Cruce Tectum

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

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Location: Dorr, Michigan

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Third Sunday after the Epiphany (B)

January 25, 2015
Text: Mark 1:14-20

            Our Lord Jesus Christ is THE Preacher in Christian Church, and He is the content of all Christian preaching.  THE Preacher, the content of the preaching.  So it is that Jesus came into Galilee, preaching, “proclaiming the gospel of God” (Mark 1:14; ESV).  And the Gospel of God is this: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” (v. 15).  The Kingdom of God is none other than Jesus Himself, whom God sent into the world at just the right time to redeem the world by His blood and death.  The Kingdom of God is all those whom the crucified and risen Lord Jesus has drawn to Himself, to be His own, to live under Him… You.  This is good news for a world under the tyranny of Satan.  The word “Gospel” means “good news.”  Jesus proclaims the good news that He has broken into the world to deliver you from the power of Satan, from the slavery of your own sin, and from the destiny of death and eternal condemnation.  And so the message of all Christian preaching is that which Jesus proclaims: Now is the time!  Jesus has come!  “(R)epent and believe in the gospel” (v. 15).  Turn from sin, from Satan, and from all that holds you captive and believe what Jesus says.  Believe what He has come to do.  Believe that He saves you.  Believe it and it is yours.  No conditions.  No caveats or qualifiers.  Believe in Jesus as your Savior and you possess His salvation full and free.
            Now our Lord, 40 days after His resurrection from the dead, ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.  It is not that He left us.  After all, He promised, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).  He is present with us, with His Church, ruling over His Kingdom, chiefly by means of His Word and the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  But His is a hidden presence.  He is hidden under these means.  But THE Preacher has not left us without His preaching.  He has given us Apostles, even as He gave us the prophets of old.  The word “apostle” means “sent one.”  An apostle is one officially sent to execute a very specific responsibility on behalf of the one sending him.  And in the matter for which he is sent, the apostle has all the authority of the one sending him.  That His message might be proclaimed in all the earth, our Lord Jesus chose Twelve Apostles, among whom are Peter and Andrew, James and John, whom He calls to follow Him in our Holy Gospel this morning.  These Apostles are officially sent to proclaim a message from Jesus, the King.  In this matter they possess all the authority of Christ Himself.  When you hear the Apostles, you hear Jesus.  And their message is nothing new.  It is what Jesus, the Preacher, preached.  They preach the Gospel of God.  They preach the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for you.  They preach: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
            When Jesus called these two sets of brothers in our text, He found them doing the work of fishermen, their family profession.  Simon and Andrew were casting their nets.  James and John were mending theirs.  “Follow me,” Jesus tells them, “and I will make you become fishers of men” (v. 17).  We love this text, and all of us memorized it in Sunday School or VBS.  Usually this verse is held out to us as Jesus’ admonition that we all get busy evangelizing, that He makes us all fishers of men sent out to catch people for the Kingdom.  Now, of course, it is certainly true that we should all speak of Jesus in our daily lives and vocations, to our family members and friends and neighbors and those around us.  It is certainly true that we should confess the faith, invite people to Church, and in general speak and act in such a way that people know the hope that is in us and want to have that hope in themselves.  There are many texts that speak of this.  But that is not really what this Gospel is about.  This is a Holy Ministry text.  The Apostles are called away from their profession into a new vocation as official spokesmen for Jesus.  In other words, pastors, preachers, and in this case, a special office that only exists in the infancy of the New Testament Church: Apostles.  Jesus is giving His Church a gift in this text: The Office of the Holy Ministry, that by the preaching of His Word, including the visible Sacramental Word, you and I come to saving faith in Him.  Our Confessions put it this way: “To obtain such faith God instituted the office of the ministry, that is, provided the Gospel and the sacraments.  Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit, who works faith, when and where he pleases, in those who hear the Gospel.  And the Gospel teaches that we have a gracious God, not by our own merits but by the merit of Christ, when we believe this” (Tappert, AC V:1-3).
            It is not by accident that our Lord compares the Apostolic work of Gospel ministry to that of fishermen.  Later in His ministry, Jesus compared the Kingdom of God to “a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind” (Matt. 13:47).  That is, by the preaching of the Gospel, believers are gathered to Christ in His Church.  When Simon and Andrew are called to follow Jesus, Mark tells us that “immediately they left their [literal] nets and followed him” (Mark 1:18).  Interesting Greek word here for “left.”  Though that is certainly the intended meaning, it can also mean “forgave.”  If I may be so bold as to translate it imaginatively, “they forgave their nets,” which points us to their new work as Apostles.  If the net is the Kingdom, the Church of Jesus Christ, the Apostles and the ministers who follow in their tradition are to be about the work of forgiving the nets, forgiving the sinners who have been caught by the Gospel proclamation.  So also James and John.  When Jesus calls them, they are in their boat “mending the nets” (v. 19).  The word for “mending” may also be translated “restoring.”  The Apostles and the ministers who follow in their tradition are to be about the work of restoring the nets, restoring sinners to the Father by proclaiming and distributing the saving and reconciling work of Jesus in Word and Sacrament.  Forgiving and restoring.  That is the work of Apostolic ministry.  That is what the Apostles are officially sent by Jesus to do.  That is the goal of the proclamation of the Gospel of God: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” 
            Now the Apostles are no longer with us in this world.  They all met their martyrdom in one way or another.  They rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer for the Name of Jesus (Cf. Acts 5:41).  They join us now at the altar with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.  But they still preach to us.  They preach to us in Holy Scripture.  They are still entrusted with the Apostolic message, the preaching of Jesus Christ.  It is recorded in the inspired and inerrant Word of God, the Bible.  And so also, the Lord Jesus continues to send men to speak for Him.  They are not Apostles, but they are given to speak the Word the Apostles spoke, which is the Word of Jesus.  They are the Christian pastors.  Like the Apostles, their message is nothing new.  It is what Jesus, the Preacher, preached.  And it still has all the authority of Jesus Himself, so that when you hear a preacher preaching the Word of God, you hear Jesus Himself.  When your pastor says, “I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit,” that is as sure and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with you Himself… because He has dealt with you Himself, behind the mask of the Office of the Ministry.  When the pastor baptizes, it is Jesus who baptizes.  When the pastor proclaims the Scriptures, it is Jesus calling you to repent and believe in the Gospel.  When the pastor consecrates the bread and wine, it is Jesus giving you His true Body and Blood for the forgiveness of your sins.  In the Office of the Holy Ministry, Jesus continues to fish for men.  The fish are gathered in the Gospel nets.  They are forgiven and restored. 

            And the great twist in this whole thing is that, as a fish in the net of Jesus’ Kingdom, it is not that you are sold at the fish market, sliced open, roasted, and gobbled up.  Our Lord catches you, not for death, but for life.  To swim in the pristine waters of your Baptism.  To live each of your days in the shadow of His cross, repenting of your sins, and believing that in Christ your sins are forgiven and you have eternal life.  Jesus, THE Preacher, and the content of the preaching, sends His messengers, Apostles and pastors, to speak Him into your ears and place Him on your tongue.  And so hearing and eating and drinking, you believe.  And believing, you have… You have Jesus, and He has you.  And so, the Kingdom of God is at hand.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.       

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Second Sunday after the Epiphany

Second Sunday after the Epiphany (B)

January 18, 2015
Text: John 1:43-51

            The Lord Jesus calls you as He called Philip in our Holy Gospel: “Follow me” (John 1:43; ESV).  The Lord calls you in Baptism.  He calls you in His holy Word.  To follow Jesus is to be His disciple, to follow in His discipline.  It is to hear and keep His Word, to receive His teaching, to follow in the way that He goes.  And the way that He goes is the way of the cross.  So to follow Jesus is also to suffer the crosses He lays upon you, and to sacrifice yourself for the good of your neighbor.  That means to give of what you’ve been given, relying on the Lord to provide whatever you lack.  That means to give your life, if necessary, for the sake of your neighbor, as Christ gave His life to save you for life eternal.  Part of what brings on this suffering and sacrifice is your Christian position regarding the culturally contentious issues of the day.  And so this is Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, always the Sunday prior to the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, and Christians are unapologetically pro-life.  How could we be anything else, having freely received the Gospel of life in Christ?  Now, this is not the Church taking political sides in terms of party affiliation or elections, though we are often accused of that very thing.  But as the Church of Jesus Christ, entrusted with the proclamation of God’s holy Word, we are to be a prophetic voice in the wilderness of this culture of death.  Let me tell you,  none of the prophets lived a cross-free life, and very few of them died of old age.  The Church has an obligation to the unborn to oppose this holocaust, estimated at over 57 million abortions since Roe v. Wade.  57 million!  This is THE issue of our time.  And don’t think that God will allow this to go on forever.  Those who follow Jesus Christ are charged with calling the culture to repentance, speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves, and fostering culture of life and forgiveness and grace in Christ.  So too, the Church ought to be on the front lines of helping unwed mothers and those in crisis pregnancy situations, as well as ministering to women who have had an abortion, and the men involved in those decisions.  There is help, and there is healing in Christ.
            Then there is the marriage issue and the whole host of sexual issues the Church is called to address.  St. Paul addresses these in our Epistle: “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body… Flee from sexual immorality” (1 Cor. 6:13, 18).  Your body is sacred, redeemed by our Lord’s bodily death and resurrection for you.  Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, and God will raise it again on the Last Day to live forever with Him, pure and holy.  You should treat it that way.  Your body is not your own, to do with as you please.  It was bought at a price, the precious blood of Jesus.  Therefore glorify God with your body (vv. 19-20).  You should not have sex outside of marriage.  You should not have sex before marriage.  You should not live together outside of marriage.  You should not have sexual relations with those of your same gender.  You should live chaste and decent lives in what you say and do, and husbands and wives love and honor each other.   These things should go without saying for the Christian, but they don’t.  So St. Paul has to say them, and so do I, and so do you as the holy Church. We are once again to be a prophetic voice in the wilderness of this world, to hold up marriage as God intends it, the lifelong union of one man and one woman, the basic building block of society, charged with the care and protection of children.  And the Church must be on the front lines of care for those who are trapped in sexual immorality, for homosexuals, for the divorced, for the victimized, for the lonely, always by the clear light of God’s holy Word, always in light of His will for marriage and sexuality as His good gifts.  Such proclamation won’t win you any popularity contests with the culture.  The culture will call you haters, prudes, and hypocrites.  They may even persecute you.  Because these are also sacred issues for the culture.  We’re hitting on the idolatry of our society.  The sexual issues go hand in hand with abortion.  They both have to do with the desire for uninhibited sexual activity, with whomever or whatever you want, completely divorced from the obligations of commitment and procreation.  And there really is nothing new under the sun.  Just as the ancient cults had their temple prostitutes and human sacrifice, we have the hyper-sexualization of the culture and abortion.  Speak against those and you will suffer the cross.  But Jesus, your crucified Lord, says to you: “Follow me.”
            Following Jesus is hard.  You would rather follow other voices.  You would rather go along to get along with the culture, to avoid controversies in your family and among your friends.  And you would rather cater to your own fleshly desires and comfort than have to follow after Jesus and suffer.  Repent.  Our Lord calls you to follow Him on the way of the cross, to suffer and die, and in this way to live with Him.  He will raise you up.  You can suffer now in the confidence of that promise.  Jesus called Philip, and Philip (it is believed) was crucified and stoned to death while hanging on the cross.  Why?  Because he preached the Gospel.  He followed Christ.  Jesus called Nathanael (also known as Bartholomew), and Nathanael (it is believed) was flayed alive and crucified by the pagan priests in Armenia.  Because he preached the Gospel.  He followed Christ.  And Jesus called St. Peter, whose confession of Christ we also commemorate today (Cf. Mark 8:27-35), and Peter (it is believed) was crucified upside down in Rome the same day St. Paul was beheaded in Rome.  Because they preached the Gospel.  They followed Christ.  These men followed Christ, literally, to the cross.  They died, and yet they live.  Because following Jesus on the way of the cross, you also follow Him on the way of the empty tomb.  You follow Him to eternal life.  You follow Him to the resurrection.  “God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power” (1 Cor. 6:14). 
            So you confess the faith.  You speak the truth in love.  And most importantly you proclaim Christ as Savior.  This is actually a lot less difficult than we make it.  Evangelism is really quite simple.  Philip is our model here.  How does he witness to Nathanael?  He simply invites him to come and meet Jesus.  “Come and see,” he says (John 1:46), and that is our whole evangelism program in one simple phrase.  Invite people to come and see.  Invite people to Church.  If they ask you to give an account for the hope that you have in Christ (1 Peter 3:15), give them the basics of the Creed.  And then invite to them to come here and see for themselves.  Understand, whether they believe or not isn’t up to you.  That’s the Holy Spirit’s problem.  You can’t convert anyone.  Only He can.  By the Word.  By Baptism.  He calls others in the same way you were called, by the Means of Grace. 
            For in these Means of Grace, the Word and the Sacraments, you see Christ crucified for sinners, Christ risen for you.  And you invite others to come and see Jesus of Nazareth in the Means of Grace for them.  We often think that for the Church to be relevant to the culture today, we have to make it flashy, exciting, cutting edge.  We have to spice up the message with special effects.  Over against this, Jesus says that Nathanael will see something even greater than His demonstration of miraculous foreknowledge, seeing and knowing Nathanael even while He was under the fig tree.  He says that Nathanael “will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (v. 51).  Nathanael will see Jacob’s ladder (Gen. 28), the bridge between God in heaven and this fallen world.  And so will you, here, in the Means of Grace.  The ladder is the cross.  The bridge by which sinner cross to heaven is the Son of Man lifted up.  The way to God is Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.
            “Follow me,” says Jesus.  And you do.  You follow His voice in preaching and Scripture.  You follow Him through the flood of your Baptism into Christ, and to the Table of His Body and Blood.  You follow Him through the cross and suffering, to resurrection and eternal life.  With Him there is forgiveness of all your sins, forgiveness for all those times you’ve failed to speak, failed to act, failed to serve and sacrifice and suffer… failed to follow.  With Him there is righteousness.  With Him there is, in the end, peace.  It isn’t easy to be a disciple of Jesus.  Following Him can be perilous in this body and life.  But His is the way of life eternal.  His is the way of truth.  Following Jesus, you are safe.  Following Jesus, you are always on the right path.  And so, thanks be to God, by His grace and by His Spirit, by His precious work in you, you ever follow the voice of your Good Shepherd as He calls to you: “Follow me.”  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.        


Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Baptism of Our Lord

The Baptism of Our Lord (B)
January 11, 2015

Text: Mark 1:4-11

            “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness” (Mark 1:4; ESV).  The people, all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem, were going out to the wilderness to be baptized by John in the River Jordan (v. 5).  They come to the wilderness, to the wild, to the place of nothingness, to the place of death.  They come to the place where the only water is the dirty, stinking, rancid water of the Jordan.  But they come in their thirst.  Their physical surroundings serve as vivid testimony to their own spiritual reality.  They are parched.  They are dying.  They are dead.  Sin has done this.  Sin has separated them from God, the Lord and Giver of Life.  Sin has turned them into dirty, stinking, rancid corpses.  But John comes to this place of death with a Word from the living God.  John comes into the wilderness “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (v. 4).  It is a Word of life in the midst of death.  It is water in the dessert, water pure and clean, refreshing and life-giving.  The gift brought about by this Word is nothing less than the resurrection of the dead, and everlasting life. 
            With what eagerness the people of Judea and Jerusalem sought this refreshing and revivifying Word, because they knew they were in the wilderness.  What about you?  Do you know that you, too, are in the wilderness, the wild, the place of nothingness, the place of death?  The unbelieving world, the fallenness of creation, the fallen nature of your own sinful flesh, these are the marks of the wilderness.  I think somewhere deep down in the subconscious of every person there is some knowledge of the emptiness and thirst of the human soul.  That is why all of us humans, Christians included, are constantly striving to fill ourselves and slake our thirst with the stuff of this world.  We always want more money, more possessions, more power, more pleasure.  We always seek the approval and accolades of men.  We always seek new experiences of the world.  We have our bucket lists, the things we want to do before we die.  Now, not all of these things are bad in and of themselves.  But we think these things will fulfill us.  We think these things will slake our thirst.  We seek salvation in the stuff of this world.  And this is like slaking your thirst in the wilderness by drinking sand.  But it is even worse than that.  Because in seeking your fulfillment from these things of the world, you reject the living, life-giving water of God.  You reject His Spirit.  You reject Jesus.  And that is like preferring to drink sand when a man is holding out to you a skin of pure, clean, life-giving water.  It’s madness.  But that’s the blindness of our sinful flesh.
            But there is good news.  Your Lord Jesus comes right into this wilderness, this place of nothingness, this place of death, to be baptized by John in the River Jordan (v. 9).  He comes to the place where sin has been repented, confessed, washed away in Baptism, forgiven, absolved.  Now of course Jesus, the sinless Son of God, does not need Baptism.  He does not need to repent.  He has no sin to repent of.  But He wades into the dirty, stinking, rancid waters of the Jordan, and He soaks up all the sins that had been washed away there, sloughed off in Confession, scrubbed away in repentance.  He soaks it all into Himself, the sins of the people baptized by St. John, the sins of the Baptized in all generations, the sin of the world, your sin.  Your death.  Your condemnation.  And He leaves in its place all the benefits of Christian Baptism.  His righteousness.  His life.  His salvation.  By His Baptism in the Jordan, our Lord Jesus, as Luther prays in his Flood Prayer, “sanctified and instituted all waters to be a blessed flood and a lavish washing away of sin” (LSB 269).  He is baptized into you, that you may be baptized into Him.  And what happens to Him at His Baptism becomes your blessed reality in your Baptism.  Heaven is torn open.  You have free access to God and an eternal home with Him in His Kingdom.  The Holy Spirit descends upon you and dwells with you, hovering over the face of the baptismal waters, sanctifying you and preserving you in the one true faith of Jesus Christ.  And the Father says of you at the font what He said of Jesus in the Jordan: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (v. 11).
            Yes, God is well pleased with you.  He calls you “son,” and puts His Name on you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  He bids you call on Him as your Father, and He hears, and He answers.  Because you are in Jesus.  You are baptized into Christ.  So you are no longer empty.  You are no longer enslaved to sin and death.  You are no longer condemned.  You are filled with Christ and His righteousness.  You are alive in Christ, who died for you, and is risen from the dead.  He has opened heaven, and no one can shut it.  Not even your sin.  Because you are baptized, a Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  Your sin is gone. 
            Your Baptism into Christ is life-giving water in the wilderness.  You are still in the wilderness, but you are no longer of it.  You are in the wilderness as long as you live in this fallen world, as long as you live in your fallen flesh.  And because you live in this wilderness, you will still be tempted to slake your thirst, to be filled with all that is not your Baptism, with all that is not Jesus.  You will still be tempted to gulp down the sand.  And because you still have the old sinful flesh plaguing you, often you will take a big swig of wilderness soil.  You still sin.  But when you do, you have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the righteous, who has filled you with Himself.  You are still baptized.  So you return to your Baptism.  You repent.  You confess.  You are absolved, forgiven, refreshed, set free.  You live each day in the wilderness of this world under a new reality.  God sustains you and fills you with the water of life. 
            And you will live, forever.  And you have new life in Christ already, now.  You live in thanksgiving and praise for all that God has accomplished in Jesus’ Baptism, and yours, in the Great Exchange that takes place by Baptism, whereby all that is yours Christ takes upon Himself, and all that is Christ’s He gives to you, freely and graciously.  You live to love and sacrifice for your neighbor, to be a little christ to him.  The old you is dead.  The new you in Christ is risen and living.  For “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, on order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4).  That newness of life is the Christian life, the life lived in the wilderness sustained by the baptismal water of life.  It is the new creation in Christ.  It is the life filled with the Holy Spirit, as a child of the Father.

            The Lord sends you out into the wilderness, but He also sends His man there, your pastor, to preach, to proclaim a Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, to pour out upon you and into you the water of life.  The world will never fill you and it will never slake your thirst.  But Jesus will, here in His Word and Sacraments.  “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God” (Ps. 42:1).  The Lord hears your prayer, and He answers.  The voice of the Lord is over the waters (Ps. 29:3).  The waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert (Is. 35:6), for God has spoken.  You are baptized.  You are His.  And you are full.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.             

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Holy Innocents

The Holy Innocents

December 28, 2014
Text: Matt. 2:13-18

            Perhaps those Bethlehem mothers had just rocked their baby boys to sleep.  Finally, all was quiet.  They sat there by the fire, babes in arms, listening to the slow, slumbering breath of their precious little boys, entranced by the rhythm of those tiny little hearts.  Their own eyes were heavy with the weariness of the day.  Their heads began to nod.  Then suddenly the doors of their hovels flung open.  Herod’s soldiers came crashing in, brandishing swords, ripping those precious baby boys from their mothers’ arms, with no explanation, going about their murderous, bloody business.  Every male child, 2 years old and under, in Bethlehem and vicinity, slain.  Because jealous Herod heard from the wise men that one had been born King of the Jews, for they saw His star in the east, and had come to worship him (Matt. 2:2).  Herod could not allow this threat to his rule to stand.  Thus the soldiers and the flashing of steel.  The boys silenced for good, their mothers wailing, arms empty.  “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more” (Matt. 2:18; ESV; cf. Jer. 31:15).  Merry Christmas! 
            We call them the Holy Innocents, not because they were sinless, but because they had done nothing to merit Herod’s ire.  And because they were righteous by faith, sins forgiven in Christ, innocent with His innocence.  For these boys were circumcised on the 8th Day.  They were Covenant boys, God’s boys.  They died because Herod was seeking to kill Jesus.  He figured if he killed them all, he would kill the One he perceived as a threat.  But it was not yet our Lord’s time.  His time would come, in just a little more than thirty years.  But for now, He escapes, Joseph being warned in a dream to take the Child, Jesus, and His  mother, Mary, down to Egypt and remain there until the threat has passed (Matt. 2:13-14).  Now, you may misunderstand this event, as though Jesus threw the Bethlehem boys under the bus to save His own neck.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  Jesus escaped to die another day for these boys, and for their mothers and fathers, for the whole world, the atoning death of the cross for you.  And these boys, they are comforted now.  They are safe.  They are with Christ in heaven.  They rejoice that they were counted worthy to shed their blood for Jesus.  They were the first Christian martyrs.  And the Lord Jesus will raise them from the dead and restore them to their mothers’ arms on the Last Day. 
            The great mystery that we find so hard to comprehend in all of this is that God works His good through death.  These boys die as a witness that our Lord would accomplish His saving mission by His own death.  These boys die as a witness against a cruel world ruled by murderous tyrants, exposing our great need for the salvation of the Lord.  These boys die to send the toddling Savior into Egypt, “to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’” (v. 15; cf. Hos. 11:1).  These boys die, and the sword of grief pierces the souls of their mothers, a type of the sword that would pierce Mary’s soul at the foot of the cross.  They are a type of Jesus.  Their blood foreshadows His blood shed for them.  Their blood is made holy by His blood, their death by His death, and as He is risen, they will be raised.  All of this is not to deny that their death was tragic.  Death always is, and especially the death of little children.  Betrayed to death by their own government, the government put in place by God to protect them.  Such is the wicked pattern of this world.  The Holy Innocents slaughtered by Herod’s soldiers.  Babies torn limb from limb or chemically burned to death by the thousands each day by government funded and endorsed abortion factories in our own nation, the holocaust of the unborn, a 9/11 every day. 
            I don’t know what the good of that is.  But I know the Lord will work great good even out of this horrendous evil, because He has promised (Rom. 8:28).  That is what He does.  He has done this before.  Recall the situation in Egypt.  Prophecies that a deliverer would come to free the Hebrew slaves from Egyptian bondage.  Once again, a monarch is threatened by babies.  Every Hebrew baby boy is to be killed, cast into the Nile, Pharaoh’s orders.  Moses’ mother casts him into the Nile, but in a basket of bulrushes, and floats him down the river into the arms of Pharaoh’s daughter.  He is raised as her own son, and grows up to be that promised deliverer to lead his people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.  All those little boys died so that this one could live and save many more.  All of this is a type, of course, of what happened on a grander scale in Bethlehem.  Those boys died so that Jesus could live and save the whole world. 
            That is the ultimate good that our God works through death.  And that is the great comfort for those weeping and wailing mothers of Bethlehem, and Egypt, and for any parent who has ever lost a child.  God suffered the death of His Son, too.  In fact, He gave Him up willingly into that death, to save those baby boys and every one of us children of our mothers from the eternal death of hell.  It was the supreme sacrifice, God in the flesh nailed to the cross.  He is the sacrifice of atonement for your sins.  He bears your sins to death, so that you can live as God’s child, holy and righteous.  That is what Christmas is all about.  This Child was born to die for you.  The death of the Holy Innocents points to the death of the one true Holy Innocent for the life of the world.  The salvation of the world is accomplished in that death.  And the Child does not stay dead.  He is risen.  He is risen to give eternal life to you and to all who believe in Him.  He will raise the boys of Bethlehem.  He will raise their mothers.  He will raise you. 
            We do not understand the Lord’s ways.  His ways are not our ways.  His thoughts are not our thoughts.  His ways and thoughts are as much higher than ours as the heavens are higher than the earth (Is. 55:8-9).  He knows what is good for us.  We think we know, but we don’t.  God is God and we are not.  He knows, and He does all things for our good and for our salvation.  Even death.  So many suffer with grief during the holidays.  There are empty places at the table.  Loved ones who were so much a part of the festivities now celebrate the feast on the other side of the veil.  We don’t know how that can be for our good.  But faith confesses that, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, God is doing all things well.  And the proof of it is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world.  The proof of it is the Body and Blood of the Lord placed into your mouth for the forgiveness of your sins and eternal life. 

            God even works your own death for your good.  The death you’ve already died at the font, baptized into the death of Christ, that even as He is risen from the dead, you, too, might walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4).  Because you died there, you need not fear death.  For you, it is nothing but a blessed sleep, your soul safe with Christ in heaven, your body in the ground, to be raised for all eternity on that blessed day when our Lord returns to judge the living and the dead.  As for the boys in Bethlehem, so for you.  Your death day is your birth into the joy and peace of heaven.  It is the day you will see for yourself what you now believe but do not see.  You will see Jesus.  And before you know it, you will see Him with your resurrection eyes.  Then it will all make sense.  Your questions will be answered.  Your aching heart will be relieved.  Rachel and you will be comforted.  And God will wipe away your tears.  For your loved ones who died in the Lord will be restored into your arms.  Merry Christmas!  Christ is born for you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.             

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Day

The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Day

December 25, 2014
Text: John 1:1-18

            The good news of Christmas is that you don’t have to work your way up to God.  He comes down to you in the flesh.  He comes as a Baby, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.  He is God.  He is Man.  He is one with your flesh.  He comes to make His dwelling with you.  He comes to be present with you, and to be present for you.  Now, this is incredibly good news, because if you had to climb some sort of ladder up to God, you would never stop climbing.  No matter how high you got climbing the ladder of the Law, you would never reach the level of our holy and righteous God.  And every sin you commit, every impure thought, every lustful glance, every twinge of bitterness or hatred or greed, would knock you off the ladder.  And there would be no second chances.  There is no getting on the ladder again.  Sin disqualifies you.  Which means you are sunk from the beginning, because even before you’ve committed an actual sin, you have inherited the guilt of Adam.  You are born in sin, and in sin did your mother conceive you (Ps. 51:5).  That is the predicament of all humanity.  You are not worthy.  You are not good enough.  You cannot ascend to God by keeping His Law.  You will never reach Him that way.  So God comes to you in the humility of His only-begotten Son, wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger, because there is no room for Him in the inn (Luke 2:7).
            “In the beginning…” (John 1:1; ESV).  In our Holy Gospel, St. John takes us back to Genesis.  “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1).  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:1, 3).  It is this Word of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the eternal Son of God, who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (v. 14).  The Creator has come into His creation.  The Creator has come to make His dwelling in the midst of His creation, in the midst of His people, to tabernacle among them, to be one with them, to be one with you.  The Creator has come into your flesh to redeem you.  Because you could not ascend to Him, He has come down to you.  The Word, the Son of God, has come down to the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, to be a Son of Adam, to undo all that Adam did and all that you have done, and make Adam and you sons of God once again.
            And He comes right into the midst of your broken mess of a life.  He doesn’t wait for you to be good enough or clean enough.  He doesn’t wait for you to polish up your life so that you and He can live in the delusion that everything is just fine without Him.  He knows just how screwed up everything is, just how screwed up you are.  He knows about your unfaithfulness, the things you do and say and think in secret.  He knows your selfishness, your pride, your loose tongue, your wandering eye.  You can hide those sins from yourself, but you can’t hide them from Jesus.  The good news of Christmas is that He comes to you, not even in spite of those things, but because of them, to deal with them, to take them away from you, to take them upon Himself and bear them to the cross.  That is why He had to be born as a real Man, fully Man, really born of a woman, real flesh and blood.  So that He could stand in for you and take the corruption of your flesh upon Himself, and so that He, even though He is God, could die.  For you.  So that you, being man, can live.  In Him. 
            You see, He comes into your mess of a life as Life in the midst of death, as Light in the midst of darkness.  All life has its source in the speaking of God.  The Word that became flesh and dwelt among us, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (v. 4).  And the thing about this Life from Jesus Christ, which is the Light of men, is that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (v. 5).  Your darkness, your sin, your sadness, your suffering, your death, cannot overcome the Light and Life that Jesus brings.  Christ Jesus is risen from the dead.  And He will raise you.  You have eternal life.  What happens when Jesus comes to you is that His Life dispels your death, takes over, encompasses you.  His Light dispels your darkness, shines into every corner of your body and soul, your heart and your mind, and completely envelopes you.  In Christ, all your sin is gone.  In Christ, your death is done.  In Christ, all that is wrong is right.  In Christ, you are a child of the heavenly Father.  You are not worthy, but He is.  He is your worthiness.  You are not good, but He is.  He is your goodness.  He is your righteousness.  He is your holiness.  In Him, you stand before God as a son, to inherit the Kingdom with Christ.  All of this is yours, not by works, but by faith.  By believing in Him.  By receiving Him, receiving your Christmas gift from God, your heavenly Father.  “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (v. 12). 
            You receive Him on your head and in your ears and in your mouth.  Water, Word, bread and wine, the Body and Blood born of the Virgin Mary.  He comes to you still in the humility of the Means of Grace.  He comes to you still right in the midst of your broken mess of a life.  He comes for the broken.  He comes for sinners.  How many of our members stay away from Church, stay away from the Body and Blood of Jesus, because they think their lives are just too broken and messy for Him?  Dear brothers and sisters, this should not be.  If your life is broken and messy and you know it, come.  This Supper is for you.  It is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick (Luke 5:31).  Christmas is for broken people.  The Church is a hospital for sinners.  Christ comes to you here in the midst of your sickness and darkness and death.  To make you whole by His Life and Light.  That under these humble vessels you see His glory, “glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).  That from His fullness you receive grace upon grace (v. 16).

            And so we feast.  The Creator has come to rescue His creation.  He has come in the flesh to redeem our flesh.  Christ is our Immanuel, God with us.  And He is our Light and our Life.  Joy to the world, the Lord has come.  Now sing we, now rejoice, with heart and soul and voice, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, over what our God has done.  God is a Man.  And in Him we are all made sons of God.  Merry Christmas!  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.            

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Fourth Sunday in Advent

Fourth Sunday in Advent (B)

December 21, 2014
Text: Luke 1:26-38

            “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37; ESV).  We love that verse, because it is true, of course.  It means the sky is the limit for God.  He is Almighty.  He is all powerful.  He can do whatever He pleases.  But this is not the best translation.  The Greek is so much richer.  A better translation would be, “For no Word from God will be impossible.”  The emphasis is on the Word!  By the Word Mary’s relative Elizabeth in her old age has conceived a son, St. John the Baptist.  By the Word this shall come to pass that the angel declares to Mary, what Isaiah prophesied: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Is. 7:14).  It is by His Word that God accomplishes His mighty deeds.  He spoke the world and the universe into existence.  “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible” (Heb. 11:3).  “By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host” (Ps. 33:4).  The Word of the LORD is creative.  He speaks into existence.  The Word of the LORD is performative.  He speaks and it is done.  The Word of the LORD 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).  God promises that His Word shall not return to Him empty, “but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Is. 55:11).  The Word is powerful.  “No Word from God will be impossible.”  When God speaks, it is.
            So it is that the angel speaks the Word of God to the Virgin Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).  He speaks, and in that moment it is done.  The Holy Spirit does indeed come upon her, through the Word.  The power of the Most High does indeed overshadow her, through the Word.  Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is conceived in Mary’s ear, and takes up residence in her womb. 
            This moment of conception is when God takes on human flesh and blood.  At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Christ as His incarnation, His enfleshment.  This is certainly appropriate.  But His incarnation actually occurs nine months before His birth.  Here is a mystery beyond our comprehension.  As the angel speaks this Word to Mary, God is an embryo.  The universe is held together by this little forming Baby.  And already at this stage He is doing the work of your redemption.  He is fully human, fully one with your flesh.  As surely as you were an embryo, He was an embryo for you.  What He is, He redeems: An embryo for embryos, a fetus for fetuses, a newborn for newborns, a toddler, a child, a teenager, and adult, for you.  And yet, He is no less God in every stage of His development.  Fully Man, fully God, for you.  And so He is in the fullest sense of the word, “Immanuel,” God with us, for He is with us in the flesh.  In our Old Testament reading, King David wanted to build God a Temple, a place for God to dwell with His people.  God responds that David is not to build a house for Him, rather, God will build a House for David.  That House will be where God dwells with His people.  And that House is the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth.  The Body of Jesus is the true Temple.  The Body of Jesus is where God dwells with us in the flesh, tangibly, concretely.  The apostles saw Him, heard His voice, touched Him.  You see Him by faith, hear His voice in His Word, and touch Him as His very Body is given to you in the Supper. 
            This Body is conceived as the Word is preached by the angel and heard by Mary.  Think about what this means also for the sanctity of human life from the moment of conception.  The Word conceived in Mary’s ear and taking up residence in her womb, this tiny little clump of cells, is God.  Christians ought never speak of an unborn child as “potential life,” or as part of a woman’s body, or as anything other than a precious baby with a human soul.  Whatever our Lord Jesus is, He redeems.  The worth of the unborn consists chiefly in this, that Jesus lived in the womb of His mother for them.  And He was conceived into a set of circumstances that today would very possibly have led to His murder in an abortion mill.  Unplanned pregnancy.  Unwed, teenage mother.  Scandal in a small town.  Poverty.  Why would He come into such a messed up set of circumstances?  To redeem those in those very circumstances.  There is very good news here for women (and men) who have made mistakes, who have not remained chaste (now, Mary did remain chaste, but it was assumed she didn’t), who have found themselves pregnant in a bad set of circumstances, who have considered an abortion, and even for women who have had an abortion.  Jesus was conceived into their circumstances to redeem them.  To redeem you.
            This same Word conceived in the ear of the Virgin and implanted in her womb, is spoken to you.  He enters your ear and implants Himself, not in your womb, but in your heart and mind, in your very soul.  He takes possession of you.  And what is conceived in you is faith.  It is faith in this little embryo God who was born to grow up and die on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins.  It is faith in this little embryo God who died, but who is risen, and lives, and reigns, in the flesh, at the right hand of God the Father, for you.  It is faith that this little embryo God gives you eternal life.  And it is faith that says with St. Mary, no matter how unbelievable the promises of God, no matter how incomprehensible to human reason His Word may be, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (v. 38).  This is not simply the assent of Mary’s will to this crazy plan of giving birth to God.  It is a confession that Mary’s place before God is under His Word.  She is what the Lord says of her.  She is a highly favored lady, for the Lord is with her (v. 28).  Her sins are forgiven.  She is to be the mother of God. 

            “Let it be to me according to Your Word.”  That is your prayer.  That is your confession.  For you are what the Lord says of you.  You are a sinner whose sins have been taken away by the Lamb of God.  You are holy and spotless, washed clean by the blood of Christ.  You are a saint, righteous, because God has spoken it so, and it is to you according to His Word.  You are God’s child, because He has spoken His Name over you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and says to you, “you are mine” (Is. 43:1).  Faith that speaks these words with St. Mary acknowledges that your place before God is under His Word, which absolves you.  And you have no need to doubt whether your sins can be forgiven, not even those blackest, secret sins you’ve buried so deeply within your heart.  “For no Word from God will be impossible.”  “I forgive you all your sins,” He says.  And they are forgiven.  All of them.  “Take, eat, this is my Body, which is given for  you… Take, drink, this is my Blood, which is shed for you, for the forgiveness of all of your sins.”  And it is.  The Body of Christ placed on your tongue.  The Blood of Christ poured down your gullet.  Sins gone forever.  Christ in you and you in Christ.  “Let it be to me according to Your Word.”  God has spoken.  It is done.  You are forgiven.  You are loved.  You are free.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.             

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The LORD Restores!

Advent Midweek III: The Psalms of Advent: Restore Us, O God!

The LORD Restores!
Text: Psalm 126

            “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven… a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Eccl. 3:1, 4; ESV).  “You” O LORD, “have turned my mourning into dancing,” prays King David, you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness” (Ps. 30:11).  The Lord does give us times of sadness and tears.  He chastises us and lays crosses upon us.  These are for our good.  “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Heb. 12:6).  But so also He gives us times of refreshment.  He surprises us with joy.  The LORD hears our cries and answers our prayers.  The LORD restores. 
            The people of Judah had suffered years of exile in Babylon.  Now, under the Persian King, Cyrus, they had been allowed to return to the Promised Land, to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls and the Temple, the place of God’s presence among them.  They were back where they belonged and all was right in the world.  It seemed too good to be true.  “When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream” (Ps. 126:1).  But it was real.  The LORD had brought them out of Babylon, just as He had brought them out of Egypt so many years before.  Their tears had been wiped away.  Their chastisement was at an end.  “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongues with shouts of joy” (v. 2).  The nations took notice of the gracious things God had done for His people.  “(T)hen they said among the nations, ‘The LORD has done great things for them.’  The LORD has done great things for us; we are glad” (vv. 2-3).  We are filled with rejoicing and recounting the praises of our God. 
            Israel had been restored.  And yet, it was only a partial restoration, a foreshadowing of the true restoration to come in Messiah, the Christ, Jesus, our Savior.  For that, the people still had to wait nearly 500 years.  They were still waiting for the Seed of the woman to crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15).  They were still waiting for the virgin to conceive and bear a Son, as Isaiah prophesied (Is. 7:14).  And so they pray: “Restore our fortunes, O LORD” (Ps. 126:4).  They had been restored.  And yet they were still waiting to be restored.  It was an “already/not yet” situation, as Luther would call it.  It is a paradox.  Restored already, but not yet fully.  The people of God continue to wait upon Him for deliverance.
            Such is always the case with God’s people.  Restored already, but not yet fully.  God restored the Children of Israel countless times in the Old Testament, yet they continued to wait for their full restoration in the Advent of the Savior.  He came, and we have a different perspective as New Testament people, as those born after our Lord’s earthly ministry and saving work.  Christ has come.  We have been restored.  Jesus did it all.  He paid for our sins on the cross.  He shed His blood to save us and claim us for Himself.  He is risen, and has won for us eternal life in heaven.  We are baptized in Him, and so all of this is ours already. Our fortunes have been restored.  We are like those who dream.  Our consciences are cleansed.  Our guilt is taken away.  The Law’s accusations are muted.  Sin has no power over us.  Death has been destroyed.  Hell has no claim on us.  And the serpent’s head is, indeed, crushed by the Seed of the woman, born of the Virgin Mary.  Our salvation is done deal.  The LORD has restored us.
            And yet, even for us, there is this sense that this is only a partial restoration.  There is more yet to come.  For we still suffer seasons of weeping.  There is still sadness.  Our consciences may be cleansed and our guilt taken away, but it doesn’t always feel like it.  We still sin.  We still feel the sting of the Law.  We know death has been defeated, but we still get sick, we still suffer physically and emotionally, and we still die.  We know it is all ultimately taken care of in Christ.  But we still have to live with it for now, for a little while.  For our restoration is a hidden reality.  It is hidden with Christ, in God (Col. 3:3).  We are waiting for the Last Day, when Christ will raise all the dead, when what is hidden will be revealed, when Christ will deliver His people once and for all.  As God’s people in between the comings of Christ, we wait, and we pray: “Restore our fortunes, O LORD.” 
            And there is one thing you can always count on with God.  What has been brought low will be raised up.  What is wrong will be made right.  What has died will be brought to life.  What is lost will be found.  “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:5).  “Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy” (Ps. 126:5).  You will be consoled.  You will be comforted.  You will be restored.  And you will have joy again.  There will be times in this life when God will dry your tears.  Perhaps you will be healed from an affliction.  Perhaps God will provide something you have lacked, or some unexpected blessing for you to enjoy.  The Lord is good, and He pours out His good gifts upon us.  He gives us each day our daily bread, with a generous slathering of butter on top.  He gives us what we need, and so much more besides.  And He gives us one another, to love and to bless and to enjoy.  Christmas is a time when many of us will be surrounded by people we love.  We’ll enjoy a lavish feast and be showered with gifts, most of which we don’t need.  This is all from God’s liberal hand, to be received with rejoicing and praise. 

            But all of that is only temporary.  This is not the true joy.  And thank God for that, for all of these earthly blessings, though good, are fleeting.  Fortunes change.  Stuff decays.  People move away.  And die.  Many find the holidays particularly difficult for this reason.  Some Christmases are spent alone, or without presents.  Thank God Christmas is not defined by what we eat and who we eat it with, or the presents under the tree.  Christmas is about God coming in the flesh to restore our fortunes.  Knowing what He has accomplished by His life, death, and resurrection; that He dwells with us now in His Word and holy Sacraments; that He will come again to take us to be with Him where He is; this is our true joy.  This is the joy that we possess even in the midst of sorrow.  We can sing of joy to the world even as we mourn or suffer, because the Lord has come.  Joy is not the absence of sorrow, but the knowledge that Christ works it all for our good in the end.  He has done everything for our salvation.  And He’s coming back for us.  He’s coming again.  He’s coming to restore us fully.  It is not a dream.  It is real.  You will meet that Day, your mouth filled with laughter and your tongue with shouts of joy.  You can laugh and shout for joy now and celebrate Christmas with hearty rejoicing.  For no matter what you are going through at this moment, You have the Lord’s sure promise.  He has restored you, and He will.  And He is restoring you now as He gathers you around His Table.  Here He turns your mourning into dancing.  He looses your sackcloth and clothes you with gladness.  Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Emmaunel comes to thee, O Israel!  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Third Sunday in Advent

Third Sunday in Advent (B)

December 14, 2014
Text: John 1:6-8, 19-28

            The true Light that enlightens everyone, Jesus Christ, comes into the world now, since His ascension into heaven, by preaching, by proclamation, by witness, by confession.  He comes through the Word.  The Church’s task is to preach Christ crucified for sinners (1 Cor. 1:23), and to distribute the gifts of the risen Christ to His people.  St. John’s prophetic ministry was to prepare the world for Christ’s first coming as Savior.  Now that Jesus has accomplished the work of our salvation, the Church takes up John’s prophetic ministry, preparing the world for our Lord’s coming again on the Last Day to judge the living and the dead.  The preparation is vital, for eternal life and death are on the line.  When Christ comes again He will raise up all the dead.  He will give eternal life to all who believe in Him, but He will cast all unbelievers into the everlasting darkness of hell.  So we preach.  Love for the world compels us to proclaim Christ, to confess Him, to bear witness about the Light that is Christ, for the same reason John came to bear witness about the Light: “that all might believe” (John 1:7; ESV), and so be saved.
            St. John is our model in this.  He is always pointing to Christ, never to himself.  His is always the work of preparation.  Jesus is the fulfillment.  “He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me,” John confesses (John 1:15).  “He must increase, but I must decrease,” John proclaims (3:30).  “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4).  It was all to prepare the people for the Lord’s coming.  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus, “is at hand” (Matt. 3:2).  The bony finger of St. John is always extended toward his greater cousin, his lips ever proclaiming: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).  John is never magnifying himself.  He is always confessing what He is not.  “‘Who are you?’  He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’ … ‘Are you Elijah?’ … ‘I am not.’ … ‘Are you the Prophet?’ … ‘No’” (vv. 19-21).  John will not take any of the glory for himself.  No preacher should.  All glory belongs to Christ, and to Christ alone. 
            And so the Church.  We preach Christ crucified.  We do not preach ourselves.  Christianity has fallen into the shameless habit of self-promotion.  Look what a great congregation we are.  Look at how much we do.  Look how at how sincere we are in our love for God and for each other.  We’re friendly.  We’re relevant.  We’re convenient.  We’re fun.  Suddenly the mission becomes not so much preparing the world for the coming Judgment, but saving the institution (the congregation, the Church body) by attracting more customers.  Every one of us is prone to this thinking.  We would love to see our pews filled to capacity.  We would love a healthy bottom line.  But why?  As evidence that more people believe in Christ and have come to receive His gifts?  That is, indeed, what our new man in Christ desires.  But the old sinful flesh desires success by human standards.  The Old Adam wants his church to be the biggest and the best.  So Old Adam preaches himself.  Christ… the real One, from the Bible, anyway… is a little too messy, a little too offensive.  But come to the church and we’ll save you.  We’ll make you into a better you.  Just follow our program.  You’ll see the difference.  You’ll be inspired.  You’ll be a better husband and father, wife and mother.  Trust us.  And so the Church can so easily fall into the trap of preaching herself in place of Christ. 
            The Church that preaches herself is dead.  The Church that preaches Christ crucified lives in her risen Lord.
            Preaching Christ crucified is never popular.  It is never a recipe for success in the eyes of the world.  But it is what the world needs, desperately.  St. John was “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness” (v. 23).  So the Church cries out in the wilderness of this world, in this place of unbelief and godlessness, of violence and exploitation, of selfishness and materialism.  The Church cries out in a wilderness of darkness and death.  But in its blindness, the world believes itself an oasis of light and life.  Only the Light that is Jesus Christ can open the eyes of the blind and expose the deception in which the devil holds this generation.  What is the Church to cry in this wilderness?  “Make straight the way of the Lord” (v. 23).  Jesus is coming.  Just as He came in the flesh, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, just as He was born that first Christmas to be our Savior, to suffer and die for our sins, to be raised for our justification and life, so He is coming again.  Prepare.  Be prepared by God in the preaching of Christ, by which He comes to you even now.  That is how His way is made straight.  That is how His Light shines in the darkness.  That is how His Life triumphs over death.  John brought the Light by preaching and baptizing.  He was sent by God for this very thing.  The Church brings the Light by preaching and baptizing, by witnessing and confessing, by eating and drinking and so proclaiming the Lord’s death until He comes (1 Cor. 11:26).  The Church is planted in the world for this very thing.  The world is preserved now, in this time of grace, that Church may point to Christ crucified and declare, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away your sin!  Repent, and believe the Gospel.”
            The Church preaches Christ crucified, because the Spirit of the LORD GOD is upon us and has anointed us in Baptism for this very thing (Is. 61:1).  Even as the Spirit descended upon our Lord Jesus and remained on Him at His Baptism in the Jordan, so He remains with us in our Baptism into Christ.  And He opens our lips, that our mouths may declare His praise (Ps. 51:15).  That by this Gospel preaching, Christ Himself bring good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound (Is. 61:1).  That by this preaching your sins be forgiven.  This is something the Church can never accomplish by preaching herself.  But this preaching of Christ crucified frees the Church to recognize she is not the Savior.  She cannot save anyone.  She cannot save herself.  She cannot even save her institutional structure.  Christ is the Savior.  Christ alone saves.  He saves the Church.  He saves you.  The Church is called to confess with St. John what she is not.  She confesses that she is not the Christ.  She does not take the glory for herself.  Nor should her preachers.  All glory belongs to Christ, and to Christ alone.  He must increase.  We must decrease.  We baptize in the wilderness of this world and proclaim a Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  “Repent,” we preach, “for the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus, “is at hand.”  He is coming soon.  He is coming to judge.  So look to Him as Savior now.  The finger of the Church is always pointing to the cross, her lips ever proclaiming, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

            John confesses that he is unworthy even to untie the strap of our Lord’s sandal (v. 27).  This was a task so menial, even slaves were excused from performing it.  John confesses himself less than a slave to his Lord Jesus.  There is a certain humility here that should mark the Christian.  It is the language of unworthiness, which is really a confession of sin.  But it is not the language of despair.  For while we are unworthy, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:12).  The Lamb makes us worthy with His own worthiness.  By His Blood He has ransomed us for God, ransomed a people from every tribe and language and people and nation, and made us a kingdom and priests to our God, who shall reign on the earth in the Last Day (vv. 9-10).  This is the song St. John the Baptist and all the saints in heaven sing before the throne of God.  For they see the Light with their own eyes.  The Light shines on us, too, here in the darkness.  But our eyes are not yet fully open.  We see now as in a mirror dimly.  Then we shall see fully (1 Cor. 13:12).  But we do see.  We see by the eyes of faith given in our Baptism.  We see by the preaching of Christ crucified and risen.  We see with our ears.  The Lord comes.  He speaks.  He feeds us.  We rejoice.  And we cry out in the wilderness of this world: “Make straight the way of the Lord.”  We bear witness to the Light, “that all might believe.”  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.             

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

"Restore Us Again, O God of Our Salvation"

Advent Midweek II: The Psalms of Advent: Restore Us, O God!
“Restore Us Again, O God of Our Salvation”

December 10, 2014
Text: Psalm 85

            Our Psalm this evening was quite probably written and sung by the exiles returning to Jerusalem from their sojourn in Babylon.  Thus the first three verses of the Psalm recount God’s restoration of His people as a nation.  He has been favorable to the Land, the Promised Land to which the exiles are returning.  He has “restored the fortunes of Jacob” (Ps. 85:1; ESV).  He has forgiven the iniquities of the people, covered all their sin (v. 2).  He has withdrawn His wrath over their idolatry and their unfaithfulness, and turned from His hot wrath (v. 3).  But life is not all sunshine and flowers for God’s people.  Returning to the Holy City, they find a heap of rubble.  There are no homes to return to.  Accommodations are non-existent.  There is hard work to be done if the city is to be rebuilt.  They start with the Temple and with the city walls, led by Nehemiah the governor and Ezra the scribe.  But now there is opposition from the Samaritans, the remnants of the Northern tribes who had intermarried with pagan nations.  Sanballat, their governor, and his men oppose the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls and threaten to attack.  So half the people must guard the city with weapons at the ready while the other half works.  And the half who work must labor with one hand while their other hand is on their own weapon (Neh. 4:15-20).  These are scary times.  Has the LORD restored, only now to deliver His people into the hands of a new set of enemies?  When times are perilous and uncertain, the people of God recount His great deeds of faithfulness in the past and His promises for the future.  Faith clings to God’s mercy in spite of all appearances.  Nehemiah speaks this faith into the ears and hearts of the returning exiles: “Our God will fight for us” (v. 20). 
            So God’s people pray, as we do in the Psalm, “Restore us again, O God of our salvation” (Ps. 85:4).  Even as You have in the past, do so now.  Restore us, lest we perish.  Restore us, lest our enemies overtake us.  Restore us, lest all faith in You be extinguished.  The people cling to God’s mercy in the face of their enemies.  “Show us your steadfast love, O LORD, and grant us Your salvation” (v. 7).  We know You love us because You promised.  We know You will save us because You promised.  And we’re holding You to it.  Do as You have done for us in the past.  Revive us again, that we may rejoice (v. 6).  And how is God to do that?  By speaking.  By speaking His living and active, life-giving and saving Word.  “Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints” (v. 8).  God speaks, and by virtue of His speaking, He acts.  For His Word is performative.  It accomplishes what it says.  The people of God long to hear His Word of deliverance, because in hearing it, it is theirs.  Nehemiah gathered the congregation of returned exiles together at the Water Gate in Jerusalem.  They gathered to hear the Word of the LORD.  Ezra the scribe read the Book of the Law of Moses, the Torah, the Holy Scriptures, and the Levites “gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Neh. 8:1-2, 8), or in other words, they preached.  God’s promises were spoken.  The Gospel was proclaimed.  And God acted.  The city was rebuilt, against all human odds.  The people’s prayers were answered. 
            Or at least partially answered, in the rebuilding of the city.  For the true answer to their prayer, the true restoring again, is the sending of Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, for the redemption of His people.  Where steadfast love and faithfulness meet (v. 10), God’s steadfast love for us by which He sent His Son, Jesus’ faithfulness that counts as our own, which He gives to us as a gift.  Where righteousness and peace kiss each other (v. 10), on the cross of Christ, where the righteousness of God is satisfied and the peace of sins forgiven is bestowed upon all who look in faith on the Son of Man lifted up for their salvation.  Where faithfulness springs up from the ground, the faithfulness of the Man, Jesus Christ, toward His heavenly Father, and righteousness looks down from the sky, the righteousness of our God, Jesus Christ, which He bestows on us in the blood He sheds for us as He is suspended in the air (v. 11). 
            God’s answer to the exiles’ prayer is also His answer to us.  We pray, “Restore us again, O God of our salvation,” and He does just that, in Christ.  But we also have our challenges to be met and our enemies to be faced.  And it always appears as though they will triumph over us.  Our sins.  Our weak and corrupt flesh.  The temptations of the evil one.  The allurement of the world.  The things that make us sad.  The things that hurt us physically, emotionally, spiritually.  Disease.  Disaster.  Depression.  Death.  These are scary times, perilous and uncertain.  What are we to do?  We recount to one another our God’s great deeds of faithfulness in the past, and His promises for the future.  We hear again Nehemiah’s confession of faith: “Our God will fight for us.”  We pray with the Psalmist, “Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints,” to me.  For He will speak the Gospel.  He will speak my sins forgiven.  He will speak His Spirit into me, the Helper He promised, even the Spirit of truth (John 14:16-17).  He will not leave me an orphan.  He will come to me in His Word (v. 18).  He will speak His life into me, His death for me, His resurrection for me, my death and resurrection in Him.  He will give me His Word to keep, and the Father will love me, and the Father and the Son will come to me and make their home in me (v. 23).  By these Words the Spirit will teach me all things and bring to my remembrance all that the Lord Jesus has said (v. 26).  And I will have true peace (v. 27) in the face of all my enemies and all of my afflictions, peace with God, peace in Jesus, for He is our Peace in the flesh.  These are the Promises of Jesus.  And by them He restores us again.  He revives us so that we rejoice (Ps. 85:6). 
            And so that we can faithfully get to work.  Assured of the LORD’s help and protection, the exiles rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem.  Assured of “salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us” (1 Thess. 5:9-10), we set out to encourage one another, to build one another up (v. 11) into the living stones of the Holy Church of God.  We do as Paul says in our First Reading: We respect those who labor among us in the Lord and admonish us, and esteem those in love who work in His Word (vv. 12-13).  We hear the Word with gladness.  We seek to be at peace with one another (v. 13).  We admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, and are patient with them all (v. 14).  Or at least we try to be.  Again, on the basis of the restoration our God has accomplished for us in Christ.  And we trust that as we work, the LORD will give what is good (Ps. 85:12).  He will provide.  And He will lead us forward to the final restoration He has in store for us, when He comes again in glory.  Then all our enemies will be defeated forever.  Then all our afflictions will be ended forever.  The Word steels us against the conflict we face now, reminding us of God’s faithfulness to us in the past, and directing us to His coming restoration in the end.

            And once again we have before us our Lord’s 3-fold Advent: His coming as a Baby to accomplish our salvation, His continual coming to us in His Word and Sacraments, and His coming again to grant His final deliverance in the resurrection of all flesh.  “Restore us again, O God of our salvation,” we pray.  He has.  He does.  He will.  And so we are comforted.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.         

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Second Sunday in Advent

Second Sunday in Advent (B)

December 7, 2014
Text: Mark 1:1-8

            How are you doing with your Christmas preparation?  That is what the Season of Advent is all about: preparation for Christmas; preparation for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  But we are all too often more concerned with the preparation that must be done for the outward celebration of the season, the outward trappings of the holiday, rather than the Holy Day’s actual content: Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, born of the Virgin, wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger; born to die, to save you.  While we’re busying ourselves with preparations for Christmas parties and family gatherings, gift exchanges and whatever else we do, we fall into the trap of thinking Christmas depends on us, on what we do, on our preparing, our purchasing, our cleaning and cooking and baking, our time spent in endless activity, hustle, and bustle.  It actually makes Christmas a rather hard time of year for many of us.  Every year I hear more than one person say, “I can’t wait until Christmas is over.”  Which is probably a phrase that should never be heard upon Christian lips.  But it is.  And it undoubtedly indicates a misdirected focus upon the busy-ness of the season, rather than upon content of the Gift: Jesus Christ, our Savior.
            Repent.  That is actually the preparation Advent calls for.  Repentance.  Self-examination.  An honest and thorough analysis of your heart, your life, your spiritual condition.  And then confession that you are empty, that you are not prepared, that you have nothing within yourself but sin and death.  You despise your neighbor.  You gossip.  You covet.  You lust.  It is no accident that in Advent we hear so much from St. John the Baptist.  Now “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4; ESV).  John was sent by God to be the voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord” (v. 3).  Here the Lord sets before us what is essential in our preparation for Christmas.  Baptism, repentance, the forgiveness of sins.  All of which go together.  St. Mark begins his account of the Gospel with Baptism, which is not a bad place to be in Advent (Dr. Peter Scaer).  Advent prepares us for Christ’s birth, and Baptism is all about our new birth in Christ by water and the Word.  Advent begins a new Church Year, and Baptism begins a new you.  And in Baptism, Christ advents, He comes, personally and intimately, to you, to make you His own.  He makes His dwelling with you.  You are baptized into Christ.  You are baptized into Christ’s death, and Christ’s resurrection.  You are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ, as St. Paul writes: “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” (Rom. 6:3-4).  Your death is done in Baptism, for you have been joined to Christ on His cross.  Your Old Adam, the sinful nature, has been drowned with all sin and evil desire.  You have been raised up by Christ, spiritually now as a new creation.  You already have eternal life.  You will be raised up by Christ physically, on the Last Day, when He calls your body forth from the grave.  And you are God’s own child.  He has written His Name upon you: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and marked you with the sign of Jesus’ cross.  You belong to God.  Chosen and precious.  Loved. 
            You do still sin, though, and that is why our Advent preparation calls for repentance.  In fact, the entire life of the Christian is to be a life of repentance.  Even though your sin has been done to death in your Baptism, the Old Adam, as Luther says, is a good swimmer.  He keeps popping up out of the water.  He clings to you as long as you are in this fallen flesh.  But you hate him.  You long to be rid of him.  That’s not who you are anymore now that you are in Christ.  And so you daily return to your Baptism, plunging the Old Adam under the water once again, daily drowning him, which is to say, you repent.  Repentance is nothing other than a daily return to Baptism.  It is showing the sinful nature for what it is, exposing it, naming it in confession, naming it before God, that you be absolved, forgiven, restored, made whole.  The people who came to John for Baptism came “confessing their sins” (v. 5).  The two go together.  Confession is living in your Baptism.  To confess is to crucify the flesh.  To be absolved is to be raised from the dead. 
            And that is the whole point of John’s preaching a Baptism of repentance: The Holy Absolution.  The Forgiveness of sins in Christ.  That is the third and most important component of our preparation for Christmas.  Baptism is the delivery of the forgiveness of sins.  Repentance is the plea that the Father would forgive our sins for Jesus’ sake.  Jesus came at Christmas for no other reason than to win for us and deliver to us the forgiveness of sins.  He was born to die for our sins.  He was born to be the sacrifice of atonement.  He was born to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  If you know that, if you believe that, if you trust that, then His way is prepared. 
            What is extraordinary about all of this preparation is that it is not your doing.  It is God’s doing for you.  Baptism is not your doing.  It is God’s doing.  Most of you were baptized as infants before you could even answer the baptismal questions for yourself.  Your sponsors had to do it.  Even you who were baptized as older children or adults really had nothing to do with what happened at the font.  It was done to you, by God, by His Word, by His Promise, by His Name.  Repentance… well, we usually want to take credit for that.  That’s my part in the whole thing, we think.  But is it really?  Is it not the Holy Spirit convicting you of your sin before a righteous and holy God by the preaching of His Law, and directing you to your crucified and risen Lord Jesus for forgiveness of sins by the preaching of His Gospel?  I often admonish you from the pulpit to “Repent!”  We often say, “I repent,” when we realize our sin.  We speak of repentance as our action.  But if our language were more precise, we’d speak of being repented.  The Lord repents us.  It is His Spirit in us.  Repentance is His gift.  How could it be anything else since it is simply a return to His original baptismal gift of faith in Christ and the forgiveness of sins?  Repentance is not a preparation we accomplish any more than is our Baptism.  Rather, “Repentance is an admission that we can do nothing to receive rightly the Savior and that what we have done has made a thorough hash of things.”[1]  Preparation for Christmas is not about what we do.  It is about what Christ does for us. 
            “The true Advent preparation is a getting ready to receive, not a getting ready to do.”[2]  Christ is your Christmas Gift from God.  And in Christ your loving and heavenly Father graciously gives you the forgiveness of all your sins, along with righteousness and eternal life, peace that passes all understanding, love for your neighbor, hope, joy, and every good and gracious blessing that He pours out upon you.  You’ve done nothing to make this happen.  You’ve done nothing to earn it or deserve it.  It is not your doing at all.  It is God’s doing, in Christ, for you.  Advent is about recognizing how empty you are outside of Christ, and that being filled with Christ, you are filled with all good things.  Therefore Advent is about Christ filling you with Himself by virtue of His coming to you here in the place of your Baptism, where there is repentance and forgiveness going on, where He is filling your ears with His Word, and your mouths with His Body and Blood. 
            Decking the halls has its place at Christmas time, as does all of the other preparation and celebration that goes on this time of year.  But don’t get so bogged down in all of that that you actually miss Christmas, the Christ-Mass.  We make such a big fuss this time of year about keeping Christ in Christmas, and then we don’t take the time to go to Church.  We forget that keeping Christ in Christmas necessarily means keeping the Mass in Christmas.  The Lord’s Supper is where Jesus actually is, in the flesh, and Christmas is the celebration of His coming into the flesh for you.  Deck your ears and your mouths and your hearts and your souls with Christ this Christmas.  Prepare for that.  By receiving Christ.  Baptism.  Repentance.  Forgiveness of sins.  God Himself preparing you to receive even more of His gifts, His doing, His salvation, His Jesus.  “Prepare the way of the Lord.”  Jesus is coming.  “O Lord, how shall I meet You, how welcome You aright?” (LSB 334:1).  Simply by believing, by trusting, by receiving all that He comes to do.  He has done it all, beloved.  Having Him, you are prepared.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.             



[1] The Rev. Scott Murray, “Christmas Preparation All Done,” Memorial Moment for 5 December 2014, http://www.mlchouston.org/filerequest/1726.html
[2] Ibid.