Cruce Tectum

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

Location: Moscow, Idaho

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Day

The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Day

December 25, 2011
Text: John 1:1-18

We know God through Jesus Christ His Son. For “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18; ESV). You cannot see the Father. But you can hear Him in His Word. Just as our words reveal what we desire to express about ourselves, so God’s Word reveals what He wants us to know about Him. God the Son is the eternal Word of the Father. He is with God in the beginning, though He Himself has no beginning, but is begotten of the Father from all eternity. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (v. 1). Father and Son dwelling together in eternal unity. It is through the Son, the eternal Word, that God does His work. God speaks the creation into being. St. John is calling us back to Genesis 1 here. God speaks His Word, “Let there be…” and there is. The Word is the Son. Through the Word, through the Son, all things were made, and without Him was not anything made that has been made (v. 3). He is the Father’s agent in creation. He is the Father’s agent in revelation. He reveals God. He is the Light that comes into the world, comes into the darkness, which the darkness is not able to overcome (v. 5). Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Word of the Father, is the Light of the world.

And today He is born in the flesh. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (v. 14). That is the miracle of Christmas. The incarnation, literally, the enfleshment, of the Son of God. He is born of the Virgin Mary in the fullness of time, in the little town of Bethlehem, wrapped in swaddling cloths, and laid in a manger, the feeding trough for animals. The angels proclaim His birth to shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night: Peace on earth, goodwill to men, which is to say God’s peace on earth and God’s goodwill to men, because He no longer holds sinners’ sins against them. He has sent His Son to deal with sin in His sinless body. Unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior who is Christ, the Lord. You can read all about it, as we did last night, in Luke Chapter 2. Our reading from John Chapter 1 this morning explains this same joyous mystery from another perspective: from the eternal, Trinitarian, cosmic perspective. In the incarnation, the conception and birth of Jesus Christ, God unites Himself to man in the flesh. God unites Himself to you in the flesh. The Creator has become one with His creation. God, as He reveals Himself in His Word, now lives and walks among His people. To redeem them. To redeem you and me. He is born among us, as one of us, that we might be born in Him, God’s own dear children, born not of the will or man, nor of the will of the flesh, but of God (v. 13). And that is precisely what happens in Holy Baptism. Every Baptism is a celebration of Christmas, because in Baptism, you are united to the God who united Himself to you in the incarnation.

Through the Word of the Lord, you were made, fashioned in your mother’s womb. And through that same Word fashioned in the womb of Mary, you are made anew, re-created, born again as the Word is poured out upon you in water. Through the Son of God who became flesh to suffer and die for your forgiveness, and who is risen to new life in that same flesh, you become God’s own child. And as in the beginning, the Spirit is there, hovering over the waters, to make sense out of the chaos, to bring you to faith in Jesus, to enlighten you with the true Light that is Jesus Christ. For you are in darkness outside of Christ. You are spiritually blind and dead. You have no light and you have no life. But the Spirit brings you into the Light, that you may have Life in the Name of Jesus. It is not your own doing. It is the gift of God. It is given in the Word and the Sacraments. It is received by faith. The Word became flesh, came down to us, that He might bring us up to God and present us to His Father as His own people.

He comes down. Because we cannot ascend to Him. He comes down. He is incarnate, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary. And here is the great comfort of this Gospel. We do not have a God far removed, who does not care about our problems or do anything about our sin and our pain and our death. We have a God nearby, a God who so loves us that He sends His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16). We have a God who becomes Himself our High Priest, in the flesh, who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses because He has been tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin (Heb. 4:15). We have a God who makes the perfect sacrifice for our sin, His own holy flesh and precious blood. We have a God who is one with us, that we might be one with Him. God and sinners reconciled, reconciled by God’s body laid in a manger, God’s body hanging on a cross. This is the Christmas gift from God, all wrapped up in swaddling cloths and human flesh. It is His fleshly Word pronouncing us righteous with His own righteousness. Rejoice, dear children of God. Today you receive from His fullness grace upon grace (John 1:16). Today the Word made flesh reveals your God to you as a God of love and compassion who saves you from your sins, who saves you from death and eternal condemnation, who saves you for joy and eternal life. He is the Light that dispels all darkness. He is the Life that dispels death and hell. And He comes to you, for you. A blessed and merry Christmas, beloved. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Fourth Sunday in Advent

Fourth Sunday in Advent (B)

December 18, 2011
Text: Luke 1:26-38

It is the nature of our fallen flesh that we fashion God in our own image. It is the ultimate act of rebellion. Rather than allowing God to fashion us in His image, we fashion Him in our own image in our minds. We design Him according to our own idea of who God should be, what we would like Him to say to us, how He should be disposed toward us. We create the rules that govern our relationship with Him. And in this way, the one true God is displaced and replaced by a false god, an idol. And that idol is us. This is true as much at Christmas as at any other time. We love the pageantry of it all, the story of the birth of Baby Jesus in Bethlehem, the manger, the shepherds, the angels, the wise men (who by the way, contrary to your nativity scenes, actually show up much later at a house where Jesus is probably already walking and talking, but be that as it may…). All of this is beautiful stuff, and very important for us and for our salvation. But how we sentimentalize it to the point of robbing the Christmas history of all its substance, and when Christmas is done, we pack it up with the rest of the decorations and throw the box in the attic for next year. So the image of God we have fashioned is this: He is a sentimental softy of a deity who comes out when we want to see Him, to make us feel good, and obediently stays in the box and out of our way the rest of the time. Even for Christians who come to church every Sunday, this is the temptation, is it not? And we succumb all too often. You hear something in God’s Word you don’t like, and you resist it, you stuff it in a box. You have your pet things you hear in church that you nod and smile at, but in the secret place of your heart you believe you know better. You see, none of us is innocent of this sin. It is as old as Adam and Eve, and common to all their children. “You shall have no other gods,” is the First Commandment. It is a Commandment given in love, because God knows that we need Him to be our God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as He reveals Himself in the Holy Scriptures is the one true God. And there is help and salvation in no one else. You will never ascend to this God by your own reason or strength, because your own reason and strength are always busy fashioning idols. You’re incapable of anything else. So this God must come to you. And He does. And that is what the Gospel is all about this morning.

Of course, as is always the case with this God, He does not come to you in the fashion you imagine or even desire. For His thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are His ways your ways (Is. 55:8). He does not come in a blaze of glory, annihilating His enemies and exalting you to heaven. He does not come in feelings in your heart or voices in your head or spectacular miracles before your eyes. He comes as a baby, to a poor girl from Nazareth (remember the proverb about that place: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” [John 1:46; ESV]). He is born in the midst of scandal. This girl is not married. She is betrothed to Joseph of Nazareth, but he isn’t the father. No one believes she is a virgin and that God is the Father. Please! According to the Law of Moses, she should be stoned to death, but Joseph, being a righteous man, has in mind to divorce her quietly. And right in the middle of this soap opera, God comes in the flesh. There are no halos over anyone’s head. No one has the serene look you see on the Christmas cards. This is all one big controversy, and no one is expecting God to show up and bless this mess with His presence.

The angel causes all this trouble when he comes to Mary and announces all this. Because the moment the angel speaks God’s Word, it happens. That’s how powerful the Word of God is. It always does what it says. The angel declares to Mary, “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus… 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 1:31, 35). “You will conceive in your womb.” The Greek literally says, “You will catch it in the belly.” “The Holy Spirit will come upon you… the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Bam! Pregnant! That’s it! The seed of God’s Word enters Mary’s ear and implants in her womb. The Word becomes flesh and makes His dwelling among us. The Son of God is now the Son of Man. It’s a great scandal. It is a scandal both because of the way He is conceived, and because God is not supposed to appear in weakness for our salvation. A little, helpless baby. How much more vulnerable can it get? This is supposed to be our salvation? To be sure, God’s thoughts are most certainly not our thoughts, and His ways are most certainly not our ways.

But what did you think would happen? How else can this happen? Jesus comes to save you from your sins. Can He really appear anywhere else but right where the sins are happening? Do you really think He can save you without getting His hands dirty? The image of God we create in our minds is too clean, too sanitized. The real deal is too demanding. He’s too messy. He’s too… well… real. He really comes in flesh and blood. God is really a baby, a boy, a man, a human being. And He really is great, the Son of the Most High, the rightful Heir to the throne of His father David (v. 32), but He doesn’t appear that way. He appears “as one from whom men hide their faces”… He “was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Is. 53:3). This is not how a king, much less God, should come, according to our fallen wisdom. So we reject Him. We spiritualize God to such an extent that the incarnation no longer has any real meaning for us. That’s why even many Christians reject that Baptism has any real power to save or forgive sins or create faith. That’s why even many Christians believe the Lord’s Supper is just bread and wine. Because the idea that God comes to us in the flesh, as body and blood, is scandalous. And even we who do believe it, treat it lightly, as if it’s not what God says it is, as if it has no bearing on our daily lives. We pack the God of the incarnation and the Sacraments up in a box where He can be safely stowed away.

Repent. God comes to you, not in your own image, but in the flesh to transform you into His image. And this is tremendously good news. He comes to you right in the midst of your sin and sinfulness and all the drama that is your life in a fallen world. He comes to you in the flesh to save you from all of that. He says to you, as He said to Mary through the angel Gabriel, “Greetings, O favored one” (Luke 1:28). The Greek on that verse is literally, “Grace, graced one.” And the meaning is that neither you nor Mary have earned His coming or merited it in any way. Grace is God’s undeserved kindness. He comes out of His own kindness, because He is good, and He knows our need of His coming. “Grace, graced one,” and bam! You have grace! That’s it! Because Jesus is on the scene, and He is grace in the flesh. The Word of God is just that powerful.

And it is just that real. Flesh and blood real. If Jesus did not come in the flesh, and if He does not come to you in His Word and Baptism and the Supper in the flesh, then you are still in your sins. But Christ indeed came as a baby and comes to you in the flesh to deliver to you real, tangible, flesh and blood forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. The flesh and blood Jesus is the place of God’s tabernacle-ing among us. What David doesn’t understand in our Old Testament reading (2 Sam. 7:1-11, 16) is that the body of Jesus is the true Temple, the House of God built by THE Son of David. Thank God, He doesn’t come to us in the image we’ve crafted for Him. Thank God, He doesn’t stay in the box where we try to hide Him away. He comes through the Word announced to Mary of Nazareth. He comes, true God, begotten of the Father from all eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary. He comes to be our Lord and to redeem us from sin, death, and the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death, that we may be His own. He comes in His Word preached and read, real words from real voices and on real pages written in real ink. He comes in water that splashes you and soaks you and washes away all your sins because of the power of the Word. He comes in real bread and wine which are His true body and blood, because He says so. You actually touch God and eat His body and drink His blood, the body that was really crucified on a cross of real wood, the blood that was really shed, really poured out from real wounds onto the real dust of the earth. This is real history. This is present reality. Forget your images, your idols. Christianity is a real religion, because Christ is real.

And He’s real for you. That’s the point of Christmas. We don’t just worship some “spirit in the sky.” The Father is Spirit. The Holy Spirit is Spirit. Jesus Christ is Spirit and flesh. We worship a Man! Because a Man has come for us men and for our salvation. Grace, O Graced One. The Lord is with you. Jesus is here, for real. And faith says with St. Mary: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Advent Midweek III

Advent Midweek III: His Throne[1]
December 14, 2011
Text: John 19:16-22

The account of Jesus’ crucifixion may seem a strange reading for Advent. I mean, we’re prepared for prophecies about His coming and accounts of His birth during this holy season, but by the glow of Christmas lights and the Yule log, the crucifixion can be a bit of a downer. But we’ve missed what Christmas is if we forget why He came. He came to die. Christmas is what it is in all its glory because of Good Friday. Otherwise this is just the birth of another baby to another peasant-girl. And while every birth is special, it’s an everyday occurrence. It is the purpose of this birth that sets it apart. Jesus is born to die. And to rise again, but that resurrection can only happen out of death. The newborn King claims His throne when He is nailed to it for the life of the world. He dies for His subjects. He dies for all people. He dies for you. And in so dying, He claims you for Himself. Hark, this is the peace on earth the herald angels were singing about: His death. “Glory to the newborn King.”

No matter how you cut it, Jesus doesn’t live up to human conceptions of kingship. The Pharisees and teachers of the Law were not against the Messiah coming. But they expected a Messiah who would be mighty and powerful, lead a military revolution, and rule as earthly King over an independent Israel… with the help and counsel of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, of course. When Jesus didn’t live up to their expectations, they plotted how they might trap Him, arrest Him, and deliver Him over to death. Jesus’ own disciples were no better. Even after His resurrection, they asked Him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6; ESV). They were thinking too small. They failed to understand that by His crucifixion Jesus had restored the Kingdom to spiritual Israel, the Church, claiming a Kingdom and a people for His own possession, purchasing us from sin and death by His own sinless blood and death.

Jesus is not the kind of king we expect, either. We expect a king who will make our lives better, easier, who will not allow bad things to happen to us, or who will immediately pick us up and brush us off if they do. We expect a king who shares our values rather than imposing His own upon us. We expect a king who will shatter our enemies and exalt us as the favored nation. In reality, our expectations of the King aren’t that much different than the Pharisees and teachers of the Law and disciples.

Jesus is none of that. Not in the way we think, anyway. Jesus is the King whose power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). Jesus is the King who gives Himself up totally for the sake of His people. He is the King who comes not to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28). He is the King of the universe, the Son of God, who leaves His heavenly throne to take up residence in the womb of the Virgin Mary, who becomes flesh and makes His dwelling among us (John 1:14), who is laid in a manger because there is no room for Him in the inn, who grows up in a carpenter’s family, who surrounds Himself with fishermen and other commoners, eats with tax collectors and sinners, is despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief (Is. 53:3). This is the King who is betrayed by a kiss, who willingly gives Himself into the hands of His enemies, though at any moment He could call upon His Father in heaven and be rescued by more than twelve legions of angels (Matt. 26:53). This is the King who is tried before earthly rulers, the Sanhedrin, Herod, Pontius Pilate (who declares Him innocent). His Kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). Nor is He a king the world would embrace. This is the King who is clothed in royal purple, worshiped in mockery by the soldiers, given a reed scepter and beaten with it, spat upon, and crowned with thorns. He is scourged and led in royal procession outside of the city, where He is nailed to His throne, the blessed and holy cross, lifted up and exalted between two criminals, forsaken of the Father, suffering all hell. For you. For His subjects. And there He dies. He dies to make you His own, that you may live under Him in His Kingdom and serve Him.

Pilate writes the truth. “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” (John 19:19). Here He is, enthroned on high, for us and for our salvation. The devil, the world, and fallen humanity thought they had conquered this King once and for all that Good Friday. But on the Third Day He would emerge from the grave victorious over all His enemies. Glory to the newborn King, who came to die that we might live.

By nature we rebel against our crucified King. We reject Him as our King and as our Savior. We want to rule ourselves. We want to save ourselves. Or at least we want Him to rule and save us on our own terms. We want strength, not weakness. We want glory, not the cross. But there’s no salvation in that. There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other Name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12). Jesus is the King. And He comes to us in weakness, that we might share in His glory. He comes to us in weakness still: Words and water and bread and wine. But in these weak vessels there is great power: the Holy Spirit, the washing away of sin, the true body and blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. Don’t let the appearance of the vessels fool you, any more than you should let the appearance of the King Himself in His earthly ministry, suffering, and death fool you. This is Almighty God come to His people. Because we cannot ascend to Him. He descends to us. He comes to us, in weakness, by which His power is made perfect.

And there is no other way. This King must die to save His people. So He does so, willingly, in love. No earthly King would do what He did. No earthly King could do what He did. And that is why Christmas is what it is. We don’t celebrate just because a baby was born. We don’t celebrate because that baby was the symbol of hope, or even the symbol of God’s love. We celebrate because that baby is hope incarnate, God’s love in the flesh, poured out on the cross. Christmas is meaningless without the cross. Even at Christmas we say with St. Paul, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Worship the newborn King by beholding Him on His cross, and receiving the benefits of that cross as they are delivered to you in the means of grace. Because in that way you live joyfully in Jesus’ Kingdom. This (Christ crucified) is King of the Jews. By this, we have God’s peace on earth, God’s goodwill toward men. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1]The theme and many of the points made in this sermon are taken from Savior of the Nations (St. Louis: Concordia, 2009).

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Third Sunday in Advent

Third Sunday in Advent (B)

December 11, 2011
Text: John 1:6-8, 19-28

Well, I don’t know about you, but an awful lot of, shall we say, stuff, gets in the way of my “Christmas spirit” this time of year. It’s a great time to be a pastor, but a very busy time that often leaves me feeling overextended. There are extra services to prepare for, extra sermons to contemplate and write, and for whatever reason, Satan is especially active burdening Christians this time of year with emotional, physical, and spiritual pain. And then as a husband and a father, there is the endless Christmas shopping, wondering where the money is going to come from, long lines at the post office, grumpy people hustling and bustling to get wherever they’re going, full of anything but holiday cheer. And we miss our family out on the West Coast. Some of them will be with us, but most will be together many miles from us. I know, I’m just whining. Except that if I were a betting man, I’d put my money on the fact that when you examine your own life and your own vocations, especially this time of year, you find that an awful lot of, shall we say, stuff, gets in the way of your “Christmas spirit” too. The point of my pity party is simply that there’s something common to us all at work here. No matter how hard we try, the “Christmas spirit” we yearn for is unattainable. It seems to be just out of reach. It seems like if we just gave or received the right gift, if the kids would just behave, if the family would just get along for once, if, if, if, then we’d have that Christmas spirit we so desperately desire.

Sorry to burst your bubble, but the fact is, the so-called “Christmas spirit” doesn’t exist. At least not the “Christmas spirit” of sappy sentimentality and nostalgia. It never has and it never will. It’s a false god. That’s why even rank unbelievers run after it. It’s a false god because it displaces Jesus Christ. The fact is, the so-called “Christmas spirit” all too often edges out the Holy Spirit. It edges out the Word of God. It edges out the Word made flesh who made His dwelling among us, you know, the whole reason we have Christmas in the first place. And that’s why we need the preaching of St. John the Baptist. St. John was sent by God to testify to the Light that was coming into the world, the Light that is our Savior, Jesus Christ. He was sent to preach repentance: “Make straight the way of the Lord” (John 1:23; ESV), “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2). John was sent by God to preach repentance, that we might receive that Light that was coming into the world, and so receive the forgiveness of sins and new life.

How easily we are distracted from the true Light that enlightens every man by the empty promises of tinsel and glitter. Now, let me say, I enjoy the trappings of the season as much as the next guy. These things aren’t bad in and of themselves. But we have the same problem the Jews have in our text. For them, religion had become all about the trappings, and had nothing to do with repentance and the forgiveness of sins, nothing to do with the Messiah who was to come into the world. Just like Christmas for us. Please do remember that Christmas is a religious holiday. It is not primarily a romantic holiday, or a charitable holiday, or a family holiday. All those things are wonderful, but they do not define Christmas. Whatever else it may be, Christmas is first and foremost the celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The place to celebrate it is here at the church, where Jesus is, dispensing His gifts. It’s Jesus’ birthday. Come to His house to celebrate with Him. And even here in the church, don’t make the holiday about glowing candles and Christmas carols, as wonderful as those things are, too. Christmas is about what everyday of your Christian life is about: Jesus Christ, living in your Baptism, repentance and the forgiveness of sins, communion with the living God and with His people, your fellow Christians, loving and serving your neighbor. Make straight the way of the Lord. That means examine yourself, repent of your sins, confess them and hear the absolution from your pastor and believe it. Shove aside everything that gets in the way of that message, everything that takes your eyes off of Jesus, the author and perfecter of your faith (Heb. 12:2). Hear His Word. Live in your Baptism. Rejoice to receive His body and blood at the Supper. In this way you prepare to receive the Lord in His coming at Christmas, and in His coming again at the end of time to judge the living and the dead.

This Sunday, the Third Sunday in Advent, is traditionally known as Gaudete, Latin for “rejoice.” We’re half way to Christmas. That’s why the candle on the Advent wreath is rose, the color of rejoicing. We rejoice because the Light is coming into the world. The Light is coming into the world to dispel the darkness of sin and death and Satan’s trickery. The difficulty is, though, that our sinful flesh loves darkness. It despises the Light because the Light exposes us for what we are: sinners in need of salvation. The sinful flesh prefers the dim, humanly-devised light of that phantom “Christmas spirit” we were talking about. It would prefer to make Christmas about anything but Jesus Christ and salvation from sin. It would prefer to remove Christmas from the Church. Because in the dim light of the “Christmas spirit,” we can make ourselves appear to be good and kind people, charitable and generous. But in the true Light of Christmas, the Light that is Jesus, the innermost thoughts of our hearts are exposed, and they are ugly thoughts. Every secret deed, every ill-spoken and bitter word, every callous thought comes into the Light to be dealt with when Jesus comes on the scene. Sin is exposed in the Light of Christ so that it be forgiven, covered over by His blood, buried in His tomb. Sin is exposed and dealt with so that it cannot condemn us. And that is reason for great rejoicing. So do not hide in the darkness any longer, beloved. When you find yourself being sucked back into the darkness and distracted by everything that is not Jesus Christ, repent. And rejoice in His gifts. Rejoice that you are Baptized. Rejoice that He pronounces you righteous with His own righteousness. Rejoice that He feeds you with the Supper of His body and blood. That is what Advent is all about. That is what Christmas is all about.

And that is how we make straight the way of the Lord. By repentance and faith. It begins with a deep, deep sorrow over our sins and offenses against God, our despising of His Word and gifts, our lovelessness toward our neighbor, our lust for other gods who are flashier and who tickle the fancies of our flesh. And then we immerse ourselves in the means of grace where God dispenses to us all the benefits of our Lord Jesus Christ and His life, death, and resurrection. And we rejoice. Gaudete. We rejoice, because we do not get what we deserve, what we have coming, eternal punishment in hell. God has mercy on us. He is gracious. He gives us what we do not deserve: salvation, eternal life, the love of God, joy in the Gospel, perseverance under trial and the cross, the peace of God that passes all human understanding, and every other good gift besides. In reality, that is how the Lord makes straight His path in us. He sends His Holy Spirit so that we hear and heed the preaching and believe in Christ as our Savior from sin and death.

The “Christmas spirit” is no substitute for the Holy Spirit. It produces no real rejoicing. Just disappointment. Because it takes our eyes off of Jesus and distracts us with all the stuff of the world’s celebration. And the stuff of the world’s celebration is fallen. Even the good stuff and the necessary stuff can take our eyes off of Jesus and become a god to us. Repent, beloved. Make straight the way of the Lord. Prepare this Advent season to receive your Lord at Christmas here as He comes to you in His Word and Sacrament. Prepare for Him to lighten your heart with His gracious visitation. And what you’ll find when you believe that Christmas is about receiving Christ as God’s gift to you, is that Christmas will not fail. It will not, and cannot. Your yearning will be satisfied, because your delight will be in God, and in His Son Jesus Christ. And the Light who is Christ will shine even in the midst of the busyness of the season and the stuff that surrounds our celebration and even the attacks of the devil who would take your eyes off of Jesus. He won’t be able to, because the Light who is Jesus Christ dispels all darkness. He comes to you and gives Himself to you. This gift is certain. There are no ifs. And He is never out of reach. He is right here, right now, for you. Rejoice, beloved. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Advent Midweek II: The Announcement

Advent Midweek II: “The Announcement”[1]
December 7, 2011
Text: Luke 1:26-38

The announcement was impossible to believe, at least by the standard of human reason. By that standard, it is still impossible to believe, that a virgin should conceive and bear a Son, and that Son be God in human flesh, the Savior. It is the mystery of Christmas. Virgins don’t conceive, protests our reason. And for God to be a man is an unreasonable notion. Don’t take these two things for granted just because you are a Christian. Have you ever stopped to reflect on how impossible it is to believe this, how utterly unbelievable it is that a virgin conceives, and that the child she conceives is Almighty God? That the Creator of the universe is a blastocyst, an embryo, a fetus, a baby who is born and soils His diapers? The mystery isn’t unbelief. The mystery is that anyone believes any of this at all.

Yet this is what the angel preaches to St. Mary. The angel Gabriele announces to her that the Lord is with her, that she has found favor with God, that she would conceive and bear a Son and call His Name “Jesus.” This Son, preaches the angel, will be the King of Israel, the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of the Most High. Now Mary wonders aloud with the same question we all ponder: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (v. 24; ESV). And the angel answers: “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” (v. 35). Beloved in the Lord, as the angel speaks these words, the very Word of God, so it happens. The Word of God is performative. It accomplishes what it says. So as the angel speaks, so it is done. The Word enters Mary’s ear and is implanted in her womb. The Word becomes flesh and makes His dwelling among us. He is conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary. He is the Son of God from all eternity. He is Mary’s Son in time, conceived at the angel’s announcement, born in Bethlehem on Christmas Day.

It is impossible for human reason to comprehend, unbelievable by our own reason or strength. But such is the case with everything God’s Word preaches. God created the whole universe in six days several thousand years ago, as the Bible says? Forget it, says our human reason. Much easier to believe this is all some cosmic accident that evolved over billions of years into what it is now. Miracles like the Flood and the deliverance of Noah on the ark, the plagues in Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, the day the Sun stood still, and all the other miracles of the Bible? Impossible, says our reason. There must be some rational explanation. Again, the virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus, His bodily resurrection from the dead? We can explain these away by showing that they are pious traditions and explanations of faith adopted by early Christians in their scientific ignorance. We are children of the Enlightenment, and we know better. So says human reason. Nor can reason accept the great miracles God performs among us today in His Church. A powerful Word of God proclaimed by preachers in the stead of Christ, Baptism actually washing away sin and making you God’s child, forgiveness from the pastor as from God Himself, bread and wine the true body and blood of Christ received in your mouth for your forgiveness? This is all just as unreasonable, unbelievable to human reason. And not one of us is capable of believing this on our own. What makes this difference? What brings us to reject our fallen human reason in favor of the Word and to say with St. Mary, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (v. 38)?

The same impossible Word of God spoken to St. Mary is spoken to us. And the Word is powerful. It is full of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit’s vehicle, His means of conveying faith in Christ and new life to us. As the Word was preached into St. Mary’s ears so that it took root in her womb, so the Word is preached into our ears and takes root in our hearts. Faith is conceived, faith in the Word made flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ. And such faith believes the Word of God no matter how unreasonable, no matter how unbelievable, no matter how impossible. Faith clings to the Word, the Word preached, the Word made flesh. This faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit who declares to us in the Word: “The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid. You have found favor with God. Because Jesus has come, God in human flesh, the Son of Mary, the Son of God. And He has borne your sin all the way to the cross. He has suffered your punishment. He is risen from the dead. He has restored you to God. And He sends His Spirit through His Word so that you believe in Him and His sin atoning work and receive eternal life.” Impossible to believe by our own reason or strength. But it is all God’s work. With man it is impossible, but all things are possible with God (Matt. 19:26).

So we cling to the angel’s announcement to Mary for our very salvation. The virgin did conceive and bear a Son, Jesus, who saves us from our sins. He is true God, begotten of the Father from all eternity. He is true man, born of the Virgin Mary. And He is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sin, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood, and by His innocent suffering and death. He has made me His own. All this He has done also for you and all people. All who believe in Him have eternal life. So we prepare this Advent for a robust and joyful celebration of our Savior’s birth on Christmas. Because the impossible has happened, the unbelievable, the unreasonable: God became a man, born of a virgin. God became a man for you and me. He is our Savior, Christ the Lord, and He has come to set us free. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] The theme and many of the points made in this sermon are taken from Savior of the Nations (St. Louis: Concordia, 2009).

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Second Sunday in Advent

Second Sunday in Advent (B)

December 4, 2011
Text: Mark 1:1-8

Beloved in the Lord, St. John the Baptist proclaims good news to you this morning. That is the meaning of the word “Gospel.” It means “good news.” And the good news that is the Gospel is “ever and always and only about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”[1] St. Mark writes in Chapter One, Verse One: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (ESV), the formal title of his entire work, and then immediately proceeds to the preaching and ministry of John in the wilderness. John is the one of whom Isaiah prophesied, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” (Mark 1:3; cf. Is. 40:3). Prepare the way of the Lord… Preparation for the Lord’s coming is what the season of Advent is all about. But how do you prepare? How do you make straight the paths of the Lord? The answer is clear right here in our text. Baptism, repentance, confession of sins, forgiveness of sins, and the preaching of Christ. This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and by this Gospel God prepares you for the Lord’s coming. God prepares you by washing away your sins and placing His Word and Spirit into you. God prepares you actually by killing you and raising you to new life, by drowning you and pulling you up out of the water so that you emerge in newness of life as God’s own child. “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). As a result, all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem came out to him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins. And they were forgiven, John pointing them to the Christ. Baptism, repentance, confession and Absolution, the preaching of Jesus Christ, they all go together. And in this way God prepares you to receive your Savior. This is what Advent is all about.

John appears in the wilderness of all places. He appears in a desolate place, a place of emptiness. It is a place of preparation. It is the place Moses prepared for forty years to lead the people of Israel out of bondage in Egypt. It is a place of wandering. It is the place Israel wandered for another forty years before entering the Promised Land. It is a place of temptation. It is the place our Lord suffers hunger and thirst and the attacks of the devil for forty days and forty nights. It is the place where no one can live unless the Lord brings life. It is our place as we wander and are tempted in the wilderness of this world and our sin. It is our place of preparation as we await the Lord’s return to judge the living and the dead and deliver us. It is a place none of us can live spiritually unless the Lord brings life. It is to that place that the Lord sends His prophet to preach and baptize and absolve. It is to that place that the Lord Himself comes, the Lamb of God to whom John points, who takes away the sin of the world. It is there in the wilderness, knee deep in Jordan’s waters, that the Lamb of God is baptized by St. John, soaking up the sins of the world, so that our Baptism can be a cleansing from sin and a drowning of the Old Adam.

As the children of Israel walked through the Red Sea on dry ground, and as that same sea drowned hard-hearted Pharaoh and all his host, so Baptism saves us. We pass through the water and our sinful nature is drowned. We are delivered to new life on the other side. As the children of Israel again passed through the Jordan River into the Promised Land, so we pass through Baptism into the Kingdom of God. That is why John is in the wilderness, baptizing in the Jordan. It is a re-do for Israel. The people once again come into the Kingdom of God through water. St. John is calling the people to repent, to repent of their taking for granted that they are God’s people, to repent of their pride and arrogance in God’s Law, which, even if they had kept outwardly, they had not kept in their hearts. He was calling the people to repent of their heartless worship, their self-righteousness, their self-idolatry. Tax collectors and prostitutes happily splashed into the water, confessing their sins and receiving the Baptism of repentance and forgiveness from John. They gladly heard his preaching of the Lamb of God. They clung to the Word John proclaimed in faith for their forgiveness and life. Pharisees stood on the shore, not knowing what to think about it all, but certainly not repenting, not confessing their sins, not being forgiven or heeding the preaching. Instead, as we will learn next week, they sent priests and Levites to demand an explanation from John (John 1:19-28).

Beloved in the Lord, John preaches to you this morning. You are the Baptized. You are the holy Christian Church. But do not take your status as the people of God for granted. John calls you to return to your Baptism. John calls you to repent. For the Christian, it is so easy to fall into spiritual pride and arrogance, to stand in judgment over those sinners who commit those wicked acts, to look at all you do for the church (with such humility, of course), to look at your love for others and your model citizenship, and smile at yourself with the approval you think God must have for you. And you don’t want to hear John’s preaching of repentance, or mine. Oh, you don’t mind it when other sinners are cornered in their sins, the ones you don’t commit. You kind of enjoy that, actually. But when your sins are exposed, that is painful. It kills you. Really. It kills you. That’s the point. The Law kills. It puts you to death so that you’re good and dead and you can’t talk anymore about your accomplishments or judge other sinners or take God for granted. And you certainly can’t bring yourself back to life. God must do that, in the preaching of the Gospel, the good news that is not about what you have done, but ever and always and only about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The Law places you in the wilderness, at Sinai, with the thundering of God giving commandments you cannot and will not keep and sentencing to death anyone who even touches the mountain. The Law places you where there is no hope for life, where no one can live. Unless God brings life. And He does. He sends His prophets. He sends His Son. He sends His Son in the very preaching of the prophets, the apostles, and the Christian pastors. He sends His Son, the Lamb of God, to take away the sin of the world. He sends His Son so that you can be baptized into Him, confess your sins, be forgiven, and cling to the One who is preached, even Jesus Christ. And in this way, He prepares you to receive Him. He prepares His own way in your heart. He makes His paths straight by casting down the mighty, the self-righteous, the Pharisee in you, by His Law, and lifting up the lowly, the repentant, the redeemed sinner with His Gospel of forgiveness in Christ.

So how do you prepare for His coming, this Advent season? Return to your Baptism. Happily splash into that water, confessing your sins. Repent. And believe the Word that has been pronounced over you: I forgive you all your sins, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. And then go and gladly live the new life God has given you in your Baptism. Remember that your old sinful flesh has been drowned in Baptism and crucified in repentance. You’ve been born anew in Baptism, and you return to that new life every time you are absolved of your sins. So leave the old ways behind. Don’t judge others anymore. Repent when you do. Don’t take pride in yourself anymore. Repent when you do. Don’t take God for granted anymore, despising His Word and Sacraments and His holy Church as if you could take them or leave them. Repent when you do. Know who you are before God, a sinner redeemed by the precious blood of Christ. Always believe that your righteousness is in Christ alone, and that because He came for you in the flesh, born of the Virgin Mary, yet the very Son of God, to die for you, you have the full and free forgiveness of all of your sins. So now live in that faith, and just go love and serve your neighbor.

And hear the preaching, Law and Gospel. Hear and heed. Because that is how God prepares you to receive Jesus. He kills you and makes you alive. That is how He gives you Jesus, namely, in the means of grace. Baptism, repentance, confession and absolution, the preaching of Jesus Christ, they all go together. This is the whole ministry of John the Baptist. This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God. This is all for you. Prepare the way of the Lord by receiving it. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Harold Buls,