more.  The miracles are a picture of the resurrection.  Every miracle is a Promise that comes to pass in Jesus who was dead, but now lives and reigns forevermore. 
            It is a scandal, this Gospel.  For John and Jesus come in weakness.  John is the King’s herald.  Yet he does not come in splendid clothing and royal luxury.  He comes in camel’s hair and leather, eating locusts and wild honey.  He does not preach in palaces, but in the wilderness.  He does not roll out the red carpet and invite you to a royal ball.  Instead he invites you to a bath of repentance and the forgiveness of your sins.  And he points you to Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away your sin.  John at least looks like a prophet, but Jesus looks like a nobody.  He has no form or majesty, no beauty that we should desire Him (Is. 53:2).  Among those born of women there is none greater than John.  Yet the One who is least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he.  And that can only be Jesus, who becomes the least and the last, who suffers the rejection of the chief priests and scribes and Pharisees, who is a friend of tax collectors and sinners, who suffers the accursed death of crucifixion for them and for you.  He is forsaken of the Father there, hanging naked on the cross.  And you can’t get any lower or lesser than that.  This He does for you.  And for this reason He is the greatest.  He wins the Kingdom of God by purchasing it with His own blood.  He does it to make you His own.  He dies so that you live.  Does that answer the question?  Should you look for any other Savior?  He’s done it all.  For you.  The answer Jesus gives, to John’s question and to yours, is His death on the cross, and His resurrection from the dead.
            This generation does not like the answer.  “This generation” in the Scriptures is always those who belong to this life and this world.  In other words, it is unbelievers.  You see, this kind of Gospel… crazy preachers in the wilderness, Saviors who suffer and die… this isn’t something this generation can understand.  In this world, Ivy League professors hold forth wisdom, and Superman saves.  But that is not the way of Jesus.  This generation calls the tune and we do not dance.  We do not rejoice in what this world rejoices in.  We do not mourn what this world mourns.  “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep” (Luke 7:32).  Why are Christians persecuted in the world?  Why does our own media mock us?  Why do our own elites laugh at us?  Because they can’t understand us.  They can’t understand the Gospel.  They can’t understand Jesus.  They can’t understand the cross.  We will never win in the court of political correctness.  No matter which political party is in power or who sits on the Supreme Court, the Church must suffer, as did her Lord.  That’s life under the cross.

            But “wisdom is justified by all her children” (v. 35).  What on earth does that mean?  Wisdom is God’s plan of salvation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Really, wisdom is Jesus Himself.  And wisdom’s children are those who believe in Jesus.  You, and all sinners who believe in Christ, are born of wisdom.  You declare wisdom to be right… you justify her.  You declare her to be true.  Now, this is the complete opposite of this generation’s rejection of Christ and the Gospel.  For the time being, it appears as though this generation has won the argument.  After all, they are in power, or so it seems.  But what happens in the End is that everything is turned on its head.  As it turns out, the elite of this generation ruled at God’s bidding, the very God they have rejected.  And wisdom’s children who suffered in this life?  They rule.  You rule, with Christ.  The suffering was from Christ, for your good.  And it cannot be compared to the glory you will have then.  It is hidden now, as wisdom so often is.  But not then.  Then every eye will see.  And so will you.  It’s hard to remember that now.  Even John had his doubts, his “what ifs.”  Such is the weakness of the flesh.  But hear the Word of the Lord: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have the good news preached to them.  And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (vv. 22-23).  In hearing the Word, you know.  Jesus is the One.  There is no other Savior.  He lived for you.  He died for you.  His risen and lives forever for you.  He still eats and drinks with sinners.  He eats and drinks with you.  He who has ears to hear, let him hear.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.