Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Christmas 1 of Series B (Galatians 4:4-7)

“So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Dear friends in Christ-- Mary and Joseph were good, law abiding citizens. More specifically, they were good, Law abiding Jews. We know the background of our Gospel text for today- we heard all about the miraculous birth, the shepherds, the angels, and the music just a few days ago. But almost as if none of that had ever happened, Mary and Joseph traveled to the temple to present Jesus to the Lord. “And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord… and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, ‘A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.’” A bit ironic, isn’t it- they brought our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to the temple and offered up their required sacrifice, and most who watched them were unaware that these young parents were presenting God the Son to God the Father. Mary and Joseph obeyed the Law of Moses, bringing Jesus into this world under the power of the God’s Law.

In a way, that is fitting, because all of humanity is born under that same power. Whether or not our parents brought us to the temple in Jerusalem to present us to the Lord (I’m guessing not), we too were born under the power of the Law. As Paul writes just before our text today, “we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of this world.” We are born into a prison, a cage of enslavement known as the Law. This Law, given to man by God, is good. It sets the boundaries, tells us how to live peaceably with one another. If we could live by its requirements, life would be great! Love and kindness would abound while the hurt and pain of this world would cease. There is only one problem- humanity fell into sin, making the creation God created good very wrong. We have been born in that same sin, that same inability to keep God’s Holy Law. Now the Law becomes our oppressor, accusing us of our wrongs, so that we are under its power, we are locked in its prison, we are under its curse. This curse is that the Law has condemned us to death, eternal death- that is the only punishment we deserve, because we have disobeyed what God made good.

The Law accuses us and condemns us, and rightly so, for we have sinned. And yet we as humans still attempt to rely on the Law for part (or all) of our salvation. Paul spends the bulk of Galatians arguing that we cannot return to the Law as a means of our salvation. The Law had a purpose, and it served this purpose well- to lock us up in sin, to close every door of opportunity for us to make right what has gone wrong in our world. The more we try to keep the Law, the more we fall into sin, and the harder we fall. You can perhaps think of the leaders of the church who have fallen into scandal, some who have claimed to be free of sin, only to have it revealed that they are very much in its clutches. We cannot achieve salvation, make right the wrong that sin has caused in our lives, though the Law, because the Law was never intended to do such things. The Law was not established in order to give life, to give salvation, but instead was in place to point us away from ourselves to God’s promised deliverer.

And that deliverer did come in the person of Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrated just a few days ago. As Paul writes, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the Law.” Christ invaded our sinful world, launched by God on a mission to renew and restore fallen creation, to make right what had gone so terribly wrong. This happened at exactly the right time, when all was prepared and God’s appointed hour came. Our liberator came in the fullness of time, at a time when all of God’s promises in the Old Testament were ripe and ready to bear fruit. That Christmas night, when God invaded our world as a man, was the fullness of time, the hour of salvation. But to fulfill this hour, Jesus had to be placed under the Law as we were, and He was placed under that Law when His earthly father and mother brought him to the temple, as we heard today. They were obedient to the Law, and they brought Jesus into obedience to the Law.

This obedience, this being under the power of the Law, began with a perfect life on our behalf, but it did not end there. The curse of the Law was unleashed upon Christ, it found Him guilty in the sight of God for the sins of the entire world, sentencing Him to death, death on a cross. But when the Law raged against Christ, it did so to Him on our behalf. Paul says that the purpose of Christ’s birth and life under the power of the Law was “to redeem those who were under the Law.” We deserved to be destroyed by the curse of the Law, sent to eternal condemnation for our failure to live up to its standards, for our foolish attempts to find life within it. But instead Christ became the embodiment of the curse of the Law, meeting that curse head-on and defeating it for us! He who had no sin was not obligated to the Law, but He placed Himself under it for our sake. When Mary and Joseph brought their child to the temple, they were placing Him under the Law, they were fulfilling God’s purpose for us in Christ. If Christ was not placed under the Law, His death would have no meaning, He would not stand in our place. But by being placed under the Law, Christ stood as our substitute that Good Friday. The Law there accused Him of every sin ever committed, and pronounced the judgment, death and separation from God. Jesus suffered all of that for you! But the Law did not have the last word- Jesus did. When He rose from the dead on Easter morning, He announced His triumph over all that held us captive. He loved you so much that He was willing to stand in your place, and for that reason we are redeemed, we are liberated, we are set free from the enslaving power of sin.

We are not set free to wander about on our own, but as Paul says, we were redeemed “so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Christ redeems us so that we may be adopted by God as His children, so that a new family may be created, a family of those claimed by Christ through His blood. Where does this happen? In your baptism! There at the font God claimed you as His own by applying Christ’s death and resurrection to you. He did this not because of your obedience, but for the sake of Christ, who faced the curse of the Law for you. Because of your Baptism, you no longer live under the power of the Law, but instead are free, free to inherit eternal life, and free to love one another not under compulsion, but instead with the overflowing of love from Christ.

Having been adopted, we are brought into a new family, God’s Church. But this is not simply an external organization of like-minded people, it is an incorporation into Christ. We, both male and female, become sons of God by being brought into His Son, Jesus Christ. We are adopted into a person, we are adopted into Christ. We are therefore identified with Christ- when God looks at us He sees His Son, and His shed blood covers us. There in our Baptism, all distinctions are erased as God brings forth something new. As Paul said earlier in Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is not male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” All of us are now one through Baptism by being brought into the Son.

And because we are brought into the Son, Paul writes that “God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba, Father!’” In the early church, those who were baptized came up from the water crying out, “Abba, Father!” In the same way, we are now sons of God through the washing of Baptism, and like Christ we can call God ‘Father.’ We do this as we pray the Lord’s Prayer, or when we receive Christ’s Body and Blood for the forgiveness of our sins. This is a wonderful privilege- have you ever thought of it in this way? In the early church, only those who were baptized could pray the Lord’s Prayer- the privilege of calling God ‘Father’ was only given once He claimed them in those waters. It is the same way with us. Once we are claimed by God in the waters of Baptism, we are able to pray to God with these words, “Our Father, who art in heaven…” As we pray this prayer later in the service, think about how the ability to pray this prayer is a privilege, a wonderful gift given to us by God for the sake of Christ. It is only through Jesus’ death and resurrection that we can pray the prayer He gave to us. We have been given such a gift, such a privilege because we are God’s sons and daughters, and as God’s children, the Holy Spirit came to live in our hearts.

This was the second invasion of the Triune God into our humanity, when in Baptism the Holy Spirit came to us. He cries out for us in groans that words cannot express. In fact, we cannot even distinguish between our cries and the cries of the Holy Spirit within us, because He is a part of us. He gives us the comfort that we are God’s adopted children, He bears witness within our spirit that God has claimed us in Baptism for the sake of Christ. This confidence sustains us through all of life’s trials, when the devil, the world, and our own sinful nature try to tell us that we are still under the power of the Law.

This Holy Spirit assures us of yet one more promise from God. As Paul says, “So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” Because we are now children of God through our Baptism in His Son, Jesus Christ, we now receive the inheritance of Christ. When Christ rose triumphant from the grave on Easter morning, He rose to give to us the inheritance of eternal life and the promise that because He rose, so we too shall rise one day. On that day, when the ‘fullness of time’ once again comes, God will bring us out of our graves as His adopted children to receive our inheritance, life everlasting with Him in heaven. May the Lord preserve His children in His Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, until that day, Amen.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas Eve (Matthew 1:18-25)

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Christmas Eve is from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from Matthew chapter one. Dear friends in Christ, I love the movie ‘The Nativity Story.’ Very well done and full of beautiful imagery, this movie puts a human face on the story we read about in the Scriptures. Despite a few changes to the story- the wise men did not come on Christmas Eve- I thought it was very accurate as well. One of its most important contributions, in my opinion, is the portrayal of Joseph. While in most tellings of the Christmas story Joseph is an incidental character, ‘The Nativity Story’ really makes his struggles come alive for us. This is much like Matthew in our text for tonight. While Luke rightfully shines the spotlight on Mary, Matthew takes a look at Joseph. And what we see is very encouraging. God knew what He was doing when He selected the parents of our Lord and Savior. They both were faithful and obedient to God, and as we will see, they trusted the promises given to them.

Matthew describes Joseph as a ‘just’ man, using a word that we often have translated as ‘righteous.’ He was a good Jew, practicing obedience to the Law and following God’s instructions in the Old Testament. “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” Can you imagine what that was like? Joseph was a good man, a righteous man, a hard working carpenter who only wanted to build a family in Nazareth. He was one of the ‘good guys’ that in our world does not seem to get any breaks. He had selected what seemed to be a wonderful wife, followed all the proper customs to become betrothed to her, and was awaiting the day that she would be his wife. When it became apparent that she was pregnant, I think we can all imagine what Joseph felt like. He felt betrayed, deceived, sinned against. The woman whom he had pledged his life to had been unfaithful even before they were married!

But Joseph did not react out of anger. “And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” Here another definition of just or righteous is revealed. Joseph was willing to show mercy to someone who seemingly did not deserve it. Isn’t this amazing?! His love for her remained strong even after he discovered her secret! If he revealed her unfaithfulness, she would have faced public shame at the least and perhaps death by stoning at the worst. Joseph showed grace and mercy to his betrothed- his plan were motivated by love. But the plans of men are not the plans of God. Isn’t that the way it is with all of our plans? So often we mean well, but we simply do not know all that our Lord does. We make plans for a comfortable life, a new car, a bigger home, grand vacations, and a comfortable lifestyle, but God so often says that He has different plans. Especially in this world, we are encouraged to set things up so that we achieve all that we can at each stage, working toward a comfortable retirement in the sun. But the sin of this world, the challenges sent our way, can derail each and every plan. At every turn, God is achieving His own plans through good and ill, plans that will ultimately bring forth good, though we often can’t see the end.

Joseph was about to do the wrong thing for the right reasons, but it was the plans of men that led this world into sin in the first place- our plans made the mess that God sought to clean up. We wanted to be like God in the Garden of Eden, and if you think about it, that is what many of our plans ultimately come down to. We often mean well, as Joseph did, but our own sin, caused by the misguided plans of Adam and Eve, colors every plan that we make. The plans of our sinful nature include only us and our own needs. Our sin turns us in on ourselves and focuses our plans squarely on ‘what’s in it for me.’ Man’s desires and schemes have led to wars and destruction throughout history, they have caused families and friendships to break apart. Left to ourselves and our plans, we may have a grand time here on earth, but our plans would have no place for God.

God stops the plan of Joseph right in its tracks: “But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘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.” God’s plans, as they do so often in our lives, override our plans. We had fallen into sin, left to ourselves and our devices we simply made things worse, as we fell deeper and deeper into sin and justly earned the wrath of God. But God had His own plans. His love for us was so complete, so total, that He was willing to deal with our sin, to reclaim humanity for His own. And so Joseph’s plans, as kind and loving as they were, needed to be thwarted. But Joseph did not complain. In his trusting submission of his own plans to those of God, Joseph gives us all a pattern of looking at our own plans. “When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a Son. And he called His name Jesus.”

For this child was no ordinary child. The angel told Joseph in the dream, “She will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” Today, names are simply labels, we pick them for aesthetic reasons or because a name has special meaning for us, most of the time (unless we receive one of those fancy bookmarks) we don’t even know what they mean. But in the Scriptures, names mean something, they have incredible significance, especially when they are given directly from God. They describe a person’s identity as well as what they are to do. They are a one-word prophecy, and here, the name of Mary’s Son is incredibly significant. For this Child is to be named Jesus, the Old Testament name Joshua. And in order that Joseph and the rest of us don’t miss its significance, the angel translates: “for He will save His people from their sins.” Jesus means ‘Yahweh saves!’ This child was to be the instrument, the tool which Yahweh would use to save all people from their sin, to save us all from the punishment we deserve for those sins. For the rest of His life, the very name Jesus will evoke the purpose for which He came, to save sinners.

But this Jesus was more than simply a instrument of Yahweh. “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us).” Once again, the name describes identity and purpose. This child is truly God, a concept that we can only believe, we can never completely understand. It is a miracle, it is a mystery, it is the truth, and it is the only way by which we could be saved. For only as a man could the Son of God stand in our place. God was present amongst His people in the tabernacle in the desert and the temple in Jerusalem, but in a still distant way. In Christ He is present as one of us, as our Brother, in an intimate relationship with us, those who by no means deserve it. But more than that, He is not present simply for the sake of being present, He is present among us to save.

And as Yahweh come to save, as God with us in the flesh, this Child embarked on a mission to fulfill all those names prophesied. For the one born this night in a stable in Bethlehem would be the one to open wide once again the gates to paradise, and He could only do that by means of His death. Our sin deserved death, and in order to fulfill His name, Jesus had to pay the price we owed. On this night we look toward the manger, but only because the one born on this quiet night would be the one who would save you and me from sin by dying on the cross. Without the cross, Christmas is a neat story, perhaps good movie material, but of little worth to us. Christ dealt with our ultimate need, that of salvation, a need that is present whether we realize it or not. He did this by living a life in obedience to the Law, just like His parents, and then taking all of our sin, your sin, my sin, and the sin of the entire world, to the cross. There His shed blood washed it all away. Christ is God’s greatest gift because He bled and died for us! On this Christmas Eve, we look toward Good Friday and Easter, not to be sorrowful, but to be reminded once again that this miracle, God becoming man, had a purpose, a plan that involved your salvation. We no longer have to fear death, we no longer have to fear the punishment for our sins- Christ’s shed blood and victorious resurrection has delivered us!

This salvation delivers us in both body and soul. That is the great miracle of the Incarnation. When Jesus took on human flesh and was born of Mary that first Christmas night, He declared that His salvation was for our corrupted bodies as well. We look forward to the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day, we look forward to the restoration of our entire selves, body and soul, on that day. That is the Christian’s ultimate hope.

Joseph was about to do the wrong thing for the right reasons. As we heard earlier, this is an example of how the plans of our sinful nature are not always those of God. Christ came to deliver us from the sinful results of humanity’s plans, from the mess that we made of our world through our own scheming and sinful planning. But yet, this Christmas Eve we still find much to commend in Joseph. In fact, Jesus followed in Joseph’s footsteps. Like father, like adopted Son, we might say. Jesus showed mercy to we who were unworthy, all of us who were infected by sin, and His mercy washed those sins away. Joseph’s love for Mary is only a poor picture of Christ’s love for you, a love that sustains us each and every day. May this love, the love which led Jesus to become man, the love that led Him to the cross, fill you this Christmas Eve, Amen.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A programming note...

For those who do read this blog on a regular basis, I threw a lot out there today- newsletter articles for both church and school, a sermon (Advent 3) and two newspaper articles. The newspaper articles need a little explanation:

Since October I have been running a monthly article in Eagle Newspapers of Madison County New York. Just this month, I have begun running the same articles (with congregation-specific changes) in the Owego area. The hope is to have these articles also in Binghampton newspapers. My intention is to speak about the Christian faith from the perspective of my trip to South Africa this past spring. My hope and prayer is that these articles will educate members and non-members about Christianity, as well as provide an opportunity to inform members of the community of service and bible study times, etc. for all three congregations.

December newspaper article

Greetings in Christ, our Savior and Redeemer. As you read this, we are in the midst of the holiday season, a time of joy and celebration. One of the things we most look forward to during this time is seeing family and friends again. I was fortunate enough to grow up with my family very close around me, we were able to get together for birthdays and other celebrations, not to mention the ‘big’ holidays. One of the most important parts of Christmas was family.
In my first column in October, I told you a little bit about the sacrifices the Lutheran seminary students in Pretoria, South Africa, make in order to study. Today I would like to tell you about my roommate, Bongani. Bongani has left a wife and two children behind at his home near the Swaziland border. Campus life in Pretoria does have breaks, but like many of the students he cannot afford to go home during those breaks. He left his family behind to come to the city and study at the seminary. During my three weeks in Africa, I was able to share in his life as a seminary student. Bongani started out very quiet and thoughtful, but while we were together he opened up another side that included soccer and an incomprehensible card game. While he seemed to be enjoying his time at seminary, every day I walked by a picture of his wife and children, waiting for him back home.
The question running through my mind as we lived among those men was, ‘Why do they do this?’ The answer is quite simple, really. They sacrifice so much to attend seminary so they may learn how to tell people about Jesus. They give up Christmases with their families to have the opportunity at future Christmases to speak of the real reason for Christmas. They have a burning desire to preach how on the first Christmas, God sent His Son as a little baby to save humanity from eternal punishment. They want to preach how this little baby grew up to die on the cross for each and every one of "you." That is why they sacrifice so much, so they can teach about Jesus Christ, who became man for you. During the Christmas season, they are missing their families, but their focus is on Jesus, who was born as the Savior to "all" mankind in a stable in Bethlehem.
We invite you to come celebrate this Christmas joy 4p.m. at Redeemer Evangelical Lutheran Church every Sunday (we meet at Trinity Episcopal Church in Canastota). We also have several bible studies: before church at 3 p.m., Whitman Road above Clockville on the 2nd and 4th Mondays at 2:00 p.m., Camden on the 2nd and 4th Wednesdays at 6:30 p.m., and 1st and 2nd Tuesdays in Oneida on N. Lake St at 6:30 p.m. Call 315-245-0415 for specific directions and further information. Come visit us and share in the birth of our Savior!

November newspaper article

Greetings in Christ, our Savior and Redeemer. If you remember from last month, my name is Vicar Christopher Maronde, and I am serving three Lutheran Churches in upstate New York, including Redeemer Evangelical in Canastota. In my previous article, I introduced a recent trip I took to South Africa. During that trip, I had the opportunity to go to church in a variety of settings. In a later article, I hope to tell you about worship in Africa. But today, I wish to speak to you about something that happened at the English speaking church that meets on the Seminary campus. On the second Sunday of our trip, our very last day in South Africa, we witnessed a baptism.
What we observed didn’t ‘seem’ very special. The German missionary gathered the family around a bowl of water and then poured water on the head of a one or two year old boy while speaking these words: “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Then the child was given back to his parents and the service continued. Not too impressive, if you judge on appearances. But there was more than meets the eye. God Himself was working within that water to give a little baby life, to claim him as His very own child. That child was born in sin (as we all are), he was born facing the penalty of eternal death (which we all deserve), but in Baptism God gave to him life, He forgave that little child of all his sins. It wasn’t that the water was special or ‘magic,’ much the opposite, in fact. That water was quite ordinary, but it was being used for an extraordinary purpose. God joined His name to that water, He was working through that baptism to give that child eternal life. God wants to give these gifts to each and every one of you.
The amazing thing about Baptism is that God would work through simple water to give His gifts. Whether in South Africa or in Central New York, God gives the same gifts to hurting people. Baptism is not something you do for God, it is something that He wants to do for you. He offers this gift to you, He is yearning for you to be His child. In South Africa, we saw a little boy become a child of God, a miracle that happens in so many churches throughout the world every Sunday.
To learn more about God’s gifts in Baptism, we invite you to come to Redeemer Evangelical Lutheran Church every Sunday at 4 pm (we meet at Trinity Episcopal Church in Canastota). We also have several bible studies: before church at 3 pm, at Whitman Road above Clockville on the 2nd and 4th Mondays at 2:00 pm, at North Bay on the 2nd and 4th Wednesdays at 6:30 pm. Call 315-245-0415 for specific directions and further information. Come visit us!

December school newsletter article

From the Vicar,
This summer, Mrs. Roseboom approached me and asked if I had any ideas for mission projects that the children could support. One idea that came to mind was Deaconess Pat Nuffer, who serves in Sudan. Her husband, Professor Nuffer, runs the vicarage program at the seminary I attend. Several years ago, Professor Nuffer was part of a group of American Lutheran pastors who traveled to Sudan in Eastern Africa. This trip started a connection between Mrs. Nuffer and the Lutheran Church there. Sudan is a deeply troubled country on the dividing line between Muslim Africa and Christian Africa, and being on the border can be very dangerous and hard.
Deaconess Nuffer’s primary goal in Sudan is to provide mercy. She has done this by establishing a training center in Yambio in southern Sudan for people with disabilities. In Sudan, there is no support for those with physical or developmental disabilities, and so this center exists to serve them both with the Gospel and training that helps these people provide for themselves. The skills they learn and the products they make help to support both the center itself and the people it serves. But this is not just a social program- each day begins with bible study and teaching. In addition, this center in Yambio acts as a distribution point for a variety of materials that support the people and church of Sudan. She gives out kits to school children and materials to Sudan’s pastors. I had the opportunity to send my old laptop to Sudan last year, where it is hopefully helping a pastor to serve the Church. Several full-time employees run the center, while Deaconess Nuffer supports its work from the U.S. and travels to Sudan several times a year, bringing these goods to the people there.
Now that you have heard about the wonderful work that Deaconess Nuffer is doing for the people of Sudan, how can you help? Well, the children at Zion Lutheran School have an opportunity for you! They are collecting materials to put into ‘hygiene kits’ that will be distributed to people in need. In the past couple newsletters we have had a list of what she is collecting- I think you will find that a lot of the items are things that you can easily give away. We are also accepting monetary donations to support her work. Mrs. Nuffer’s greatest expense is shipping all the materials that she collects here in the U.S. to Sudan, where it can be used. For more information, ask me or go to Deaconess Nuffer’s website: God’s blessings on your week!
In Christ,
Vicar Maronde

December church newsletter article

From the Vicar,

The Lutheran Church has always been known as the singing church. Today, that often does not seem to be saying much. We can attend a variety of other churches around us and hear singing, some better, and some worse. Beautiful Roman Catholic cathedrals and money-hungry televangelists have singing, just like your own Lutheran church. But yet there is a difference, a Lutheran difference, which makes singing in the Lutheran church unique amongst all other branches of Christ’s Church. This difference goes much deeper than which hymns we choose to sing, though the hymns we select are the most important result. Why are Lutherans different when it comes to the song of the Church? The answer lies in both the historical and theological realms.
When you look around the Christian landscape today, singing is simply a part of what Christians do in worship. However, this was not always the case. Several times in its history, the Christian Church has abandoned music for the congregation, making it the exclusive property of the priests and monks. The Early Church struggled with heresies (as does the Church in all ages), heresies that often spread their theology through music. In response, many clergy began to condemn popular singing in the churches, and instead gave music to choirs, clergy, and monks. Popes and bishops wanted to control music within the Church, and not give it free reign to spread falsehood. Popular hymnody was shut down for centuries, but music still thrived in the monasteries, where many hymns we find in our hymnals today were written. Therefore, with only a few exceptions, the congregation was generally not able to sing until the time of the Reformation. And even in that period the Church’s song suffered. Reformers such as Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin looked down on singing any songs but those found in Scripture, sung in a very simple way.
In direct contrast with these outlooks, Martin Luther gave the Church’s song back to the people. He saw music not as something frivolous, but as a good gift of God to be used in His service. Music was not the sole possession of the clergy, but belonged to all Christians. Music served to bring people into the liturgy, where God gives His good gifts. Finally, unlike Zwingli and Calvin, Luther also gladly accepted the music of the Church throughout history, bringing the hymns hidden in the monasteries for centuries to the people. Therefore, the Lutheran difference is first of all that Lutherans, in contrast to Church history and contemporary trends, celebrated music as a good gift of God to be given to the congregation in the Divine Service.
The theological side of the Lutheran difference can best be illustrated through the example of one man, Johann Sebastian Bach. Most people know of Bach as a great composer, one of the most talented that ever lived. But very few know about or appreciate his theological background. In fact, many Lutherans (including myself until I attended the seminary) do not even realize that Bach is ‘one of us,’ a Lutheran musician strongly motivated by his orthodox Lutheran theology. This is quite simply because most attempt to understand Bach apart from his theology. Few musical textbooks or television programs even consider this an area to explore, and so we are left with a deficient picture of this great man. These sources see Bach’s music as disconnected from his theology, a contention that he himself would find utterly false.
Bach was a kantor in the Lutheran Church, an office that combined theological and musical training, so he did not think solely in musical terms. For Bach, as for all Lutherans, doctrine and practice (theology and music) could not be separated. This is the most important part of the Lutheran difference. We do not only sing, but we sing with a purpose, we sing what we believe. Hymns must preach. If a hymn does not express what we confess as a church, then we do not sing it. Therefore, Lutherans require much more of their hymns than do other denominations, and many hymns found in Lutheran hymnals do not have a place anywhere else. This principle seems quite simple, even obvious, but in actual practice this Lutheran difference is maintained only by pastors, musicians, and laity who are conscious of what they sing and why.
The office of kantor has fallen out of use since the first centuries of the Lutheran Church, but it is so emblematic of the Lutheran difference that it could use a revival. Lutherans have historically expected their musicians to have a firm grounding and understanding of theology. If theology and practice are so intertwined together, then a musician with no concept of theology simply cannot lead the Church’s song. In the same way, a pastor cannot be ignorant of music in the Church. He must have a firm understanding of both the role and practice of music. In addition, the Lutheran difference not only influences who leads the Church’s song, but most importantly what is to be sung. If Lutherans want their music to confess what they believe, then the texts must clearly and honestly proclaim Christ and the theology of the cross. The music must be wedded to the text in such a way that it does not obscure what the text says or give a different message. To accomplish this, the Lutheran Church has had both theologians who could write and compose, such as Martin Luther, and combinations of theologians and composers that could work together to wed text and tune, such as Johann Gerhard and Johann Ebeling.
Lutherans are not called the singing church because we sound so much better than everyone else. In fact, some of our singing leaves much to be improved and we who are in the church that bears this title should be active in enhancing the congregation’s song. Instead, we are called the singing church historically because Lutherans brought hymns back to the people and theologically because we view the Church’s song very highly as a sung confession of faith. Lutherans should have high standards for what is sung in the Divine Service because what we sing does matter, it says something to us and it says something about us.

In Christ,

Vicar Maronde

Advent 3 of Series B (Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11)

“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for He has clothed me with the garments of salvation.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this the third Sunday in Advent is from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the prophet Isaiah the sixty-first chapter. Dear friends in Christ, “there was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the Light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.” God did not send our Savior into a vacuum, but instead prepared the way, just as He promised. John the Baptist was a man of the wilderness, a man hardened by Judea’s harsh deserts. He came to call all Israel, indeed all people, you and me, to repentance. The day of salvation was drawing near, and his job was to prepare the way. “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord!’” John preached and baptized, but not to gain fame and a following for himself, instead his job was simply to point to another: “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even He who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.”

God also did not send John into a vacuum. He sent the witness to the Light into a world, our world, which was devastated and filled with mourning. The consequence of the first sin of Adam and Eve was that of death, and in every generation since, humanity has been in a constant state of mourning. We are sinful, and therefore must die, as Paul says in Romans “the wages of sin is death.” This is made graphically demonstrated again to us every time that we lose a loved one, every time that we hear of another tragedy, and every time that someone we have looked up to who has died. When the casket sits at the front of the church, or when we walk through a cemetery, we need no one to tell us of the consequence of sin. A person does not die because of specific sins, but instead they die because of the infection of sin that fills us all, that has consumed us since the earliest days of creation. We screwed up God’s perfect world, and through humanity death came into the world, and it has not left. Humanity is therefore condemned to mourning throughout our days. We are condemned to fear death because of our sin, because deep down our human conscience knows what we deserve for our sin. The wages of sin is death, but that phrase does not only describe temporal death. The wages of sin is eternal death, death forever in hell.

That is what humanity’s sin deserves after death, but even in this world sin wreaks havoc. Every one of you could tell me a different story of how sin has invaded your lives, or the lives of your parents, or the lives of your children. Sin destroys lives, it destroys marriages, it destroys families. Humanity’s sin has left us the legacy of devastated lives, lives in ruin, lives that may never be the same. Our sin, this infection that clings to our very bones, leaves us in this situation. But there is even more than this. Our sin causes us to only look at our own problems, our own legacy. However, humanity’s guilt extends far beyond our own lives. The sin that fills us from conception, the sin that has been passed down to all who are children of Adam and Eve, has left a devastated world, a world in ruin. It may be hard to comprehend, but the simple fact is that humanity’s sin, your sin and my sin, has created a world filled with death, a world that is in shambles, a world that is in decay.

It was into this world, our world of death and mourning, desolation and despair, that God sent His anointed One. The Messiah declares in our Old Testament lesson for today: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, 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.” This Advent season we greet God’s Anointed One, the one appointed from all eternity to preach the good news to all who mourn and all whose lives are devastated. A little baby born in a stable in a dusty town called Bethlehem was this Anointed One, He was the one who was to proclaim this good news. When this same Jesus Christ stepped into the Jordan’s muddy waters to be baptized by the desert preacher, He began His mission of restoring and reversing all that our sin had so completely and utterly corrupted. As He says in our text, His mission was “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” In the Old Testament, God established a Year of Jubilee for His people, a time when slaves were liberated, debts were forgiven, and people returned to their homes. But this Year of Jubilee was not only for the people of Israel, it was a prophecy of what God’s Anointed One, the Messiah, would do.

As our text says, Jesus was anointed to “bring good news to the poor.” His proclamation was the proclamation of Advent, the proclamation of Christmas- the Messiah has come, and He has come in the most unexpected way. He has come as God in the flesh, true man yet true God, a baby born in a stable in Bethlehem, yet the Lord of heaven and earth. He has come to the poor of this world, all who have been beaten down by sin, all who have spent their days in mourning, all who have seen their lives and their world devastated by sin. He came to “bind up the brokenhearted,” you and me, all who are burdened with the loss of loved ones, who fear the consequences and the just punishment for our sin. He came to us to bind up our wounds, to heal and make new all that had been ruined by the rule of sin.

Jesus Christ was on a rescue mission. He was anointed to release all that were in the bonds of fear, the shackles of sin and death. He declares the He was sent “to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of prison to those who are bound.” The word here used for ‘liberate’ is only used in the context of Year of Jubilee, when the nation of Israel freed all of her slaves and cancelled all debts. Those who had been bound were now truly free, but they remained in bondage to sin. The Year of Jubilee had no power over sin and death. Only Jesus could deal with those slavemasters, and He could only do this by allowing Himself to be bound, by giving Himself up to sinful men, to the very ones He had come to liberate. And so He was seized by a mob, God in the flesh bound and delivered to death. Jesus Christ refused to exercise His heavenly power, He allowed Himself to be nailed to a cross, because it was only through the blood flowing from His forehead, His hands, and His feet that all mankind could be saved. He who was free was bound for you, for me, and for all who languished in the bondage of sin. There He died, and was bound once again, this time sealed into a tomb. But the bonds of death, the supposed triumph of sin and Satan, did not keep Him there. Jesus broke those bonds for you and when He did, He broke your bonds as well. His message of liberty and freedom was fulfilled that Easter Sunday, and it was fulfilled for you!

His shed blood on the cross and victorious resurrection reverses all the consequences of sin, all the mourning and desolation that has filled our lives and this world. Because of His death and resurrection, Jesus comes “to grant to those who mourn in Zion- to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.” This proclamation is for you! We have been delivered from the dominion of death, our deaths no longer are a doorway to hell, but instead are the beautiful gateway to heaven! We still mourn, we still miss those who have gone before us, but now our mourning is mixed with rejoicing, the oil of gladness and the garment of praise now cover us. We rejoice because they now taste eternal glory, they are at the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom, we rejoice because we too will join them someday. Moreover, we know that the devastation of this sinful, corrupted world will be renewed. As our text says: “They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.” On the Last Day, all will be made new and perfect, the dominion of sin in this world will be ended, and we will live in the new heavens and the new earth.

Until that Day, God promises us: “I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their offspring shall be known among the nations, and their descendants in the midst of the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge them, that they are an offspring the Lord has blessed.” Because Jesus Christ came to us as a little baby, as the Anointed One come to save, because He set us free through His death and resurrection, reversing the mourning and desolation that fills this world, we are given an everlasting covenant. The nation of Israel has fulfilled its purpose in bringing forth the Messiah, and now it gives way for the new Israel, the Church, which is in the midst of the people, the offspring that the Lord has blessed. We can say triumphantly with those in our text: “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for He has clothed me with the garments of salvation; He has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” The garments of salvation were placed on us in our Baptism, they cover us like a white robe with Christ’s very own righteousness, when God looks at us He sees His children, those redeemed by His Son. We are covered in Christ’s blood, we are clothed with the garments He won for us, and for that reason we rejoice.

“For as the earth brings forth its sprouts, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations.” The Gospel, the good news that the Anointed One proclaims, makes us righteous and motivates our praise. As those who have been liberated by Christ, what else can we do but praise Him? But as our text says, this is not something we do, it is the work of God in us, He is the actor in bringing forth righteousness and praise. God is working within us so that the concluding benediction of our Epistle lesson will be fulfilled: “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; He will surely do it.” Amen.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Advent 2 of Series B (Mark 1:1-8)

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this second Sunday of Advent is from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the opening verses of the Gospel according to Saint Mark. Dear friends in Christ, Peter wrote in our Epistle lesson for today: “Do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” God’s people have almost always been waiting. Every once in awhile, a generation comes along where the promises of God are fulfilled in their midst, but most of the time, we wait. The Israelites waited four hundred years for God to deliver them from Egypt, and the gap between the Old and New Testaments, only a page in most of our bibles, extends for another four hundred years. And we haven’t even talked about the greatest period of waiting yet: in my bible up here in the pulpit, there are one thousand and four pages between God’s promise of a Savior in Genesis chapter three and the opening words of our text: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” But before we get to Jesus, God has yet one more messenger to send, John.

John was a unique man of God, the last in a long line of Old Testament prophets, he did not seem to fit in the refined world of Roman Judea. “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey.” John’s very appearance preached a sermon, he was dressed in the clothing of repentance. His shirt was very uncomfortable, but it reminded him and all others that he was conceived and born in sin. His food was a sacrifice, but what else would more graphically remind him and others of how they had rebelled against God? He was a man hardened by the desert, he was a product of that treacherous wasteland. Throughout the Scriptures, it is the desert prophets who are most fiery, they have an earthy, bold quality to them, and John was no exception.

For John was the one prophesied in Isaiah and elsewhere in Scripture, he was a part of the plan of salvation. Mark gives us the reference: “Behold I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.” John preached a fiery message of repentance, but his message was not only for his day. He is also preaching to you and me- ‘Repent and prepare for the coming of the Lord!’ The Advent season is a season of preparation for us all right, as we are reminded how many shopping days we have left and we pay attention to our decorations and pocketbooks. But John is preaching to you and me, ‘Have you prepared yourselves for the coming of your Lord? Do you realize that your sin separates you from God? Do you know that you are mortal?’ Here he is only echoing Isaiah’s prophecy in our Old Testament lesson for today: “A voice says, ‘Cry!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass.” This desert preacher then confronts us then with one word- ‘Repent!’ He urges us to confess our sins this Advent season, to live a life of repentance, remembering and confessing the sins, our sins, that stirred up God’s wrath. He asks us, ‘How often do you confess your sins to God and one another? How often do you admit your sins, even to yourself?’ The prophet cries out to us as he did in our text, “Prepare the way of the Lord!”

By preaching this message of repentance, by calling on all people, you, me, and the people of his day, to confess their sins and prepare themselves for the coming Savior, John built the way of the Lord. That is how we can look at John, as a construction worker, as a builder. In that way He is no different than any of the other prophets. From the very first promise of a Messiah in Genesis chapter three, God has been calling men to build a road for Jesus Christ, a paved highway for the Savior to tread. Men like the patriarchs and Moses laid the foundation, and each successive generation added a layer or completed what had come before. When the final builder, John, came on the scene, he had the tasks of putting the finishing touches on the paving stones, making sure that all was in earnest for the coming of the Lord. For this would be a highway of salvation, and it led to a cross.

For the one whose way John prepared would be the agent of salvation, God in the flesh come to do battle with the powers of darkness. John never pointed to himself, but instead his finger was outstretched toward the coming one Jesus Christ, his cousin according to the flesh, but yet His Lord and Savior. “And he preached, saying, ‘After me comes He who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’” Jesus was mightier that John because John was only a messenger, Jesus Christ was the message. He became Incarnate as a little baby to do battle with Satan, to do what John and all humanity was unable to do, He fought on our behalf. Jesus engaged our Enemy at every turn, casting out demons, healing the scourge of sin, but these were only small victories compared to the battle He was marching toward. In Jerusalem, the battle was joined, and Jesus Christ went to the cross for us and our sin, He took on Satan head on by enduring the wrath of God for our sin. Satan tried everything he could to deter Jesus from the cross, he tried to convince Jesus to come off of that instrument of torture, but instead Jesus endured. His love for you was so great that He who had no sin was willing to become sin for you and die in your place. Jesus engaged Satan in battle that day and gave up His life. Own foes thought the battle was won. But on Easter Sunday Christ triumphed over sin, Satan, and death, but the victory was not for Himself, it was for you, me, and all people.

And now this message goes out throughout the world, as our Old Testament lesson puts so beautifully: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” This victory, this comfort, this pardon is yours for the sake of Christ, He did this all for you! And so we are like the heralds that Isaiah describes: “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’ Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and His arm rules for Him; behold, His reward is with Him!”

And this reward now comes to us. John prophesied: “I have baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” The baptism of John was for the forgiveness of sins, but it was still incomplete. It looked forward to the great victory of Christ over Satan on Calvary’s cross, it anticipated all that God was about to do through His Son. Moreover, it anticipated Christian baptism. John’s baptism brought the Old Testament to a close, as one final prophecy of what God was about to do in Christ. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, John’s baptism was transformed into Christian Baptism. Both baptisms provided forgiveness and a new relationship with God, but only the Baptism initiated by Good Friday and Easter Sunday involved a death and resurrection- yours and mine. On our Baptism day, God incorporated us into the death and resurrection of His Son, as Paul says: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” The old, sinful Adam in us was put to death, drowned in the water with the word, but in that very same water God gave life, He rose up a new person to live before Him in His kingdom forever. It was in that washing that you were incorporated into Christ’s victory over Satan, and therefore, you now have all the benefits thereof. He also gave you the gift of the Holy Spirit, a gift that John’s baptism could not give, a gift that strengthens you to live as a Christian, a gift that strengthens your faith, a gift that brings Christ to you. The Holy Spirit is much like John- He is always pointing to Jesus.

In this Advent season, our task is much the same as John: “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.” We live in the wilderness of a sinful world, a world that is in rebellion against God and the Messiah He sent. Our voices in this world are the voices of John, the voice calling in this wilderness to prepare the way of our Lord. We call this world to repentance through our words and actions, and then proclaim the One who defeated humanity’s enemies on our behalf, the one who triumphed with His death and resurrection. Moreover, we live the lives of repentance that John called us to, we live out our Baptisms each and every day by dying to sin and rising to Christ. Baptism shapes our lives into the form of a cross and calls to mind daily what God did for us there, as He claimed us as His child for the sake of Christ. May the Lord preserve and strengthen you in your baptismal life as you walk through this Advent season, and may we all meet with joy the coming Christ that John declares, Amen.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Advent 1 of Series B (Mark 11:1-10)

“Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Our text for this the first Sunday in Advent, the opening of another Church Year, is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from Mark, the eleventh chapter. Dear friends in Christ, I was in Fort Wayne a couple of years ago when the Indianapolis Colts won the Super Bowl. Being in Indiana for that event was quite an exciting experience- I would bet that a colt has not felt that good about itself since the Lord of Heaven and Earth sat upon one around two thousand years ago. For on that day, Jesus Christ, the Messiah, chose one colt in the villages outside of Jerusalem to be His transportation into the city where salvation would be accomplished. “Now when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of His disciples and said to them, ‘Go into the village in front of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it.’” This colt was required by the Lord, no questions asked: “‘If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” say, “The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.”’ And they went away and found a colt tied at a door outside in the street, and they untied it. And some of those standing there said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’ And they told them what Jesus had said, and they let them go.” This animal was then pressed into service- its purpose was to bring the King into the city of Israel’s kings: “And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and He sat upon it. And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields.” And like a good football player, we can only guess that after this moment in the sun, the colt retired from public life.

On the back of that colt, Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, came to sinful humanity. This was necessary because we as sinful humans cannot come to God. In our Old Testament lesson for today, Isaiah writes: “Behold, you were angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?” Ever since conception, ever since our forefather and mother fell into sin, we have been consumed by sin. Mankind has toiled in sin since the earliest days of creation, and it continues to ensnare you and me. Isaiah continues: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” Our sins fill us, they consume us, they attempt to take over our life. But more than that, our sins prevent us from coming to God, from turning to Him, as Isaiah says: “There is no one who calls upon your Name, who rouses himself to take hold of you.” Because of our sin, we are constantly in rebellion against God- we cannot, nor do we want to, come to Him. We are dead in our trespasses and sins, and just as a dead person cannot raise himself, so all of us who are born in rebellion against God cannot end that rebellion by ourselves and come to Him.

But oh, does our sinful nature try! This is perhaps that most insidious perversion that sin and Satan places in our mind- that we who are sinful and corrupted can somehow make ourselves clean, that we can turn to God, at least a little bit. Satan knows that when we rely on ourselves to turn to God, our focus is exactly where he wants it to be- on us! We try to please God with our works, with our ‘good life,’ with all those nice things that we do. This perversion is ingrained in our world today- if you ask many people, ‘who is going to go to heaven?’ they will say that it is the ‘good’ people. This is despite the fact that Jesus Himself rarely hung out with those ‘good’ people, but instead ate many meals with tax collectors and prostitutes, those who had definitely not lead a ‘good’ life. Many people do realize this, they know that their good works do not count anything before God, but still, we must be able to do something, right? We can at least make the decision to come to God, we can pray the ‘acceptance prayer’ we see in much of Christian literature today, right? This is Satan’s most cunning move. When a person says “I decided to accept you Jesus,” Satan has turned the focus of that person’s salvation once more upon him or herself. Many who say this do believe in Christ, but unfortunately they have a belief founded on their own decision, their salvation is based on themselves. When we focus on ourselves, when we trust in our own capability to come to Christ, we are walking in the wrong direction, we are focusing on ourselves, we are setting ourselves up to fall- we cannot come to God by ourselves, period.

Instead of trusting in our capability, in our own good life, or our own decision, we place our trust in the One who came to us. As Jesus entered the gates of Jerusalem, “many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!’” The crowd began their cry with a very ancient word, ‘Hosanna.’ We usually think that this is simply a word of praise, but it is much more than that. This word is actually two words in Hebrew, two words that mean ‘Lord, save us!’ The crowd understood, at least in part, that this man Jesus Christ had come for salvation, He had come to deliver them! He entered into Jerusalem to save the crowd, he entered into Jerusalem to save you and me, He entered into Jerusalem to save all people. We who have been afflicted by sin cry out ‘Hosanna,’ ‘Lord, save us!’ because we cannot save ourselves, we cannot come to God, and so He comes to us.

“Blessed is He who comes in the Name of Lord!” God came to us in the person of Jesus Christ, He came to us by sending His one and only Son. Jesus Christ came bearing the Name of the Lord, He came as Yahweh in the flesh, God come to save. But His first entrance was not into Jerusalem, it was into our world as a little baby. This Advent season, we turn our attention to a stable in Bethlehem, to the night when God was born as a man to Mary and Joseph. On that wondrous night, Jesus Christ came to us, to sinful and fallen humanity, as a little baby, He came to answer our cries of ‘Hosanna,’ ‘Lord save us!’ and for that reason there was another entrance yet to come. We look beyond the stable in Bethlehem to the gates of Jerusalem; Jesus Christ came as a little baby for the very purpose of sitting on a colt and riding into Jerusalem. This was the mission of the Messiah, the one who bore the Name of the Lord for us.

The crowd calls Jesus ‘blessed’ because they are asking that God will bless all that He does within the city. And God did so, but in a way that no one expected. That is because Jesus did not come on the back of a colt to defeat the Romans, He did not come as a triumphant king to take His throne, He instead came as the suffering servant, as the one who must shed His blood to answer the cries of ‘Hosanna,’ ‘Lord save us!’ He came into the walls of Jerusalem to do this, but Pilate and the Jews cast Him outside the walls, where He was hung on a cross to shed His blood and to die, to die for us and our sins. He hung on that cross to be a blessing to all people, the only blessing that we all truly need, the blessing of the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting. Because Christ came to us in our hour of need, and He came to die for our sins, we receive these blessings, we no longer have to fear the wrath of God, for it was poured out upon Christ. God blessed this sacrifice, this shed blood, by raising Christ from the dead and then delivering those gifts to us.

Only after His blood was shed and Jesus cried out ‘It is finished,’ only after God blessed His shed blood by opening the tomb for the risen Christ to walk out, did Jesus take His throne. The crowds may not have completely understood this, but they still cried out: “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” He entered Jerusalem as a king, and so He was, but His kingdom was not founded on the defeat of the Romans, it was not based on His wealth or earthly power, but instead it was founded on His shed blood, the blood He shed for you and me. This kingdom is not an earthly kingdom of power, but instead a heavenly kingdom of grace.

And this grace, this kingdom now comes to us. It comes to us because we cannot come to God, if left to ourselves we would never reach salvation. Christ’s greatest gift is that He continues to come to us, and He comes bearing salvation. He came as a baby to Bethlehem, He came to Jerusalem to shed His blood for us, and now He comes to each of us to create and sustain faith, He comes into our midst bearing the benefits of that death and resurrection. We cannot come to God with our own works, we cannot decide to accept Jesus, but instead, while we were dead in our trespasses and sins, Christ came to us and made us alive, He kindled faith within us that grasps the promised gifts, the blessings that He won for us. And He continues to come to us, bearing in abundance all of His gifts.
There is a place in our worship service where we join with the crowds in greeting the coming Christ. We sing in the words of the Sanctus: “Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.” Where do we sing this? Directly before the pastor speaks the Words of Institution, right before we receive the Lord’s Body and Blood in His Supper. In this song we celebrate with the crowd the coming Christ, the Christ who comes to us in His own Body and Blood, given and shed on the cross and now given and presented to all who believe for our salvation.

Christ came as a baby, He came through the gates of Jerusalem, He came to us to create faith, and now He comes to us to sustain that faith. But there is yet one more coming that we look forward to. In our Epistle lesson for today, Paul writes that we are waiting for “the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the Day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” On that Day, the Last Day, Christ will return in glory, and He will return for the purpose of raising you and all believers to live before Him forever. May we all meet the coming Christ with joy this Advent season, as we look forward to His final coming, when we will see Him face to face in heavenly glory, Amen.

Thanksgiving Eve (Luke 17:11-19)

“Rise, and go your way; your faith has made you well.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Thanksgiving Eve/celebration is from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from Luke chapter seventeen. Dear friends in Christ, it is amazing how our liturgy brings Scripture to us! Every Sunday morning, directly after the Confession and Absolution and the Introit, after we have entered into God’s presence by having our sins forgiven, we come to a part of the service called the Kyrie. Now, the form of the Kyrie differs from service to service in our hymnals, but what is always included is the cry of the congregation, ‘Lord have mercy!’ The reason it is called the ‘Kyrie’ is because the Greek words ‘kyrie eleeson’ are translated ‘Lord have mercy.’ Does this phrase sound familiar? Of course it does, we heard it in our text for today: “On the way to Jerusalem [Jesus] was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, He was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy upon us!” These ten lepers were calling out, ‘kyrie eleeson,’ Lord, have mercy! When we speak or sing the words of the Kyrie, we are joining with all others throughout history who have called on Jesus to show mercy.

We need this mercy, because we are afflicted with many sicknesses and diseases in this life. Life lived in fallen bodies, corrupted by the affects of the Fall into sin, is difficult and often filled with troubles, as the lepers in our text found out. These lepers had reason to cry out for mercy- they were afflicted with a disease that had no cure, a disease that was highly contagious, and so they were separated from their families and their people. We do not have to think very hard to make a connection to those lepers- we all have been or are being afflicted with many sicknesses and diseases. Whether it is simply the cold or flu, or something like cancer or heart disease, we all have experienced the fact that our bodies are fallen, we see the effects of sin in our own physical bodies. We need healing, we need deliverance, we need mercy!

But our physical weaknesses and infirmities are only part of the corruption of sin, in fact, they are very minor in comparison to the sickness that afflicts us all- sin. Ever since Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, sin has been a disease that has been passed on from each generation to the next. It is a part of our very being, it is in our DNA, so to speak. From the very moment of conception, we are filled with sin, and there is nothing that we as humans can do about it. It clings to our flesh like leprosy, it corrupts us to our very core. And that is only the sin that is passed down from our parents. We actively add to that corruption each and every day, we help to spread the disease of sin to others through our words and actions. The sin that has filled us since conception continues to spawn new sin in our lives, we can’t help but sin, it is part of our very nature. As much as we try, we cannot rid ourselves from sin, but instead we live in rebellion against God.

This corruption of our fallen bodies and souls, which brings us physical diseases and sins upon sins, makes us unclean. The ten lepers stood “at a distance” not to be courteous, or because they were afraid of passing leprosy on to Jesus and His disciples, but because they were judged unclean according to God’s Law. The Old Testament contains an elaborate system of clean and unclean, a system that was carried into Jesus’ day. The people of Israel were to be pure and holy, they were to be ‘clean’ before God. There were many things that could make a person ‘unclean’ before God, including disease or the food that one ate. A person who was unclean could make others unclean, and so unclean people were banished from the camp until they could once again be made clean. But the lepers in our text had no hope of ever becoming clean, they were banished to live a life in exile together, they were unworthy to be with God’s people, much less with God. Like those lepers, our own sin defiles us, it makes us unclean. Our corrupted flesh, our sinful thoughts and actions, all make us unclean and unworthy to stand before God. We need mercy, because we are unclean, and with our sin clinging to our flesh, we have no hope of being with God or His people.

“When He saw them He said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went they were cleansed.” The ten lepers needed mercy, and they called upon the only one that could make them clean, who could show them mercy. Jesus Christ became man for the very reason of making clean what had become unclean by sin. God’s beautiful creation had been corrupted by sin, it had become unclean and unworthy to stand before the God who had given it life. But in the person of Jesus Christ, God cleansed all of creation, Christ was His agent of cleansing for a world that was filthy and unclean. Our text begins like this: “On the way to Jerusalem, He was passing along between Samaria and Galilee.” Jesus was journeying to Jerusalem, to the very place where His ultimate act of cleansing would take place. On this journey, He took up our sins and diseases, He took all that made us unclean upon His perfect shoulders and He carried them to Jerusalem. Each time that He healed someone, He was making another part of creation clean, but the greatest cleansing was yet to come. For when He entered Jerusalem, He entered to shed His blood, He entered to take our sins and diseases to the cross and there to die for them. On the road, He cleansed ten lepers, but on Calvary’s cross, His shed blood cleansed you, me, and all of humanity, indeed, all of creation. Everything was cleansed by His blood, it covered up every sin, every corruption, every disease, and every source of uncleanliness that filled our fallen bodies and souls. Red blood made us white and clean on that Good Friday, and not only us, but all of creation.
This cleansing then came to you and me in water. We call Baptism the washing of water with the Word precisely because it is in that water that we are cleansed. Just as water removes dirt from the body, so water applied “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” removes sin and all that made us unclean. Christ’s blood shed on Calvary then makes us clean and white, so that we can stand before God forever.

In our text, Jesus told the ten lepers to “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” They were to go to the location of God’s presence, the temple in Jerusalem, to be declared clean, to become part of the community once again. But before they had even made it there, they were cleansed. Nine men continued on to the temple to declare their cleansing. One man, however, turned back. “Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, ‘Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” This man, who Jesus describes simply as a ‘foreigner,’ saw something that the other nine did not. He realized that the focus of God’s presence was no longer in the temple in Jerusalem, but instead it was centered in this man who was more than a man, Jesus Christ. He saw with the eyes of faith that Jesus truly was who He said He was, God in the flesh, the Messiah come to save. When Jesus was born, the temple became obsolete- God’s presence was in Jesus Christ, and would remain there for all eternity. Wherever Jesus is, there we have God’s presence, and God is present to save, He is present to cleanse. Jesus continues to clean us each and every time that we make our robes filthy again in sin, He is acting to cleanse our every stain. He does this through the words of forgiveness spoken by a pastor or other Christians, and through the feast of His Body and Blood. But this is only a foretaste of what is to come, for when Jesus Christ returns in glory, He will truly and ultimately cleanse all of creation, He will make everything new and clean, we will stand before God with the white robes. Our sicknesses and diseases remain with us in this world, but on that day, he will wash them all away.

When we realize this, when we see with eyes of faith that God’s presence is located in Jesus Christ, we respond as the Samaritan did: “Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving Him thanks.” When we praise God, we are lifting Him up before the world as someone worthy to be praised for what He has done, namely because He sent His only begotten Son to bear our sin and be our Savior. When we fall on our faces and worship Christ, we acknowledge that He truly is God, that He deserves our worship and adoration. When we have been cleansed by Christ, when He has shed His blood on our behalf, what else can we do but give thanks to Him? Our thanksgiving does not bring us cleansing, it does not bring us Christ’s gifts, but instead is simply a response to the great things He has done for us. Each of these three responses is also a confession- we are confessing that God’s gracious presence is in Christ, we are confessing before all the world that the cleansing we all need only comes through Christ and His shed blood. When we give thanks, we are acknowledging, as the Samaritan leper did, that Christ has cleansed us.

And so as we celebrate Thanksgiving, we look toward all the gifts that God has given to us. He has given us families and friends, food and shelter, and a free country to live in. These are all wonderful gifts, gifts that it is proper to give thanks for. In our gradual today, we said: “The eyes of all look to You, [O LORD,] and You give them their food in due season. You open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.” However, we do not stop there- God has given us even greater gifts. Through Christ, we have been cleansed from all our sins, we have the promise that someday our corrupted, diseased bodies will be renewed and raised to live before God forever. That is the gift that we ultimately give thanks for on this day and every day. May the Lord continue to shower gifts of both body and soul upon you, and may He deliver to you His greatest gift, the gift of cleansing, the gift of forgiveness, the gift of living before Him forever, Amen.