Monday, January 26, 2009

Epiphany 4 of Series B (Mark 1:14-20)

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon today comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from Mark, the first chapter. Dear friends in Christ, God has had some reluctant preachers, but none more rebellious than Jonah. We all know at least some of the details of this odd little book, perhaps the most fascinating in all of Scripture. In the account of Jonah we see a prophet who is called by God, but flees, a man who spends three days in the belly of a ‘great fish,’ foreshadowing Christ’s own stay in the tomb. This stubborn preacher needs a great storm and the stinky belly of a fish to finally come around and do what he was originally called to do- preach repentance to the exceedingly evil city of Nineveh. “So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord… And he called out, ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’” This has been a book filled with wonders, and yet the greatest was still to come. “And the people of Nineveh believed God… When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that He had said He would do to them.” The people of this wicked city, one of the most ruthless nations in all the ancient world, heard the proclamation of Jonah that the time was fulfilled and the day of destruction was upon them, and what was their response? Repentance and faith!

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the Gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled!’” Just as Jonah proclaimed that “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown,” so Christ emerged from the wilderness and boldly cried, “The time is fulfilled!” It was the time, the proper time, for Jesus Christ to begin the mission for which He was born. On that first Christmas Eve, Jesus was revealed to Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds as the Son of God, as the one who was to save humanity. And when the shepherds returned home that night, they probably thought that this deliverance was close at hand. And it was, but all creation had thirty years yet to wait. For salvation was on God’s timetable, as it had been since the day that Adam and Eve fell into sin. On that day the promise was given to the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” The entire Old Testament is a narrative of that promise being passed down from generation to generation, of God making the promise more and more specific, and of His gracious preservation of the seed of a woman that would one day become man in the womb of Mary.

For the time that had come was the time of salvation, the time of God’s mighty deliverance, and it ran on His schedule. It was the proper time because it was His time, and it was the proper time because it was the moment in which all the prophecies of the Old Testament found their fulfillment. For the Lord of all heaven and earth was now ready to reveal Himself to those whom He came to save, and He did so by crying out: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the Gospel!”

The kingdom of God truly was near, because in Christ that kingdom would be established. In fact, in Christ, that kingdom became incarnate, it was embodied within the human frame of the Son of God. When Jesus said that the kingdom of God was near, He was saying that the kingdom was embodied in the one speaking! It is in Jesus that the kingdom of God comes near to people, it is in Jesus that the kingdom of God comes near to you and me. Creation had groaned for thousands of years to see its deliverer born, then waited in eager anticipation for thirty more, and when Christ began to preach, He said that the hour of deliverance is near, it is almost here, it is coming very soon. For Christ had to show Himself as the Lord and Savior of all, as God in the flesh, He had to proclaim to all people, you and me, who He was and what He had come to do. That is what Epiphany is all about! For the moment of our salvation was that moment when He shed His blood and gave up His life in payment for our sins. It was at that time, the proper time, the time set by God, as the earth shook and the sun was blotted out, that the kingdom of God was established. It did not come quietly. “And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed His last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” The kingdom of God, founded in the blood of Christ, the blood shed for you, would be a kingdom of grace, of mercy, of forgiveness. And the revelation and establishment of that kingdom through Christ’s death and resurrection meant the end of another kingdom, that of Satan.
It is no coincidence that the public appearance of Jesus occurs right after He is tempted in the desert. There Satan was dealt a blow, the second Adam resisted the temptations into which the first Adam fell. Satan’s stranglehold on all humanity was about to end, when Jesus paid the price we owe to God, Satan’s kingdom fell. And so Christ’s message to us is simple- “Repent!” Turn away from the kingdom of Satan and His chains which have long enslaved you! Give up on the old kingdom, look toward the new! Cast off the shackles of sin, Satan’s kingdom has been defeated! Jesus is calling on you to examine your life, to confess your sins, to turn your back on Satan’s kingdom, for his kingdom is at an end. Luther instructs us to “consider your place in life according to the Ten Commandments: Are you a father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife or worker? Have your been disobedient, unfaithful, or lazy? Have you been hot-tempered, rude or quarrelsome? Have you hurt someone by your words or deeds? Have you stolen, been negligent, wasted anything, or done any harm?” When we examine ourselves, we see our sin and our urgent need for a Savior. On the other hand, if we answer ‘no’ to every one of those questions, then we have a much deeper problem- we are blind to our sin, we cannot see the corruption that has filled us since conception. The proper time, the time that has been fulfilled, is a time of repentance- the hour for repentance is now! The urgency of Christ’s call cannot be exaggerated- our sins return us to Satan’s kingdom, they cause us to live in a kingdom that has no more power, that has been crushed by the foot of the Savior. “Repent and believe in the Gospel!”

What Jesus is asking seems impossible. We see every day how we are embroiled in the fallen kingdom of Satan, how much we fall into sin. But yet Christ issues His call. “Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’” The power of Christ’s call was overwhelming: “And immediately they left their nets and followed Him.” No arguments, no debate, these men, who just a moment ago had been fishermen were transformed by the power of Christ’s call into fishers of men. The Word of Jesus did what it said, and it would do so again. “And going on a little farther, He saw James the son of Zebedee and John His brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. And immediately He called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed Him.”

The Word of Jesus still does what it says, it still has power. It is the call of Jesus that creates faith within the hearts of sinful people, along the Sea of Galilee and two thousand years later in the hills of central New York. You and I know how unclean we are, we see our sin around us and in us, try as we might we cannot break those bonds. We know that we need a Savior, we need the blood of Jesus Christ. For when the time was fulfilled Jesus bled and died on a cross for you, He was bound to a tree so that your bonds may be broken, He endured the agony of Hell so that you do not have to. He who had no sin became sin for you! Without His death and resurrection, Christ’s call has no power, but with those twin events, where the kingdom of God was established and the kingdom of Satan was destroyed, Christ’s call to you brings life! Jesus calls you to repent- through God’s Word of Law the Holy Spirit works repentance within you. Jesus calls you to believe the Gospel- through the very words of the Gospel the Holy Spirit works faith within you, faith which grasps onto the sure and certain promises of God.

The Word of God transforms you, just as it did Simon and Andrew, James and John, into fishers of men. As those delivered from the kingdom of Satan through the shed blood of Christ, we can do nothing else but carry that message to others, knowing that our Lord does all the work, we are only instruments of His call. Luther once called the Church a ‘mouth-house,’ a place where people are gathered who simply talk about Jesus and His salvation to others. With the same Word that worked faith in our hearts now upon our lips, we know that we are fishing for people with the tools that God has provided, with the promise that “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” The call of Jesus then brings us into a life that is shaped by the cross, it is shaped by our baptism, it is shaped by His words in our text: “Repent and believe the Gospel!” Each and every day we die to sin in repentance and rise to Christ in faith. The Holy Spirit works in us to make the moment in which Christ called us to faith a continual part of our lives- each and every day then is a day in which we turn from the old kingdom of Satan and toward the new kingdom of Christ.

Jesus proclaimed: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel.” This time was not only fulfilled on the night of Jesus’ birth, in our text for today, or even only upon the cross. Today it is fulfilled in your hearing as you once again hear that message of Christ’s death and resurrection for you and the forgiveness of the sins of all. It was fulfilled on your Baptism day, and every time that a child is brought to this font to hear Christ’s call. It is fulfilled each and every time that you receive our Lord’s Body and Blood for the forgiveness of your sins. In short, the kingdom of God is at hand each and every time that sins are forgiven. And yet we look toward another fulfillment to come- that glorious Day when God will raise us and all the dead and give eternal life to us and all believers in Christ. May our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ bring you to that Day through the power of His Word and the gift of His forgiveness, Amen.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Sanctity of Life Sunday (Luke 1:39-45)

“Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Sanctity of Life Sunday is from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the first chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ, the first chapter of Luke is full of miraculous conceptions. The angel Gabriel first travels to the temple in Jerusalem, to the location of God’s presence amongst His chosen people, with a wonderful message to Zechariah. Whether this priest believes it or not, the truth remains: “Your wife will bear a son, and you shall call his name John.” Gabriel’s next appointment is six months later, when he makes a greater promise to a virgin named Mary. “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus.” John was conceived like you and me, but the miracle was that a woman who was old and barren would now carry a son in her womb. The greater miracle was that Mary would conceive of the Holy Spirit, in a way completely different from every other conception in history. But these miracles are simply the greatest and ultimate examples of the miracle that takes place each and every time that life is formed within the womb. There God creates life within a woman, just as He breathed life into the nostrils of the first man. Life is a miracle, whether we are speaking about John’s conception, Jesus’ conception, or ours.

In our Old Testament lesson for this morning, God makes a stunning pronouncement to the prophet Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” The miracle of conception, the miracle of life took place within the womb of an Israelite woman, and it happened for a purpose. Because even while Jeremiah could be described by modern medicine in such cold terms such as an “embryo” or “fetus,” he was chosen by God, he was appointed as a prophet. Jeremiah had a mission to fulfill, and the marching orders were filled out when he was in a state that our nation considers sub-human! It was little different with John. The one who was to prepare the way for the Messiah was appointed even before conception for that task. Listen to this amazing statement by Gabriel: “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.”

John and Jeremiah were appointed from their mothers’ wombs to point forward to one man, One who was more than a man. Gabriel said to Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.” In the miracle of the Incarnation, God took on human flesh, He became man within the womb of a virgin. At that time, God Incarnate could be designated by the lifeless term that too often describes our children today- ‘fetus.’ God Himself entered into the virgin’s womb, from the moment of conception our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ dwelt among us.

God Himself entered into that place that should be the safest domain for any human, the womb of His mother. But in our world today, that place of safety, that place of nourishment, has become a location of death, a place where others decide who lives and who dies. It is in our times that our own thoughts, desires, and choices have become paramount, exalted over everyone else. It is on our watch that God’s children have been murdered for personal convenience, for a multitude of reasons that all come down the wants and ‘needs’ of those outside the womb. But there is so much more than that. For the destruction of 50 million of God’s children in thirty years is simply the most graphic example of a culture that has no respect for life from conception to the moment of death. When our own wants and perceived needs are placed over and above everyone and everything else around us, we end up destroying life. God is not only concerned with our life in the womb, but also in the decades that follow. As Saint Paul says: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” We destroy our lives when we abuse our bodies through sexual immorality and adultery, when we damage that body which He gave to us. But, much more tragic is the other lives that are destroyed by our sin. We are in a ‘me first’ society, and as a child can be an inconvenience, so can any other human that has served his or her purpose in fulfilling our needs. In all this, God and His directive to protect our own lives and the lives of others is ignored. And the end of life then becomes little different. If our society ignores God’s gift of life from conception on, we can hardly expect it to protect the life of those who are no longer convenient for us to keep alive. Jeremiah, John, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ all passed through the womb and every stage of life, showing us that from the moment of their miraculous conception, (for every conception is miraculous) they were chosen of God, chosen to proclaim life, and chosen to bring life.

Our text today is an Epiphany of sorts for Mary, for she is revealed for who she truly is, the mother of our Lord and the one who carries our Messiah in her womb. Having heard the promise of two miraculous conceptions, hers and Elizabeth’s, Mary acts immediately. “In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.” John the Baptist makes the same confession from the womb that he would make throughout his life: “Behold, the Lamb of God!” “And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb.” It was in that moment that Mary was revealed to Elizabeth for who she truly is, she was ‘Epiphanied’ to her relative as one who carried a gift that would be for all the people. “And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.’”

For the fruit of Mary’s womb was Jesus Christ, who at that very moment was living a perfect life on our behalf. Jesus’ life lived for us did not begin at a stable in Bethlehem, but instead it began with the words of Gabriel in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. For at that moment, life was created in the womb of Mary, life that would one day deliver life to us all. For nine months, the bodily frame of Jesus developed and grew, He matured in her womb just as we all did in our mother’s womb. Those nine months were for you and your salvation, they were part of God’s plan of salvation. For the same human beings who would use and abuse their own lives, and most tragically destroy the lives of others, were the same ones that God intended to save. It is not just our society that is corrupted and self-centered, you and me are also filled with sin. We cannot condemn the sin around us before we first confess our own. For it was for the sins of all that Christ became man in the womb of Mary.

Those nine months passed, followed by thirty years of a perfect life lived in our place, a life lived for us. Then the one pointed to by John in the womb stepped forth on the last journey which He would take. Elizabeth declared to Mary, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Mary’s faith would be tested as much more was revealed about what this child was to do. For the fulfillment of what the Lord spoke to her and all others through the prophets in the Holy Scriptures did not only include a perfect life. It involved death- a death that would destroy the very power of death. Jesus gave up His life so that we may have life, He shed His blood and died on the cross in order to wash away all of our sins. A society that throughout history has shown little redeeming value, but has simply spiraled deeper and deeper into sin, you and me who know how filthy we are, Christ died for all, and His blood was shed to cleanse. The One who dwelt in Mary’s womb for nine months for you was the same One who died in her sight, and He died for you.

However, Christ’s goal was not death, for Himself or for you. And so when He rose victorious on the third day, He rose to give you life everlasting with Him in heaven. And He bestows this life in a very familiar way. Elizabeth exclaimed, “For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” In the same way that Jesus was conceived by the Word, so a word from the mother of our Lord caused John to make his confession from the womb. It is through the Word that life is given to us, the words by Pastor Werly: “As a called and ordained servant of Christ, and by His authority, I therefore forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The words at your Baptism: “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The words we will hear just a few moments from now: “Drink of it all of you; this cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” The word of Scripture, that you read in this place or in your homes, a Word that tells you that Christ died for you and your sins. It is through this Word that hurting souls are healed, the Word of forgiveness, the Word of life, the Word of Absolution. For God forgives with that Word every sin, whether it is the sin of ending or harming a life, your own or that of another. It is in that living and forgiving Word that you find forgiveness- this is where Christ comes to you.

This Word makes all blessed, but not because of anything we have done. Elizabeth declared, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Mary is declared blessed because of what is within her, our Savior and Lord, who would one day shed His blood for her sins and the sins of all people. In the same way this fellowship here today, along with our brothers and sisters in Christ in every place and every time, the Church throughout the centuries, is blessed by the presence of that same Christ. He dwells within our midst through the Word, today He offers forgiveness once again to all for the sake of His shed blood, the blood that was shed on Calvary and now is given to all who need His forgiveness. So you say that your sin is too great for God to forgive, so you say that your heart is too filled with corruption? In response we can only say with Paul, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” This table is the throne and altar of grace, and it is for sinners only. Come, all who see and repent of your sin, all who know that you need this forgiveness. The table is ready and prepared- come and eat and drink of the forgiveness of your Lord! Amen.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Epiphany of our Lord (Matthew 2:1-12)

“Where is He who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw His star when it rose and have come to worship Him.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon on this Sunday on which we celebrate the Epiphany of Our Lord is from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from Matthew chapter two. Dear friends in Christ, those pesky wise men often try to insert themselves into Christmas. Many of our manger scenes give the distinct impression that they were there with the shepherds, cattle and all the rest. Matthew dispels that notion with his opening verse: “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem.” The wise men, pagans and sorcerers, came to Jerusalem several years after Christ’s birth bearing great news, news that literally sent the city into an uproar. “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.”

To Herod, a king could only mean one thing- a rival to his rule and authority. He understood Jesus’ birth only in terms of earthly power- he could not imagine that a king could be anything else than a rival, and so his legendary jealousy and cruelty was kindled. “Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying ‘Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found Him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship Him.” He needed to find this child who presented such a threat to his rule, and he planned to deal with Him as he had dealt with every other threat- through an iron fist.

The wise men were not without their own misconceptions. To the original readers of Matthew’s Gospel, the appearance of these characters would have been a major shock. Why are they here? Wise men are not just guys who are interested in knowledge, but in the ancient world they were sorcerers and pagans, those who used magic arts and the stars. They most definitely did not worship the God of Israel, in fact, they were in league with the powers of this world, the powers of Satan. Matthew also shows that their wisdom did not help them very much in this journey. Their wisdom could only get them to Judea, they did not know the prophecy that would lead them to Christ’s door. Their wisdom could not determine the evil intent behind Herod’s words, they were about to participate in the murder of the one they had come to worship. Finally, their gifts demonstrate that they were looking for an earthly king- they, much like Herod, did not quite understand this child. The faith of the wise men was quite genuine, but they still misunderstood this child. How often do we as Christians also misunderstand our Lord? The Church has too often portrayed for us a soft and cuddly Jesus, who is our buddy, our friend, but not our Lord. Like the world, we can view Him as simply a good teacher who has given us a good guidebook for living the good life. His words are twisted and abused, used to justify or condemn anyone and anything according to our own good pleasure. He is the example of the victorious life, a life we can have if we just have strong enough faith or follow Jesus’ words close enough. A misconception only has staying power if it has an element of truth within it. Jesus is our friend, our companion, He has given us good teachings that we are to follow. But when ‘what would Jesus do?’ is the extent of our use for Him, we have misunderstood Jesus and His mission.

Into a world of misunderstanding, only God can bring us the truth, only He can turn our misconceptions into understanding and faith. Herod and Jerusalem did not know about the child, but God placed a star in the sky which sent wise men to them with that message. The wise men did not know where the child was, but God used sinful, jealous Herod as His instrument to point the way. In fact, Herod became a conduit of God’s Word: “And assembling all the chief priest and scribes of the people, [Herod] inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” And when they left Herod, God acted once again to guide ignorant men to His Son: “After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” Without the work of God, we cannot understand His Son, we wallow in the dark just as Herod and the wise men did. Why is this? The reason we cannot understand Jesus is the very reason for which He came- we are sinful. The sinful mind cannot understand God, it cannot understand Christ. In fact, the sinful mind is not just confused by God, it is in rebellion against Him. Misunderstanding is only a veil over opposition to the plans of God.

And so it was into this rebellious world, a world that was opposed to its creator, that Jesus Christ was born as a king in Bethlehem. Herod and the wise men were right on one count- the one born was truly a king, the greatest king who ever had or ever will live. But Herod’s imagination could only conceive of a king that was like himself, a king who was politically cunning, clever, and cruel, cruel enough to destroy all threats to his rule. The wise men saw a king who was great and powerful, just and benevolent, but still an earthly king. Jesus shattered all of these illusions. The king of all heaven and earth was born in the lowly town of Bethlehem, weak and guarded by filthy shepherds. The true king of Israel was not the one who sat on the throne in Jerusalem, but the one who dwelt with Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem.

Christ was made known throughout His life- that is what the season of Epiphany is all about- but if we only knew of His life, we would fall into our own misconceptions about Him. Jesus would simply be a good teacher, one who gives us great pointers and sends us home with a high-five and a thumbs up. Instead Christ was ultimately made known, He was revealed for He truly is at the moment when all seemed to be lost. On the cross, Jesus revealed Himself as the One who was to suffer and die for the sins of the entire world. As a Messiah, His deliverance was not just for the nation of Israel, and it did not come through military victory. Herod needn’t have worried about His throne- Jesus had much bigger fish to fry. His deliverance was for all people, you, me, and yes, Herod and those wise men too. All those trapped in the bondage of sin needed deliverance and salvation, and on that cross Christ was truly and fully revealed as the one who had come to deliver them. It is no mistake that at that moment, another pagan and Gentile declares what Herod and the wise men could not determine on their own: “Truly this was the Son of God!” As His blood flowed from His wounds that day, they washed away all of our sin, with all of our misconceptions and misunderstandings, all of our rebellion against our creator. On that day, He delivered you, me, and all people. And when that victory was sealed with an empty tomb, Christ took the throne of a king, the throne founded on that blood. It is only through Good Friday and Easter Sunday that we truly understand who Jesus is.

“And going into the house they saw the child with Mary His mother, and they fell down and worshipped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.” The worship of the wise men was genuine, but it was still imperfect. They did not completely understand this child. But can we blame them? Without the cross and resurrection, understanding Jesus is impossible, and we all know that even with that knowledge we sometimes fail in that area as well. The wise men are simply a picture of us- they need to have Christ revealed to them. I for one believe that they returned to their home somewhat sheepish that they had given the Lord of heaven and earth, the One who had come to deliver them from all of their sins, such ‘earthly’ gifts. But yet they returned in faith, having seen God in the flesh face to face. Until Christ is revealed to us, not as a guru or moral teacher, but as our Savior, we cannot understand or believe in Him. And so God works to reveal Christ to us through the Word, through Baptism, through the Lord’s Supper, those places where Christ is present for us and for our salvation, for the forgiveness of our sins. He is working within those means to open our eyes, to focus us squarely on the cross, because it is in that moment that He is revealed as our Savior, as the one who died for us.

The wise men are our forerunners in so many ways. They are the first Gentiles to worship Jesus, and in that way they precede all of us. We are not of the nation of Israel by birth, but the great truth proclaimed in all of Scripture is that the Gospel message of salvation for the sake of Christ is for all people, as Paul says in our Epistle lesson: “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.” The wise men were simply the first in a long line of Gentiles to fall down a worship Christ, a line that extends to this very day and this place. The message of this text is that salvation is for everyone, for the Jew and Gentile, for pagan wise men as well as you and me. All of us need a Savior, and thanks be to God that He provided one by sending Christ to the cross!

Epiphany therefore sits between Christmas and Easter for good reason. Today we conclude the Christmas story with the message that this child is for all people, regardless of any distinction we may come up with. But then, as we travel through this season, we see Christ revealed as truly God through great manifestations of the Trinity, through miraculous signs, and through His teaching. But we will only see Him ultimately revealed when we journey through Lent and to the cross on Good Friday. At that moment, the season of Epiphany is fulfilled. For this season is a season of God revealing His Son, and God reveals His Son as the Savior of the world, as God incarnate come to deliver you and me. May the Lord continue to reveal the Messiah, Jesus Christ, to you throughout this Epiphany season until we, like the wise men, see Him face to face, Amen.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Christmas 2 of Series B (Luke 2:40-52)

“And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon Him.” 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 the Christmas season is from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ, sometimes our memories can be quite selective. Last month, I was teaching the fourth graders at Zion Lutheran School about a rebellion against the authority of Moses. “They were violating the fourth commandment,” I told them, and then I added innocently, “what is the fourth commandment?” Five minutes passed as these very bright children wracked their brains in a vain attempt to remember what they had learned only a couple weeks before. I told them, half joking, that I knew of a kindergartener who recited that very commandment to me earlier in the day, and that I would bring him in to tell them all. Well, lo and behold, this little guy happened to be walking through the gym at that very moment. After overcoming some shyness, he told those ‘big kids’ exactly what the fourth commandment was: “Honor your father and your mother.” I guess it probably isn’t too surprising that those fourth graders forgot that commandment- we all have had personal experience with selective memories!

The parents of Jesus were probably thinking that this ‘special’ child had the same problem as those fourth graders. Luke tells us the story: “Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom.” I’ve been making the point in the last few sermons, though not from this pulpit, that Mary and Joseph were good, law observing Jews. They were faithful to God’s word and commands. But on this journey, taken once again in obedience to the law, something happened that no parent wants to experience. “And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, but supposing him to be in the group they went a day's journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances, and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for him.” I’m sure that we can all imagine what Mary and Joseph felt like. Losing a child, even momentarily, is a terrifying experience. I’m sure that deep down beneath the fear and anxious worry was the thought that Jesus had selective hearing. He most definitely did not seem to remember the Fourth Commandment!

Luther teaches us the meaning to the Fourth Commandment in the Small Catechism: “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents and other authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.” If it seemed that Jesus was in violation of this commandment, how much more have we had ‘selective memories’ in regard to this command from God? Loving and honoring parents means different things at different stages of life, it includes a variety of different responsibilities. For children, this includes obeying mom and dad, listening to them and giving them the respect that they deserve as those placed into those roles by God. For those of us a bit older, respect and honor still remain, as well as working to provide for our parents as they age. You notice, too, that Luther does not restrict this commandment simply to parents, but to all authorities- that includes all placed in authority over us, from the state trooper at your window to your president in Washington. So often we do not give our authorities the respect they deserve, we speak behind their backs, we do not show them honor privately or in public. Our sinful human selves simply want to be independent and free, the notion of ‘authorities’ who deserve respect is something that does not come naturally to us. On the other hand, those who are in a position of authority are called by this commandment to live lives worthy of obedience, honor and respect. Those of us inn authority also have a great responsibility, a responsibility to honor our calling from God and not giving an opportunity for others to fall into sin.

Mary and Joseph, placed in authority by God over their children, searched earnestly for their firstborn. And they found Him in a place that they did not expect. “After three days they found Him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers. And when His parents saw Him, they were astonished.” This twelve year old boy was giving an education to Jerusalem’s teachers! He had not been running around the city chasing little girls, He had not remained behind to make mischief, but instead He was at the center of God’s presence, learning and teaching! No wonder the people were amazed! From the very night He was born in Bethlehem, people have been in amazement at this child. A miraculous birth, heralded by a star, shepherds, angels and all the rest, it is simply too much to get our minds around. Even Mary and Joseph, the very ones who should’ve known better, were still confused about this child. Who was He? What had He come to do? This question would haunt all that came in contact with Jesus throughout His life. The Gospels are simply accounts of people seeking blindly after Jesus, attempting in vain to understand Him. Things have not changed much in two thousand years. Our world tries to fit Jesus into almost any mold, new Jesus’ are invented daily, the world still seems to be seeking blindly after Jesus, trying to figure Him out. In our text for today, no one is searching more blindly than those who had spoken with angels.

Mary gets to the heart of the matter- she calls out Jesus for His violation of the Fourth Commandment. “And His mother said to Him, ‘Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.’” But Jesus knew that it was only because of the Fourth Commandment that He remained in the temple. “And He said to them, ‘Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Here at twelve years old, with His first recorded words, Jesus affirms His identity. He, just as the angels said, is the Son of God, His Father is Yahweh Himself. He is calling to mind the beauty of the Christmas story, the tapestry that Luke weaves so well, a picture that points to Him as true God, as God in the flesh. This child of Bethlehem was no ordinary child, but He who was born of a virgin spoke with the teachers in the temple as God Himself. He was Mary’s son according to the flesh, and as we read later in our text, He was submissive to His earthly parents, but yet He was Mary’s Lord as well as the Lord of heaven and earth. Jesus remained in the temple in obedience to the Fourth Commandment, in obedience to His Father.

But Jesus’ obedience to His Father required much more of Jesus than a three day vacation in the temple. “Did your not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Jesus had a divine necessity to fulfill, the ‘must’ of our salvation. His submission to the Father’s will meant that it was absolutely necessary for Him to be in the temple that day, and it meant another journey was yet to come. With these words, the boy Jesus alluded to His final journey more than two decades in the future, a journey that would take Him once again to Jerusalem, this time not to educate the teachers in the temple, but to be condemned by them. The divine must of God was a must of salvation, of our salvation. Our sin condemned us, it declared us guilty in the sight of God for transgressing His holy Law, including the Fourth Commandment. With the incarnation of Jesus that we celebrated just days ago, God acted to restore us, He acted in love for our salvation. It was for that reason that Jesus needed to become man, and as He sat in the temple that day, He foretold His final fulfillment of God’s love. For when Jesus traveled back to Jerusalem, He was moved by the ‘must’ of our salvation, the necessity of His suffering and death to atone for our sin and the sin of the whole world. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” The sacrifices in that temple, the house of Jesus’ Father, prefigured His sacrifice, for His journey in obedience to God ended upon a cross. There He shed His blood for you, me, and all people, there He poured out His blood for our salvation, to fulfill the divine ‘must’ of salvation. But Christ’s mission did not end there. Just as Mary and Joseph searched for three days for the boy Jesus, so that same Jesus laid in a tomb for three days. And just as His earthly parents found Him in astonishment, so several women came to the tomb that Easter morning and in astonishment found it empty. For Christ was found, the divine ‘must’ of our salvation also included resurrection, Jesus’ and ours!

This answer, filled with all that we need to know about Jesus, still did not convince Mary and Joseph. They who knew the whole story, who had heard the prophesies from the lips of God’s messengers, still sought blindly for the mission of this child. “And they did not understand the saying that He spoke to them. And He went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And His mother treasured up all these things in her heart.” This is really no surprise, for none could fully grasp the mission of this child until it was accomplished. It is only with the resurrection of Jesus that our eyes are opened to see Him as He truly is, the Savior of the world, the one born that men no more may die. At the moment of the cross, at the moment of the resurrection, all finally becomes clear, the puzzle comes together, and we know that Jesus came to fulfill the divine ‘must’ of salvation, of our salvation. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Since that Easter Sunday, the Holy Spirit has been working to open eyes to the truth of who Jesus is and what He has come to do. He opened the eyes of the disciples, and He worked to open your eyes when you first came to faith, working within the Word or the washing of water with the Word. It is only through His work that we can come to faith, and it is only through His work that we can grow in that faith. May the Lord work through His Holy Spirit to strengthen your faith in our crucified and risen Lord each and every day until His resurrection becomes yours, Amen.