Cruce Tectum

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

Location: Moscow, Idaho

Sunday, December 29, 2013

First Sunday after Christmas

First Sunday after Christmas (A)
December 29, 2013
Text: Matt. 2:13-23

            Herod is unquestionably the evil villain of the Christmas story.  When he encounters the wise men and hears of this One born King of the Jews, he is troubled, and all Jerusalem with him (Matt. 2:2-3).  Why is he troubled?  Because this Baby is a threat to his kingdom.  Herod the Great ruled Judea as the vassal King of the Roman emperor.  He wasn’t technically Jewish, though he vastly expanded the Temple during his reign.  He was an Edomite, a descendent of Esau, from Idumea.  Given to fits of paranoia, Herod had family members put to death on suspicion of conspiracy against his rule.  So the last thing he wants to hear from these wise men of the east is that a new King of the Jews has been born, that a star has appeared, indicating fulfillment of the ancient prophecies.  So troubled was Herod, he consulted the clergy.  Where is the Christ to be born?  In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet” (v. 5; ESV).  By the way, it is fascinating, isn’t it, that the religious leaders hear the report of the wise men and identify the place that Messiah is to be born… they hear that He has come, but they don’t immediately drop everything and run to Bethlehem?  They don’t even move a muscle.  What the matter with them?  I suppose we must confess, we do the same thing when we don’t run eagerly to the altar at every opportunity to meet Christ where He has promised to be for us.  Here He is, the Lord Jesus, right here, right now, the Savior of the world, as real as you and me, giving out precious gifts of eternal consequence, but, you know… it’s not like we won’t do this again next week.  Repent.  At any rate, Herod has the wise men do his dirty work.  He feigns piety.  “Go to Bethlehem and let me know what you find out.  I want to come and worship Him, too.”  Lies.  Villainous lies.  The wise men go.  They find the Child with His mother, Mary, and they worship Him, and give Him their gifts: Gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way” (v. 12).  And that’s where our Holy Gospel this morning picks up the story.  Joseph is visited in a dream of his own.  Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him” (v. 13).
            And that’s when the real villainy begins.  With Jesus safely on the midnight road to Egypt, Herod unleashes the soldiers on the boys of Bethlehem.  Every boy two years old and under is ripped from his mother’s arms and mercilessly slaughtered before her eyes.  We call these children the Holy Innocents, not because they are sinless, but because they’d done nothing to earn Herod’s ire.  Circumcised on the eighth day, these boys were covenant boys, God’s boys.  And so now they are safe.  They are with God.  They rejoice that they were counted worthy to be the first to suffer for the Name of Jesus.  Two years or less in this vale of tears, they are comforted now and for all eternity in the bosom of their heavenly Father.  Their brother Jesus has escaped for now, but not for good.  His time is coming, in thirty years, give or take, when He will be executed.  The charge?  Once again, a threat to worldly power: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19).  And so we come full circle.
            Our Holy Gospel this morning is hard to take, though, isn’t it?  I mean, these poor children.  These poor mothers and fathers.  How could God allow such a thing?  Why didn’t He warn other fathers in their dreams to flee for their son’s lives?  I don’t know.  A certain humility is necessary here on the part of the Christian.  For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is. 55:8-9).  We cannot discern the hidden will of God.  Nor is it our place to call His righteousness into question.  Faith clings to what He has revealed in His holy Word and leaves the rest to Him.  For as Moses wrote to us, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deut. 29:29).  God has revealed what He wants us to know in Scripture.  But that leaves the question why God allows children to be slaughtered, whether in Bethlehem, or Newtown, or their own mother’s womb, unanswered.  Faith confesses, in the midst of grief over tremendous evil, that God is working it all for the good of His people (Rom. 8:28).    
            It makes for a struggle within the Christian between the old sinful flesh and the new creation in Christ.  Because, while that new creation in Christ clings to Him in spite of all the evil it sees and experiences, the old sinful flesh whispers doubt and clings to unbelief.  You know what your real problem is when it comes to the slaughter of the Holy Innocents?  You don’t want to let God be God.  You think He made a mistake in letting those poor babies suffer, those poor mothers with their aching, empty arms.  You would charge God with injustice, or, at the very least, incompetence.  Beloved, don’t you see that you’ve fallen for the same old lie of the devil?  “Did God really say?  God is holding out on you, withholding a good that you deserve.  He’s jealous.  He doesn’t want you to have too much.  But you can be like Him, you know.  You can be in control.  You can rule yourself and your world.  You can be a god, too.”  Lies.  Villainous lies.  And when you believe them, you are Herod.  You are unquestionably the evil villain of the Christmas story.  You see God, you see Christ, as a threat to your rule over yourself and the world around you.  And so you must kill Christ, the real One, who escapes while the blood of Bethlehem’s boys runs in the streets, and you must put in His place a christ of your own making, who does and says what you want Him to do and say.  Repent.  Your old Adam, the Herod in you, must die.
            And he has, in Baptism, where your sinful flesh is daily drowned to death and you are daily raised to new life in Christ.  The truth is, you have no control over yourself or the world around you.  But Christ does.  He knows every breath you’ll ever take, every beat of your restless heart, and He’s redeemed it all by His dying breath and static heart on the cross.  Grief?  He knows it well.  Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Is. 53:4).  In all their affliction he was afflicted” (Is. 63:9).  We aren’t told when or how, but sometime before His earthly ministry, our Lord Jesus had to bury St. Joseph.  We see how He wept at the tomb of His dear friend Lazarus (John 11:35).  Do you really think He didn’t know the sacrifice of the families in Bethlehem, that He didn’t care, that He doesn’t even now console those babies and their mothers and fathers in Paradise?  For He “is mindful of them; he does not forget the cry of the afflicted” (Ps. 9:12).  Do you really think He doesn’t know or care about you in your grief?  He has redeemed you even in your grief.  He has sanctified your grief for a holy purpose.  That you recognize that your arms are empty and can be filled only by Him.  He alone can fill you.  He alone can comfort you.  And He has done something about your grief and your sorrow, something very concrete.  There, on a hill outside Herod’s Jerusalem, our Lord was nailed to the wood and lifted up, naked and bleeding, suffering and dying.  His mother’s empty arms ached as the sword prophesied by Simeon pierced her own soul (Luke 2:35).  And His Father, God… well, He gave His only-begotten Son into death for the boys of Bethlehem and their mothers and fathers, for St. Mary and St. Joseph, for the wise men, for Herod and His murderous soldiers, for you.
            The boys of Bethlehem rejoice today to have shed their blood as a witness to the Savior who would shed His blood for them, for their redemption.  They rejoiced that first Easter when our Lord burst forth triumphant from the grave with the promise that He will raise them, too, on the Last Day.  They rejoiced when they beheld our Lord’s ascension into heaven and enthronement at the right hand of the Father.  They rejoice before His throne today as they eagerly run to join us right here at the altar of Christ for the unending heavenly Feast.  So do all the Christian children who died too early.  They join us with their mothers and fathers who died in the faith, with Adam and Eve and Mary and Joseph and the wise men, and who knows?  Maybe even some of the soldiers, if they came to faith.  Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted (Matt. 2:18).  Until she sees them again.  Now she is comforted and rejoices with them, as she, too, joins us at the altar.  The Lord may not give you to see the secret things that belong only to Him.  But what He has revealed is enough to sustain you and comfort you in this fleeting life and bring you into the next, which is eternal.  Jesus is your King.  He rules over you and the whole world.  He rules all things for your good, even the evil things.  You are precious to Him.  For He has purchased you with His own blood.  And even if you are called upon one day to shed your blood for His sake, you rejoice, and rest secure.  For every drop of your blood has been redeemed by His.  And in the End, you will stand with the boys of Bethlehem before His throne, and you will sing.  Merry Christmas, beloved.  Come and join the Church in heaven at the Christmas Feast.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.          

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Day

The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Day
December 25, 2013
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 22, 2013

Fourth Sunday in Advent

Fourth Sunday in Advent (A)
December 22, 2013
Text: Matt. 1:18-25

            Christmas is near.  So near you can almost taste it.  If you’re anything like me, you’ve already been tasting the Christmas cookies, undoing everything you’ve worked so hard for since the Lenten fast.  That is why we’ll all make our New Year’s resolutions in a couple of weeks, which we’ll promptly break.  But we aren’t worried about that now.  Not yet.  Now, we’re filled with anticipation and excitement, nostalgic for the Christmases of yesteryear, hoping to capture once again that old Christmas feeling.  But our memories are faulty when it comes to the good old days.  The truth is, Christmas never lives up to its expectations.  We make it so stressful.  There is always so much to get done, the shopping, the cooking, the baking, the merry-making.  There are the decorations to put up, the house to clean, the cards to send, the presents to wrap, the phone calls and visits to make.  Some of it is good and enjoyable, but there’s so much of it.  It’s all a big blur.  Hectic.  Chaotic.  And, of course, when all is said and done, the house is a disaster, the new toys are already broken (and you didn’t get the right batteries anyway), the gifts were wrong and have to be returned, and you’re left, not with a Christmas glow in your heart, but with a giant, Christmas-sized headache.  Some of you have even greater challenges, though.  Some of the family members you love aren’t talking to each other.  Maybe they aren’t talking to you.  Some of your family members or close friends have made decisions that have brought them harm, and deeply disappointed you.  Some of you will face Christmas for the first time without a loved one who has gone to be with the Lord.  Depression is rampant this time of year.  No doubt some of you are suffering with that cross.  And of course, we know about all those among us who are suffering great physical afflictions.  What is it about Christmas that it never lives up to our expectations?  Is Christmas broken?  Has Christmas failed? 
            If you think you have problems this Christmas, just take another glance at the Holy Family’s situation in our Gospel.  An unwed, teenage girl from Nazareth finds herself pregnant.  She tells her family and her fiancé she’s seen an angel, who told her this baby is from God, conceived by the Holy Spirit, the Son of the Most High.  Likely story.  Poor Joseph.  What’s the guy to do?  By all rights he should hand her over to the religious authorities as an adulteress, to be stoned to death.  But he doesn’t want to do that.  He’s a just man, a faithful and pious Jew, waiting for Messiah to come and deliver his people.  He has compassion, and… well, he loves her, the poor schlub.  So, a quiet divorce.  That’s the best answer.  Engagement, betrothal, was regarded as the same level of commitment as marriage.  The only difference was that the bridegroom had not yet taken the bride into his home and there had been no consummation of the marriage.  So you see, Joseph had to divorce her, both to protect his own reputation (he hadn’t touched the girl!), and because the only way to break the relationship is by a legal severing of what God has joined together.  That first Christmas, the family was broken.  Everyone was suffering.  Everyone was hurting.  It would take a Christmas miracle to put it all together again.
            And that’s what happened.  An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.  Joseph, Son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:20; ESV).  So, it was true after all!  She wasn’t making it up.  Mary, God bless her, is still a virgin!  She has been faithful.  And not only that, she has been chosen by God to bear His own Son, the promised Messiah.  She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (v. 21).  He’s been given to be the Savior of the world.  The Name “Jesus” means “The LORD saves,” and that is what He will do.  He is the LORD, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, but now also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, and He has come to redeem us, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood, and by His innocent suffering and death. 
            He is the rightful heir to the throne of David.  Don’t miss how the angel greets Joseph: “Son of David.”  The royal lineage is passed down now to Jesus, the Son of David par excellence, the fulfillment of the promise that David would never lack a man to sit on his throne.  But Jesus’ throne is of another sort than King David’s.  Jesus’ throne is made of wood.  It is the throne of the cross, whereon the proclamation is nailed, “Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews” (John 19:19).  For on the cross, crowned with thorns, the Savior claims for Himself a Kingdom, a people for His own possession, and you are given to be in that number.  Jesus was born for this, to make you His own by taking on your flesh and blood, coming into your mess of a life, taking on your diseases, your hurts, your sorrows, your griefs, taking into Himself your very sins, all of them, and bearing them to the death of the cross, your death, your condemnation, which He willingly takes upon Himself in your place.  Jesus comes into a broken family in order to redeem your broken family.  He is conceived by an unwed, teenage mother to redeem unwed, teenage mothers.  He is born of a virgin to redeem virgins.  He passes through all the stages of life to redeem us at every stage of our lives, from microscopic embryonic life to the grave.  He is born amidst sin and suffering and hurting because He is the cure to it all.  That is why He came.  Our Lord Jesus did not come into the world expecting us to clean up the house for Him, put up the decorations, bake Him Christmas cookies, and make sure He experienced a Christmas glow in His heart.  He came because we are incapable of cleaning it up.  Because as hard as we strive to decorate our lives with good works, in the end, it’s only worthless tinsel, shiny to be sure, but messy and good for nothing.  Jesus did not come to be adored and receive our worship and praise.  He came to rescue His enemies, those who hate Him, those incapable of worshiping Him, much less believing in Him, those who would crucify Him, you.  That you might be reconciled to God and have eternal life. 
            This is the miracle of Christmas.  Jesus has become one with us.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15).  He has suffered everything we suffer.  He has endured everything we endure.  He knows what it means to be sick.  He knows what it means to be heartbroken.  He knows what it means to be falsely accused, arrested, tried, beaten, tortured, mocked, and condemned to death.  He knows it all.  Because He’s suffered it.  He’s been there.  He’s one of us.  He’s as with us as with us can be, truly our Immanuel.  The only difference is, He never sinned.  But He does know what it means to be a sinner.  For He became THE sinner for us.  All our sins were heaped on Jesus, that the Father would punish them all there, in His body, on the cross of Calvary.  So we have no more sin.  Jesus has taken it all away.  He has paid for it all in full.  This was the plan all along.  The proof is that now He is risen and lives and reigns at the right hand of the Father, and He will come again to get us, to deliver us finally, once and for all, on the Day of our own resurrection from the dead.  
            This is a great comfort for us at Christmas and always.  Jesus does not fail to come to us because our lives are messy.  He comes precisely because of the mess.  Christmas is not about having everything neat and in order.  Christmas is not about all the hustle and bustle that becomes so distracting.  And above all else, please understand that Christmas is not about a feeling at all.  A warm glow is nice, but Christmas can get along just fine without it.  Nor is Christmas about giving and receiving gifts, or getting together at Grandma’s.  In fact, this may surprise and even offend you, but Christmas is not about your family.  Nor is it about coming to Church to adore the baby Jesus.  That would be your work for Him, and Christmas is most assuredly not about your work for Him. Christmas is about this one objective fact: God has come in the flesh to save you.  And He comes to you right here in the Church in His flesh, in His Word and Sacrament, to deliver that salvation wrapped up in the swaddling clothes of Words and water, bread and wine.  Everything else you add to Christmas, the traditions, the decorations, the feasting, the presents, and even the family gatherings… though those things be good and wonderful, they have nothing to do with the essence of Christmas.  The essence of Christmas is Jesus.  The essence of Christmas is Christ for you.  He is for you, right where you are, right in the mess that is your life, right in your sin and suffering and death, right in your disappointments and depression and broken relationships, right there to cover it all with His blood and forgive it. Christmas is not broken.  Christmas has not failed.  Christmas is doing exactly what it was given to do.  Giving you Christ.  Everything else, beloved, is just wrapping paper.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.     

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Third Sunday in Advent

Third Sunday in Advent (A)
December 15, 2013
Text: Matt. 11:2-15

            John is in prison for preaching traditional marriage.  Perhaps that offends you.  It certainly offended Herod Antipas.  Herod, as you’ll recall, had taken his brother Philip’s wife Herodias for himself.  And John preached against it.  It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (Mark 6:18; ESV).  As it turns out, two people who love each other is not the all-important ingredient that makes for a God-pleasing marriage.  The question is whether they are using God’s gift as He has instituted it, or if they are abusing that gift.  Herod and Herodias are abusing the gift, adulterating it with their own fallen notions of romance, justifying it by their own fallen reason and emotions, expecting the clergy to give it their blessing.  John is faithful to God’s Word.  And so he is in prison, and so he will pay for his faithfulness with his head on a silver platter.  The prophet enjoys the prophet’s reward, being counted worthy to suffer for the Name of Jesus.  So it goes.
            But John is right where he should be.  For he must decrease, as the One to whom he points, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, the Messiah, the Christ, must increase.  The Old Testament, to which John belongs (even though we read of him in the New Testament), is coming to an end.  The Lord is doing a new thing now.  The fullness of time has come.  The Virgin has conceived and borne a Son, and has called His Name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.  He is the Christ, God’s anointed, who is bringing about the New Testament in His own blood.  John’s imprisonment and death is to be a prelude and foreshadowing of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion.  Upon hearing of Jesus, Herod would believe it is John, risen from the dead.  That is not quite the case.  John will rise on the Last Day.  But Jesus would be crucified, and He would rise from the dead, the Firstborn of all who have fallen asleep.  Among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist (Matt. 11:11).  Except for One, He who has become least in the Kingdom of Heaven for our sakes, even Jesus Christ, our Lord.  It is, finally, not about John, who did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ” (John 1:20).  It is never about any preacher.  It is about Jesus.  John is always pointing to Jesus.  Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). 
            So John has a date with the executioner as he fades into history, but first he must ask, he just has to know, or perhaps he just wants to make it clear for everyone else… “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matt. 11:3).  He sends his disciples to ask the question, once again directing them to Jesus.  You can sympathize with John, can’t you?  He wants to know if this has all been worth it?  The rough life in the wilderness, the mockery, the censure of the religious leaders, his arrest and imprisonment, his impending death.  He was a talented boy, the light of his parents’ life, the son of a respected priest.  He could have lived quite comfortably if God hadn’t ruined it all by calling him to be the messenger before Jesus’ face, to prepare the way before Him (v. 10).  So just to be sure… We did get the right One, didn’t we?  And what does Jesus answer?  How is he to be sure?  Jesus points John and His disciples and us to Holy Scripture, to the sure and certain Word of God.  Go and tell John what you hear and see,” (v. 4), whereupon Jesus rehearses His own fulfillment of all the promises made in our Old Testament lesson.  Check these out against Isaiah’s prophecy which you heard and read this morning: “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear” (Matt. 11:5).  It’s a direct fulfillment of Isaiah 35:5-6: “Then,” on the day the Lord fulfills this prophecy, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.”  We know from elsewhere in the Gospel record that Jesus did plenty of freeing mute tongues.  And what else did He do?  The “dead are raised up.”  Who else could do that but God?  And then the kicker, which really doesn’t sound like the kicker to our fallen ears, but hopefully you’ve been a Bible believing Lutheran long enough to recognize it as such: “the poor have the good news preached to them.”  The preaching.  The Word.  We’ve come full circle.  Go tell John what you’ve heard.  You’ve heard the preaching.  This, too, was prophesied by Isaiah: “The Spirit of the LORD GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me,” and remember, the titles “Christ” and “Messiah” mean “anointed one,” “to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn” (Is. 61:1-2).  Go and tell John what you’ve heard.  Tell me, John, is this enough for you?  I have come to heal.  I have come to preach.  I have come to fulfill the prophecy and to free you from sin and death, even to proclaim liberty to you who are captive for my Name’s sake.  And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matt. 11:6). 
            The world is offended by Jesus.  I hope by now you’ve noticed that.  This is not a friendly world toward Christ.  Not the real Christ, anyway.  There are all sorts of notions about who He is and what He should do and what He should approve, none of which have any basis in the Bible or the Christ who reveals Himself in Holy Scripture.  Unfortunately, what is true of the world is all too often true of Christians.  It is all too often true of you and me.  We fabricate a Jesus of our own design.  Because there are things of which we say, “I just can’t believe in a Jesus who would do or say that.”  Or perhaps we are not so blunt, but we say it secretly, in our heart.  “I know what the Bible says, but surely it can’t be true.  Not that.  It just doesn’t feel right.”  Christians are particularly prone to fall prey to this sort of thinking when called upon to suffer.  “Why are you doing this to me, God?  I’ve tried to be a faithful Christian.  I thought you loved me.  I thought you wanted only good things for me.”  What kind of a Jesus is it who sends the cross of cancer or who snatches loved ones away in the prime of life?  What kind of a Jesus is it who allows His last and greatest prophet to languish in prison, shackled in the dungeon, only to be released by a rush of cold steel?  Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”  Repent.
            Things are not as they appear.  Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord” (James 5:7).  Then it will all be revealed, what all of this is about, what is really true and what has been the deception of the serpent.  Do you not understand that in this fallen creation you are the blind one whose eyes the Lord Jesus has made to see by faith?  Do you not understand that in your fallen flesh your ears have been deaf to God’s Word?  But now Jesus has come and given you ears to hear, and so to believe.  What do you hear and see this morning in the Gospel?  You are the lame who have been given to walk in newness of life.  You are the leper cleansed of the sin which has been eating you alive, healed by Jesus’ Absolution.  You are the dead man, the stinking corpse, the dry bones of Ezekiel’s vision, into whom the Lord has breathed His Spirit and resurrection life, and whom He will raise physically from the dead on the Last Day.  And so you hear the preaching, and you rejoice on this Gaudete Sunday.
            So do not be offended.  Believe.  Jesus is the One.  There is no other.  And soon, soon all will be manifest.  All will be revealed.  Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.  Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not!  Behold, your God will come… and save you” (Is. 35:3-4).  As the blade fell upon St. John’s neck, he knew what you know: Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, John’s Savior, and yours.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Second Sunday in Advent

Second Sunday in Advent (A)
December 8, 2013
Text: Matt. 3:1-12

            St. John was called to preach.  When you think about it, preaching, and listening to preaching for that matter, is perhaps a rather strange activity in our cultural setting, a remnant of custom from a bygone era.  We just don’t listen to speeches anymore.  Our grandparents and great grandparents, in fact our ancestors for most of the world’s history, enjoyed a good oration.  They were trained to pay attention, to listen and take it all in, even to memorize what was said.  Many in the previous generations were trained in the art of rhetoric, the third component in the trivium of classical education.  They memorized speeches so that they could learn to give good speeches.  I was thinking about this on the recent 150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.  How many of you memorized President Lincoln’s speech?  Maybe some can still recite it.  I’m sure some children still learn it.  But I didn’t.  And I bet most of us haven’t memorized the orations of Cicero or other important speeches.  We just don’t have the time, or so we think.  We just don’t have the inclination.  Ours is a sound bite culture, a generation of miniscule attention spans.  Maybe you’re already tuning out.  Time for a commercial break, a flip of the channel, navigation to a new website.  It is easy to complain about the state of things and pine after the good old days, or vice versa, to ridicule the practice of the past as so old-fashioned, but this it is simply the reality that in our day, we don’t, as a general rule, give our undivided attention to speech makers.  And yet you’re here listening to a preacher.  And my point is simply this.  That’s counter-cultural.  That goes against our cultural instincts.  So why do you do it?  There must be something going on in preaching that sets it apart from other speech making.
            And there is.  The difference is dynamic.  Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” John preaches (Matt. 3:2; ESV), and Jerusalem and all Judea make a pilgrimage to the wilderness to hear the message.  Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” proclaims every Christian preacher since John, for this is the heart and content of the proclamation of Christ, and you come on a blustery Sunday morning to hear and to take it to heart.  And it’s a miracle.  There is an urgency to the message.  The time is now.  Catastrophic, earth shattering things are happening.  God has arrived.  And that is not a thing to be taken lightly.  Especially by sinners.  The holiness of God must consume sinners as a wildfire consumes dry brush.  Except that it doesn’t.  For God comes in the flesh.  And what is miraculous is that in so coming He does not consume the flesh, nor does He consume us with whom He came to dwell.  As Moses observed the fire in the bush, yet the bush was not consumed, so the fullness of God dwells in the flesh, Jesus Christ, and that flesh is not consumed.  And He lives and walks among men without consuming them, without damning them, instead saving them, saving you and me.  He comes to die.  Of all things, God comes to die for sinners, for you.  That is what He does on the cross, defeating your sin and your death.  He comes to take death and hell captive and to rise victorious, to give life to those dead in trespasses and sins.  He comes to you now, in water, baptizing with the Holy Spirit and with fire, putting you to death, drowning you, killing you, then raising you to new life in His life, in His Spirit, by the power of His resurrection.  He comes to you now in Words that do things, Words that perform, Words that create, Words that kill and make alive, crucify and resurrect.  John preaches.  Your pastor preaches.  And it isn’t just any speech.  In that Word, Jesus comes.  He comes to you.  He comes for you, forgiving your sins and making you His own.  Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” John preaches (John 1:29).  He is always pointing to Jesus.  Jesus must increase.  John and your pastor must decrease.  John and I, we are not worthy to stoop down and untie our Lord’s sandal.  But we are to speak, and you are to hear.  The voice of the preacher cries out in the wilderness.  The kingdom of heaven is at hand.  Jesus comes as the sacrifice to take away your sins.  He comes.  Therefore “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight” (Matt. 3:3). 
            Prepare.  How do you prepare for such a momentous coming?  John tells you.  Repent.  You have sinned.  You have grieved your God.  You have hurt your neighbor.  You have exploited your fellow citizens.  You have spoken evil of your brothers and sisters.  You have sought your own good above the good of others, and God’s glory you have not sought.  You have justified yourself, refusing to confess your sins or even acknowledge that they are real.  You have made yourself your god, lived for yourself, worshiped yourself.  But God is coming.  He should come in wrath, and He will come to judge the living and the dead on the Last Day.  But now He comes as a baby.  He comes in the flesh, as Savior, as the crucified, as the risen One who loves you.  His blood cleanses you from all sin.  To repent means to confess your sins, and then to believe Jesus’ Absolution, that He forgives your sins.  There are two parts of repentance, our confessions teach us (Apol. XII:28).  First there is contrition, sorrow over sin, the terror of the conscience, grief that you have grieved your God and Savior.  And second, there is faith, faith in Jesus Christ and His all-availing, sin-atoning death on the cross, and His victorious resurrection, that these are for you, that in Christ and His work on your behalf your sins are forgiven and you stand righteous before God. 
            Our confessions then speak of the fruit of repentance, and that is what St. John likewise preaches in our Gospel.  Bear fruit in keeping with repentance,” John commands (v. 8).  That means forsaking your selfishness, dying to self, and living in the new life Christ has given, living for your neighbor.  That means doing good works.  You see, this all happens after forgiveness, after confession and Absolution, after repentance and faith.  This is the fruit of all that, the natural consequence, that faith is always living, busy, and active in works of love.  So drop that grudge you’ve been harboring and go forgive your neighbor.  Defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything the in the kindest way.  Go buy some food and presents for the LWML Christmas families or put some money in the alms box to help and serve your neighbor in need.  Forsake your greed and covetousness.  If money has a hold on you, give it away.  If time has a hold on you, give it to your neighbor in whatever service he may need.  Husbands, go love your wives.  Wives, go love your husbands.  Pluck out your wandering eye.  Delight in the children God has given you.  Delight in the work God has given you to do.  Delight in your brothers and sisters in Christ.  Read a Scripture.  Sing a hymn.  Belly up to the Altar for the Feast.  Rejoice.  Repent.  It is all one cloth, the Christian life that is death and resurrection.  Prepare the way of the Lord, which is to say, hear and believe His Word.  For He comes to you, in mercy, to serve you, to save you.  He comes to give His all for you.  He gave Himself into death for you.  He is risen and lives for you.  And He comes here in His Word and the Sacrament to be your all.
            It’s a strange thing, preaching, isn’t it?  You come week after week to hear a less-than-eloquent man, lacking in presentation and charisma, say the same thing he always says about the same old subject.  Why do you do it?  It’s so counter cultural, so contrary to instinct.  You do it because you know that hidden behind the weak man, the sinner, is Christ Himself who bore our sins, really present, speaking to you.  He is the Word made flesh, the Logos, the Word that is with God, the Word that is God.  He comes.  He speaks.  And His Word does what it says.  He says repent, and you do.  Repentance is God’s gift to you, His work in you.  He says believe, and you do.  Faith is God’s gift to you, His work in you.  He says your sins are forgiven, and they are.  He says you have new life, and you do.  It is all done by His Spirit in His Word, by which Christ comes to you really and truly, aurally and orally, to bring you to the Father as God’s own child.  Well, you’d go out to the wilderness to hear that, wouldn’t you?  Thank God you don’t have to.  You can come into the nice warm building and sit in the padded pew to hear it.  That may not always be the case.  But no matter.  You’ll go anyway.  Because when the Good Shepherd calls, the sheep hear His voice, and they know Him and they come to Him.  He comes to you in His Word, that you may come to Him.  You wouldn’t miss it for the world, no matter how counter cultural it may be.  For you do not live by bread alone, but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of your God.  St. John was called to preach.  Your pastor is called to preach.  And you are called to hear the preaching, and you do so gladly.  Because in hearing, God prepares you.  In hearing, you repent and believe.  In hearing, the Kingdom of heaven, Jesus Christ Himself, comes to you.  It is God’s gracious gift in Christ.  In preaching, the God of hope fills you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you abound in hope (Rom. 15:13).  In preaching, God fills you with Christ.  Beloved, preaching is a strange thing in our culture, but it is the life-giving breath of Christ into His Church, into you.  Receive the Holy Spirit.  Hear the preaching.  Your sins are forgiven.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.            

Sunday, December 01, 2013

First Sunday in Advent

First Sunday in Advent (A)
December 2, 2013
Text: Matthew 21:1-11

            Hope.  Expectation.  Anticipation.  Longing.  These words are descriptive of the Christian life from the dawn of time.  The Christin life is a life of waiting upon the Lord.  Waiting full of hope, a hope that is sure and certain.  It is expectant waiting, waiting in faith that our God will make good on all His promises.  It is a waiting with anticipation of our Lord’s return to judge the living and the dead, of heaven, of the resurrection, of eternal life.  And it is a waiting marked by longing.  For we suffer here in this fallen world and this fallen flesh, longing for deliverance from sin, death, and the devil, from disease and heartache, from our enemies and persecutors, from our own fleshly desires and weakness.  We long for a home.  We long for the presence of Christ.  We know it will come.  We know He will come.  We know we already possess all that is His, but that is not yet manifest to the naked eye.  This is the realm of faith, not sight.  So we wait, and so we long.  Some are given the grace to wait with patience.  Others bear the cross of impatience, another mark of the very sinful flesh from which we long to be delivered.  But wait we must, and so we do.  Hopefully.  Expectantly.  Believing that Christ will come and our joy will be complete. 
            Such was the Christian life of our first parents, Adam and Eve.  They ate the forbidden fruit, and all at once they were plunged into death.  They died spiritually with the first bite.  They began to die physically.  They began to age and decline.  And they would die eternally in hell.  Hopelessness, despair, misery, eternal separation from God, these are the fruits of sin.  Except that God spoke His promise: The Seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15).  And so hope was born.  Hope is bestowed by the Gospel, the promise of God, Christ, the Savior.  There is a way out of death.  It is the Seed of the woman.  It is the Son of God.  Christ is coming.  And that is what Advent means.  Advent means coming, and it is all about the coming of God in the flesh to save His people.  So Advent is the season of hope, expectation, anticipation, longing. 
            Adam and Eve had hope in the promise of the Savior.  They believed the Word of the Lord.  So sure and certain were they in their hope that Eve thought her firstborn, Cain, to be the Lord (4:1).  As it turns out, she was profoundly wrong, and we all know the sad end of that story.  And the longing is intensified.  Add murder to the corruption of God’s good creation.  But Adam continued to preach the promise, as did the faithful in every generation.  And so the believers, Seth, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Moses, King David, and all the Prophets, all those who held to God’s Word, they believed God, believed His saving promise, and it was credited to them as righteousness.  Hope sustained them.  Messiah is coming, the Seed of the woman, the Seed of Abraham, David’s Son, yet David’s Lord, Son of Man and Son of God. 
            Then all at once it happened.  The angel came 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 2:31, 35; ESV).  And so it was in that moment, for the Word of the Lord does what it says.  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).  Promise kept.  Hope fulfilled.  In the fullness of time, the Savior of the nations had come, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive adoption as sons (Gal. 4:4-5).  The first coming of Jesus, His first Advent, was about undoing what had gone wrong for all humanity in Adam’s fall, in our sin.  He came in the flesh to undo our sin, and so to undo sin’s wages, namely death, by submitting Himself to death on the cross.  You see, Christmas, too, is about the cross.  It’s about Christ crucified for sinners.  It’s about Christ crucified for you.  Remember that in all your song-singing and gift-wrapping and merry-making, amongst all the tinsel and glitter and the decking of the halls, the eating and the drinking, that this is all finally not about a jolly old elf or stockings hung by the chimney with care, but a Baby born to shed His precious blood and die… For you.  For in so doing He crushes the serpent’s head.  That we may maintain a salutary perspective toward Christmas, the Church observes this season of preparation for His coming, the season of Advent.  While the world is busy with the full-fledged celebration of its version of the holiday, we Christians are waiting.  And we’re listening as God speaks to us here about His Son, the Savior who has come, whose birth we celebrate at Christmas.  And we’re repenting.  For all of its joyful anticipation, Advent is a penitential season, and we’ll hear from John the Baptist the next two Sundays calling upon us to “Prepare the way of the Lord,” to “make his paths straight” (Matt. 3:3), to repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.
            That repentance is more than simply sorrow over sin, although it certainly is that, what we call in theology “contrition.”  It is a daily return to our Baptism, where we died with Christ, and were brought to new life in Him.  But repentance is also our longing that all that is wrong be set right again, that we would be set free from sin and death and all that goes along with it, that we would have the fullness of joy our Lord promises.  And that is what we hope for, and what we believe, expect, and anticipate in the coming of Christ.  That is why the crowds gathered with shouts of joy on the road into Jerusalem as our Lord made His way into the city, why they were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Matt. 21:9).  That is why they were strewing their cloaks and their palm branches on the road before Him (v. 8).  “Hosanna” means “Save now.”  And that is what Jesus came to do.  He came to save them, save us from our sin, to fill our longing.  At long last He has come, the One promised by God, the Savior of the world.
            And He doesn’t just come in general, beloved.  He comes to you.  He comes to you right here and now in this place that houses His Body, the Church.  He comes in His gifts, the Word and the Sacraments, in Scripture and preaching, in Baptism as we saw little Tobiah Gabriel receive Him this morning, in His true Body and Blood under the forms of bread and wine in the Supper.  He comes absolving you of sin, taking it away, declaring you righteous with His own righteousness, covering you with Himself, giving you eternal life.  He comes.  Advent.  You come to Church, because you know that He is here.  You sing “Hosanna” because that is what He does for you here.  He saves you now.  Hope fulfilled.
            And yet you still long.  You are still filled with hopeful expectation and anticipation.  Because Jesus is coming again visibly, to judge the living and the dead, to raise all the dead and give eternal life to you and to all believers in Christ.  On that Day what you now know only by faith you will know by sight.  You will see Jesus, with the Father and the Holy Spirit.  You will dwell with Him.  You  will see your loved ones again, those who died in the faith.  No more tears.  No more sorrow.  No more suffering.  God will wipe away every tear from your eyes.  Beloved, Jesus is coming.  He’s coming for you.  He’s coming to get you.  He comes.  Advent. 
            Your life in Christ centers around His coming for you: His first coming in the flesh to be your Savior, His continual coming to you in His holy Word and Sacraments, and His visible coming again in the End.  And so these words continue to describe your life in Christ: Hope, a certain hope that you know will be fulfilled when you see Him face to face.  Expectation, because God always makes good on His promises.  Anticipation, because you are filled with joy and excitement that Christ is coming again.  And longing, as you pray with the holy Church of all times and all places: “Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20), come quickly, come and deliver us.  He will.  He has promised.  And so, beloved, we wait, and we trust.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.