Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas 1 of Series A (Isaiah 63:7-14)

“In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the Angel of His presence saved them; in His love and in His pity He redeemed them; He lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the sixty-third chapter of the prophet Isaiah. Dear friends in Christ: Where would we be without our memory? Can you imagine being unable to remember what has gone before in your life? We expect memories to fade throughout time- none of us has a perfect memory- but it would be a tragedy if we lost all of our memories. Medically we call such a condition amnesia, and it afflicts people for a variety of reasons. While medical amnesia is unfortunate, spiritual amnesia is even worse. When we have forgotten God’s past deeds, we can’t believe that He will help us here and now. Even more terrifying is amnesia on God’s part. If He forgets His past acts of salvation, then there is little reason to believe He will ever act to deliver us again. Isaiah knows this, he knows that we can trust God saving now because He has saved in the past, and so He calls on both us and God to remember. “I will recount the steadfast love of the Lord, the praises of the Lord, according to all that the Lord has granted us, and the great goodness to the house of Israel that he has granted them according to his compassion, according to the abundance of his steadfast love.”

God has acted to save His people in the past. In His great love, He established Israel as His treasured possession, the nation by which all other nations would be blessed. He said about them, “Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely.” Because they are His children, they will not deal falsely with Him. They will follow the covenant that He established with them, worshipping the true God, serving Him with their words and their deeds. They will remember who they are, His treasured possession, His people, His children. Their obedience doesn’t make them His children; instead, because they were His children, He called them to obedience. So when they were in trouble, in bondage in Egypt, Isaiah tells us that “He became their Savior.”

God saw their slavery and their suffering under Pharaoh’s taskmasters, and in one of the more beautiful phrases in all of Scripture, Isaiah tells us that “In all their affliction He was afflicted.” God Himself was afflicted because His people were afflicted, and His compassion and love moved Him to do something about that affliction. He identified with their need and acted to fulfill it. “The Angel of His presence saved them; in His love and in His pity he redeemed them; He lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” The Angel of His presence came among them and delivered them; He was God’s instrument of salvation, in Him the Lord fulfilled the title of Savior. The Angel of His presence led the people out of bondage, He carried them into the wilderness on the paths that led to the Promised Land. God saw their affliction, and He acted in salvation.

Just like a fairy tale, we would expect everyone to live ‘happily ever after.’ Having received such a great salvation, what more can the people do than obey this saving God and follow Him all their days? But even deliverance from Egyptian bondage does not rid them of their sin. Isaiah tells us that “they rebelled and grieved His Holy Spirit.” God mourns over the sin and rebellion of His people, it is a tragedy that moves Him to tears. It is the same grief that He had in the days of Noah, when the wickedness of mankind was so great that He send a devastating flood. Christian friends, what about you and me? How have we grieved the Holy Spirit like God’s people of old? He has given us such a great gift of salvation, but yet we still dwell in our sins. We come here on Sundays to drink of the deep well of the Gospel, and then live the rest of our lives as if what we do here matters little at all. The Holy Spirit has created faith within us, but so often Christians and Israelites trample on that faith with our thoughts, words, and actions. We can’t look down on God’s people in the wilderness for they are us. They have been given a great deliverance, as we have, and both of us have grieved the Holy Spirit. What is the consequence of such sin and rebellion? Isaiah tells us: “Therefore He turned to be their enemy, and Himself fought against them.”

We don’t like to think of God as an enemy, but because of mankind’s sin and rebellion, that is what He is. Who else could a just and holy God be than the one who punishes sin? In the wilderness, God turned around from leading His people and fought against them. He disciplined them for their grumbling and rebellion, teaching them that He is a God of justice, a God who cannot tolerate sin. God loves His people, but because of their rebellion, He became the enemy of the ones He loved. He must punish sin, and for us, those who have sinned, those who are corrupted by sin to our very cores, this is a scary thought. Sin brings justice, sin brings judgment, sin brings punishment. Our sin condemns us to join the Israelites as those whom Isaiah describes: “But they rebelled and grieved His Holy Spirit; therefore He turned to be their enemy, and Himself fought against them.”
A God with amnesia is a scary thing. A God who does not remember past acts of deliverance has little reason to deliver in the future. Therefore, the words of Isaiah in verse eleven of our text are among the most comforting in all of Scripture: “Then He remembered the days of old, of Moses and his people.” In the original Hebrew text it is even more striking and sudden. “Then He remembered the days of old: Moses! My people!” He calls out the names of His beloved; He remembers. God remembers His past acts of salvation, He remembers His promises. But for God remembering isn’t some passive activity of the mind, instead it leads to activity, it causes Him to do something.

God was afflicted by our affliction. He saw our sin, our rebellion, and it grieved Him. And His response to our sin was remarkably similar to His response to the affliction of His people of old in Egypt. “In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the Angel of His presence saved them; in his love and in His pity He redeemed them; He lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” Once again He sent as our Savior the Angel of His presence. This individual is known throughout the Old Testament as the Angel of the Lord, the Son of Man, the anointed one. We know of Him through the proclamation of the angels one winter’s night in Judea: “And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.’” This baby, dressed in rags and laying in straw, is the Angel of God’s presence, He is God truly present among us, Immanuel, God with us. And as He did in Egypt so long ago, the Angel of God’s presence has come to save.

In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus reenacts the Exodus. God sends the holy family to Egypt to flee the persecution of Herod, and then when the time is right, Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus come out of Egypt and back into the Promised Land. Matthew quotes from Hosea: “Out of Egypt I called my Son.” The One who has come to bring the greater Exodus goes through His own exodus, proclaiming that He has come to lead us out of bondage. God remembered us, He remembered His love for us, He remembered His past acts of salvation, and He acted. Christmas is God’s answer to our sin, to our rebellion, as He sends once again the Angel of His presence among us, this time in our own human flesh. On the cross this Jesus will be afflicted by our affliction, as He paid the price for our sin and rebellion. The Father turned toward His Son as an enemy, because the Son bore all of our sin. The judgment rendered on the cross was that our sin has been paid for, death defeated, Satan crushed. The verdict is the same one that Isaiah declares in verse eight of our text: “Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely.” Because Christ, His Son, the Angel of His presence, God Himself in the flesh, died for you, you are now God’s children. That is why Jesus was born as a child in Bethlehem, so that we may become God’s children. St. Paul puts it so well: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” God made Israel His people, His children in bringing them salvation from bondage in Egypt. He makes you and me His people, His children, in bringing us salvation from the bondage of sin.

In His love and compassion, Jesus carries you and me out of that bondage, and He leads us to the Promised Land. This child, whom shepherds guard and angels sing, is the Good Shepherd, leading His people like a flock to the green pastures of eternity. “Then He remembered the days of old, of Moses and His people. Where is He who brought them up out of the sea with the shepherds of His flock? Where is He who put in the midst of them his Holy Spirit, who caused His glorious arm to go at the right hand of Moses, who divided the waters before them to make for Himself an everlasting name, who led them through the depths? Like a horse in the desert, they did not stumble. Like livestock that go down into the valley, the Spirit of the Lord gave them rest. So you led your people, to make for yourself a glorious name.” He leads His beloved flock from the bondage of sin to the rest of paradise, to the fertile fields of the Promised Land. That is their destination, that is their goal. He will lead them, He will carry them, He will shepherd them each and every step of the way. Like a horse galloping through the desert, they shall not stumble. You are that flock, the sheep of His pasture, and the Angel of God’s presence, the child born Immanuel will lead you to the destination that He promised to you. God has remembered you, and He has become for you a Savior, the Savior from sin and death. “Hark! The herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the newborn king!’” Amen.

Christmas Eve (Luke 2:1-14 (15-20))

“And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Christmas Eve comes from the second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ: A decree went out, affecting the entire world. Now, great swaths of our planet did not live and die under the Caesars, North America, South America, much of Africa, much of Asia, and Australia, but for those living around the Mediterranean Sea, the Roman Empire was the world. Decisions made in the gilded halls of Rome could reach out and touch the lives of poor peasants in North Africa, Eastern Europe, or Palestine. That is how a carpenter from Nazareth and his betrothed ended up making the nearly one hundred mile journey from Galilee to Judea. “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.”

No exceptions could be made for hardship cases. Caesar Augustus wanted the world registered, and so you had to go. No matter that you had to walk for several days. No matter that your wife was at the end of her pregnancy. Caesar said it, and you had to obey. As soon as they read the decree, Mary and Joseph had to know that their child would be born in Bethlehem, if they made it that far. That wouldn’t be too bad. The entire house of David was assembling there, so there would be plenty of help and support from Joseph’s extended family. But something went terribly wrong that first Christmas Eve. Luke tells us, “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” With just a few words, Luke has given us a detail that has shaped our understanding of Christmas ever since. The first part of the verse goes as expected, but suddenly we encounter the word “manger” and the terrible phrase “there was no place for them in the inn.” ‘Manger’ makes us think of a stable, inspiring Christmas displays for centuries, but perhaps they didn’t even have that much shelter; it may have been just a feed trough under the open sky. ‘No room in the inn’ makes us complain about money-hungry business owners, unable to give a place for a poor woman to have her child.

This is the point where we today like to puff out our chests and say, ‘If I was in Bethlehem that night, I would’ve given them a place to stay!’ That is probably true, because you know exactly who this child is. But what if you didn’t? The word we traditionally have here as ‘inn,’ is probably more accurately ‘guest-room.’ That changes things a bit, doesn’t it? Now we aren’t talking about greedy innkeepers, but instead about all the citizens of Bethlehem. They refused to open up their homes to this young couple that they didn’t know, but instead decided that it was safer to not get involved. Still feeling confident that we would’ve done differently? We have people in need placed all around us, and how often do we simply look the other way, keeping the guest room for ourselves? How often do we decide that it’s better to stay away from those situations? Do we extend a helping hand to strangers in need? Would we have welcomed a pregnant teenager into our home, or simply directed them somewhere else, making them another person’s problem? In Matthew chapter twenty-five, Jesus tells a parable about the Last Day. “The King will say to those on His left… ’I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’” Jesus teaches us that those in need around us are the masks of God in this world, and when we refuse to serve them, we are refusing to serve God Himself.

Jesus’ rejection at Bethlehem was only the symptom of a greater problem, our sin. Our sin is the reason why we fail to help our neighbors, our sin is the reason why Mary, Joseph, and Jesus found no room. Our sin forms a barrier between us and God; because of original sin we have no room for God, not in our homes, not in our hearts, not anywhere. We are born enemies of God, with only a shut door toward Him. But it was precisely for that reason that He came.

Jesus came because there was no room, He came because the doors were shut in Bethlehem, He came because the hearts of sinful men were closed against Him. Jesus came because we fail to help our neighbors in need, He came because we fail to show love to the masks of God in our lives. Jesus made Himself poor and rejected for our sake. He did not come dressed in royal garments, but instead in the rags of a poor virgin mother. He was not born in a palace, but He was born where cattle ate, rejected by all. He did this all because of your sin, because His only desire was to see that sin done away with. It was in love that He came into this world, such deep love for you and me that He was willing to lay aside all of the glory that was rightfully His and taken on our human flesh and blood. The Lord and Creator of the universe became man- for you! And not any man, but a man born in the poorest of circumstances, a man born in humility. Can you imagine what the shepherds thought? The angel appears to them and says, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Wow, a child is born this very day, who is a Savior, but more than that, He is Christ and indeed the Lord, God Himself! After hearing such a pronouncement of who this child was, it must’ve puzzled them to hear about where they would find Him: “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” The Savior and Lord of the universe is in a feed trough? This was not the Messiah we expected, but it was the Messiah we needed.

For our Lord came in humility, He came not to march in triumph, but instead to walk the way of suffering. One day He would trade His manger for a cross. Instead of swaddling cloths He would be wrapped in burial cloths. One day He would exchange the stable for a tomb. That is how He would fulfill the names the angel gave Him on that first Christmas Eve. He is the Savior, the Savior from sin, and He would perform this great work by giving up His life for our sake. The rejection of the holy family in Bethlehem only pointed to a greater rejection. There was no room in Jerusalem for a Messiah, and so He was killed, crucified for the sin of the world. That is why He was born, to die for you and your sins, to bring you salvation. But He did not stay dead! The joy of Christmas is the joy of Easter, that Jesus was born so that man no more may die. The angels brought a message of joy to the shepherds that winter night, and some thirty years later they would bring a message of joy again to some women outside of an empty tomb. Christ was born to die, but He was also born to rise again. He was born to conquer death, to raise us up on the Last Day, forgiven and restored, to stand before the Father forever. He is God’s anointed one, the one appointed to bring salvation. He is the Lord of all the universe in human flesh, here to take on the sins of all men. That is why we have joy this Christmas season: God has provided a solution to our sin, He has removed the barrier between Himself and His beloved creation, He has acted to open closed hearts.

In our sin and rebellion we were unable to make room for Christ, but in His grace He comes to us, breaking down the barrier of sin through the forgiveness that He won for us, creating faith which grasps onto the Christ child. He opens our hearts to see those in need around us as an opportunity to show the love that He first showed to us to others. We don’t serve others in order to gain favor before God, but instead as an overflowing of the love that Christ poured out on us by becoming man and walking the way of the cross for you and me. He went there to fulfill the song the angels sang that first Christmas Eve. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” Because of this child, there is peace on earth, peace between God and man, the peace that the world cannot give. This is the peace of heaven, the peace that will characterize our existence for all eternity. He is pleased with you because He died for you, and because of that you truly have peace on this beautiful night.

The peace that the angels sang of is for the whole world. Caesar Augustus thought that he had the world in the palm of his hand. He simply said the word, and a young family traveled from Nazareth to Judea. But some events are even bigger than the Roman Empire. The birth of this child was a worldwide event, indeed a universal event, an event that brought heaven itself near to this earth. He was born not just for those shepherds in the Judean hills, not just for the Jewish people, not even just for those who lived and died under the Caesars. He was born for all men, Jew and Gentile, Roman, Chinese, African, and all the rest. He was born for you and He was born for me. He was born to bring you salvation, to reconcile you with your God. He was born so that you need not fear death, He was born that you will dwell forever with your God in peace. Thanks be to God for the gift of His Son, our Savior Jesus Christ! Amen.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Advent 4 of Series A (Matthew 1:18-25)

“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.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning is from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the first chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, we are definitely more familiar with Luke’s Christmas narrative than Matthew’s. From Luke, we hear of angels and shepherds, inns and stables. We find out exactly why Jesus was born in Bethlehem, with all the needed historical details. Luke’s Christmas narrative is a thing of beauty, with songs of praise and wondrous imagery around every corner. Matthew’s Christmas, on the other hand, seems a bit disappointing. The actual birth of Jesus, that event that Luke spends so much time describing, is almost an afterthought in verse twenty-five of our text: “But he knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called His name Jesus.” Matthew is recording the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection during a time when people are questioning every aspect of the Christ’s life, and he wants to set the record straight. He wants to faithfully demonstrate Jesus’ origins, proving that a miracle did happen, that Jesus was conceived of a virgin through the work of the Holy Spirit. Songs, shepherds, and stables cannot provide much help here, but instead he needs to tell the story of a pregnant teenager, and the scandal that resulted.

Listen to how Matthew lays out the situation: “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.” Matthew carefully gives us the relevant details. Mary is betrothed to Joseph, which means that they were engaged. For a virgin, the period of engagement was to be one year, during which Mary would be considered Joseph’s wife, but they would not have marital relations. Matthew emphasizes this by telling us that “before they came together” she was found to be pregnant. Now we know that Mary is pregnant “from the Holy Spirit,” but no one else does, and I’m guessing that it would be hard for her to convince her parents or Joseph that she was carrying the Messiah. Can you imagine what Joseph felt? If she was pregnant and it was not his child, then it seemed to him that the only other option was a violation of the Sixth Commandment: “You shall not commit adultery.” Joseph probably felt betrayed, angry, disappointed, or perhaps just profoundly sad. But he does not act on those emotions; instead, what does he do? “And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”

Even though Mary wasn’t guilty, there is good reason why she would’ve been exposed to shame: virginity is praiseworthy and sex outside of marriage is sinful! I think that we have lost sight of both of these facts today, even in the Church. We don’t praise virginity and chastity enough from the pulpit or in our private conversations, and because of this, we have lost the ability to proclaim God’s Law effectively. We forget or ignore the words of Paul, who declares that for those who have been given this gift, virginity is better than marriage! The apostle writes in 1 Corinthians chapter seven: “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am.” God gives that gift so that people can dedicate their lives to serving Christ and His Church. Of course, not all people are given the gift of life-long virginity, but we should never look down upon those who are given that gift, instead encouraging them to use that gift in service of the Church. And while the majority of us are not given that gift, we can all still live chaste lives. Despite what the media bombards us with, despite what everyone else is doing, despite what our sinful natures want, God has given sex as a gift only within the bonds of marriage. That is what chastity is, living a life in obedience to the Sixth Commandment, whether we are married or not. And God does not only call us all as Christians to a life of chastity, but He commands us to encourage it amongst our children and our friends and neighbors. That is where we are failing as a church and as Christians. We do not praise chastity and virginity enough; we do not give the positive side of the Sixth Commandment as a model for living our lives before God.

But we have the whole shame thing down pat. Joseph had to work quietly and quickly to avoid bringing shame down on Mary, because he knew that once the word got out, Mary would immediately become the subject of gossip. Oh, yes, we’re good at that. We’re great at talking about violations of the Sixth Commandment amongst our friends or neighbors, we’re very good at making someone the ‘talk of the town.’ But where we fail as the Church and as Christians is in going to fellow sinners privately and proclaiming to them both God’s stern Law and His sweet Gospel. We are much more ready to tear down a person’s reputation than to look at leading them out of their sin and to the loving mercies of God’s forgiveness.

Joseph knew this; he had a firm grip on human nature, he understood how small towns like Nazareth, Kiron, and Deloit operated. So how does he plan to resolve this situation? Matthew tells us: “And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” It was well within his rights to expose Mary’s adultery, leaving her to the punishment of the crowds, a punishment that at the least included public disgrace, at the most death by stoning. He could’ve retained her dowry and even taken back from Mary’s father the bride price. And who would’ve blamed him? He had been sinned against in the worst way; she had betrayed his trust and the vows they made to one another. But instead of acting out of anger and betrayal, Joseph acts in grace. He wants to protect Mary, he wants to keep her from the shame that is sure to come when this ‘teen pregnancy’ is revealed. Matthew describes Joseph as ‘just,’ a word much better translated as ‘righteous.’ Joseph is a righteous man, and because of that he wants to reach out to Mary in mercy, protecting her from the penalty for her sin.
This is all unexpected and wonderful for Joseph to do, except for one thing: Mary hadn’t sinned! Joseph is doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, but fortunately God is quick to correct him. “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.’” Joseph’s original plan protected Mary at his expense, but now God’s angel was telling him to go a step further. Joseph was to take this pregnant young woman into his home before the betrothal was completed. Think about what this would signify to the people of Nazareth; in taking Mary into his home early, Joseph was proclaiming to the world that it was he who had committed adultery. He was the one who broke the Sixth Commandment, who had violated the rules of betrothal. He was taking Mary’s shame upon himself, making himself a sinner in the eyes of the world when he had done nothing wrong. He would take responsibility for her supposed sin, and bear himself the blame and the shame that would be sure to come. This involved much more personal sacrifice than his original plan, but the angel of the Lord told Him “do not fear,” and so he did not. “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.”

Joseph named Mary’s Son Jesus, the name given to him by the angel. The angel had also given to him the definition of that name: “She will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” But little did Joseph know that Jesus would fulfill His name by following in the footsteps of His earthly father. Jesus committed no sin; He was the perfect one, fulfilling every aspect of God’s holy Law completely. He is the righteous One, the beloved Son of the Father. He had no sin of His own to be ashamed of, but we did, we still do. We are ashamed of our disobedience to the Law, especially our violations of the Sixth Commandment in thought, word and deed. We are ashamed of our failure to praise chastity or work to bring sinners to repentance. Jesus had no such shame, but just as Joseph took Mary’s shame upon himself, so Jesus took our shame upon Himself. He, the righteous One, the One without sin, proclaimed to the world and His Father that He was the sinner, the sin-bearer. He presented Himself before God covered with our sin, with our shame, and He paid the required price.

Joseph could take the shame of Mary upon himself, but he could not do away with that shame. Jesus did what His earthly father could not; He bore our shame and He eliminated it. He did not bear our sin and shame to identify with us in some act of solidarity, but He bore our sin and shame to remove them forever. His shed blood and death, the righteous One in the place of sinners, rids us of all shame forever. Now our shame is replaced by the forgiveness of Christ, which cleanses us and restores us to our Father. Jesus’ righteousness is now ours, and by being joined to Him we do not need to stand trembling in shame anymore before God, but instead we stand boldly before His throne of grace, because our shame has been taken care of by the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. That is how He will save us from our sins as the angel promised, by removing all shame from us so that we may live in the Father’s presence forever. Jesus removes shame by His forgiveness, the forgiveness that He freely pours out upon you whenever you fall into sin.

God knew what He was doing when he selected Jesus’ earthly parents. He directed all the events of His Son’s birth, just as He had been guiding history to that point. God orchestrated our salvation, demonstrating throughout Scripture that His only goal was the deliverance of you, me, and all people from sin and shame. God’s great love for you is shown on every page of His Word, and we celebrate His careful planning this Advent season. The same God who ordered all history for your salvation will preserve you all your days, cleansing you with Jesus’ blood-bought forgiveness until you stand before Him clothed not with shame but with Christ’s own righteousness. In the name of our sin-bearer, our coming Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Advent 2 of Series A (Matthew 3:1-12)

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the third chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, John the Baptist is the star of Advent. This is the season when we make the transition from the Old Testament to the New, and John encapsulates that shift perfectly. He has the look of the Old Testament, dressed in his camel hair while eating locusts and wild honey. When you think of a wilderness prophet in the Old Testament, whether it is Amos or especially Elijah, this is how you would imagine their appearance. But John also clearly has his bare feet in the New Testament as well. The Gospel according to Saint Mark begins with John in the wilderness, and that makes sense, for his work inaugurates the new thing that God is doing by sending His Son into our world. John’s work is that of preparation, making roads straight, clearing paths. He is a highway contractor for the way of the Lord, in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.’” What are his tools, how does he prepare the way of the Lord? John makes straight pathways for God by preaching repentance, because REPENTANCE PREPARES US FOR CHRIST.

‘Repentance is the reason for the season’- I’m guessing you’ve never seen that on a Christmas card. The season of Advent is one of repentance, a season in which we acknowledge our great sin and our need for a Savior from that sin. The two great festivals of our Church Year are Christmas and Easter, and both of them are preceded by seasons of reflection and repentance, to prepare us to celebrate God’s mighty acts in Christ. For the world, on the other hand, the holiday season is a time of busyness, scurrying about making preparations and enjoying the parties that come throughout the season. The world does not want to reflect during Advent, it doesn’t want to repent, it wants to celebrate. And then, on December 26th, the parties are over and the world starts thinking about New Year’s Eve. But in the Church, Advent is the season of repentance and preparation, and when December 24th rolls around, the festival begins! We rejoice and revel in Christ’s birth for twelve days, up to the festival of Epiphany. John is the ideal Advent preacher, because he declares that the only way to prepare for the coming of the Lord is through repentance.
He calls on all Israel to repent, and they respond, confessing their sins and clinging to the mercies of a God who is preparing to break into their world with His great acts of salvation.

Now, John could play nice and assume that all those coming to him were truly repentant, but he’s just a little too combative and fiery to make that assumption. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance." John is the expert on repentance, and so he can spot false repentance from a mile away. These guys are only going through the motions, trying to look good for the people, but as John says, they are bearing no fruit. He makes a vital point here: repentance bears fruit. If you acknowledge your sin and beg for God’s forgiveness, then logically after receiving that forgiveness you would then try with the Lord’s help to avoid that sin in the future. You would attempt to reform your life. That is all that bearing fruit is- the life of faith that flows from forgiveness. Fruit is not a prerequisite for forgiveness, but instead it comes as a natural result and outgrowth of it.

Some bear no fruit because they think they need no repentance. The Pharisees and Sadducees thought they had it made because of who they were, but John squashes that idea. "And do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father,' for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham." Simply sitting in the pew or being from a Christian family may bring you close to where God gives His gifts, but such outward acts ultimately matter nothing before Him if you refuse to acknowledge that you have any sin that needs repenting of. Some bear no fruit because they don’t take their sin seriously enough to really change. Changing my life now is inconvenient, it’s expensive, it’s too much work. God will forgive me anyway, right? There is a great difference here between the person who struggles mightily with a sin each and every day, wanting to be rid of it, and the person who treats God like a forgiveness machine, not wanting to make the effort of bearing fruit. This is what pastors hear all the time: “Yeah, I know it’s wrong, and I really hate it, but I can’t change now.” If living together without marriage is a sin, move out! If filthy language and gossip are sins, then watch your tongue! If verbal or physical abuse are sins, then get some professional help! As John says, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance!”
False repentance arrogantly tells God that His forgiveness is cheap and easy, that it is something that really has no affect on my life. God does not deal lightly with those who despise His forgiveness and treat it as worthless. He is sending His Son into the world to win forgiveness for repentant sinners, but for those who reject this forgiveness, Jesus is also the righteous judge, as John declares.
“Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Trees made good through the forgiveness of Jesus are to bear good fruit, but those who arrogantly refuse to bear such fruit will be cast into the fire. That is the reality on the Last Day: “His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear his threshing floor and gather His wheat into the barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.” Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand! Repent of your rebellion against God, repent of your false repentance and clinging to your sins!

John’s work shatters the illusion of false repentance for you and me, he preaches hell to us so that we see our great sin and our need for a Savior from that sin. John is making paths straight for the reigning of God to break into this corrupted world. As I taught the bible classes this fall, the kingdom of the heavens is not primarily a place, it is an activity. It is God beginning to reestablish His rule over His fallen creation. John’s cry of ‘the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ therefore means ‘God is beginning to act!’ That is what Jesus came to do, to deliver all creation, along with you and me, from the bondage of sin, and bring God’s righteous and just rule over all things once again. He will do this by allowing Himself to be cut down, the righteous judge falsely accused and condemned for sins He did not commit. He was the only human that ever did live or ever will live that had no need of repentance, but He in His great love for you and me made Himself the sinner, bearing all of our sin to the cross. That is why He came, to win forgiveness for our sins by His shed blood. John shows us that we need a Savior, and thanks be to God that we were not left out in the cold without one, but instead Jesus came walking in the way of the Lord, a road that led to the cross. There He paid the price for all of your sin, all of my sin, all of the sin of the world. He won forgiveness on that day, the only solution that could suffice for our sin. God took our sin seriously, seriously enough to abandon His only Son to His furious wrath on the cross. The redemption price was steep, but Jesus paid it in His great, sacrificial love for you and for me. Jesus’ blood-bought forgiveness then makes trees good; it enables them to bear the fruit of repentance that John talks about. It even covers our sins of false repentance, delivering you and me from the wrath that John spoke of in our text.

If there was no hell, then we would not need deliverance from it, but John tells us of the reality of the judgment that Jesus will carry out. He will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire, but that is not His proper work, it is only made necessary because people reject His forgiveness. Instead, His proper work, the work He delights in, is gathering His wheat into the barn. You are that wheat because you have been forgiven by Christ Jesus, His blood paid for your sin. You are the wheat because the Lord has claimed you as His own through faith, applying His death and resurrection directly to you in the waters of Holy Baptism. He has made you a good tree, and good trees bear good fruit. It is not the other way around, you do not bear good fruit in order to become a good tree, but instead Jesus works within you to create faith, making you a good tree that now cannot but bear good fruit. The harvest may not always be bountiful, because we remain sinful, but Jesus is there to nurture us, to water us with the reminder of our baptism, to fertilize us with His forgiveness. He does not abandon His crop until it has been gathered into His barn on the Last Day.

For the Last Day is the culmination of all of Jesus’ work. Then He will bring to completion the victory won on the cross, by renewing all creation and removing the scourge of sin forever. That is also what makes John the great preacher of Advent. He makes the paths straight for Christ’s first coming by preaching a message of repentance, but He fast-forwards all the way to the Last Day, preaching repentance for all people, for you and me, as we approach Christ’s second coming. You see, for John the first and second comings of Jesus were almost indistinguishable, for the forgiveness and salvation won by Christ’s first coming will deliver us from the judgment of His second coming. What Jesus inaugurates by His birth in Bethlehem is brought to completion when He gathers all of His wheat, you and me, into His barn. His righteous and kingly rule will be extended over the new heavens and the new earth, and there we will dwell in peace, as Isaiah describes: “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” This Advent season, we look toward Christ’s first and second comings, as with them God brings us from the wilderness of sin to the paradise of the new heavens and the new earth by reestablishing His kingly rule over His beloved creation. The kingdom of heaven is at hand- thanks be to God! Amen.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Advent 1 of Series A (Matthew 21:1-11)

“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the twenty-first chapter of Matthew. Dear friends in Christ; Jesus is coming! We learn from the Gospel according to Saint John that Jesus traveled to Jerusalem each and every year, but in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we only have one journey recorded, emphasizing its importance. Jesus is coming! He has wandered throughout Galilee, drifting north, sometimes south. He has spent time in Samaria, even a few days near the coast. In short, throughout the Gospel of Matthew He has been everywhere but Jerusalem. But now Jesus is coming! He is coming near, and this will be no covert entrance. He sends His disciples ahead of Him to secure the transportation, and soon He is seated on a donkey, ready to come into God’s holy city. Jesus is coming, and the crowds are ready. “Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before Him and that followed Him were shouting ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’” Jesus is coming! The crowds shout, they line the road, all of Jerusalem is shaken. They celebrate Him, they call forth His name, they quote psalms. Jesus is coming- it’s time to celebrate!

At least the crowd thought that there was ample reason for a celebration. This miracle worker, this prophet from Galilee, who had loitered about in the boonies for most of His three year ministry, was finally going where all the action was. Jesus is coming to the Holy City, to Jerusalem, and surely there He will set things right! Jesus is coming, and they practically drooled at what He could do for them when He arrived. Some were outraged at the corruption and decadence of the Jewish religious leadership. They had heard about Jesus’ sparring with the Pharisees in Galilee, now they wanted to see him come up against the Sadducees, the group that controlled the temple. Jesus is coming, and He might take on the high priest himself! Many more could hardly believe that God’s holy land, His chosen people, and His great city were all under the thumb of Caesar. If Jesus truly is the Son of God, then He can deliver us from Roman occupation and restore our nation to its rightful prominence. That’s what a messiah’s supposed to do, right? Jesus is coming, and He just has to say the word and the scourge of Roman rule is over. They had Jesus all figured out, they lined the streets that day to greet the King coming to give them what they wanted. And because they had Him figured out, very few stopped to think about what His coming truly meant.

Jesus is coming, but is that really a good thing? If Jesus is who He says He is, the Messiah, the Son of God, God in the flesh walking this earth, do we really want Him all that near us? We do not have a tame God, instead we have a God of justice, a God of holiness, a God who despises sin. We have a God whose hot wrath has burned before, more than once. Jesus is coming, but do we really want to answer the door when He shows up? When God comes, people are stirred up, they are shaken, and it happened once again in Jerusalem that day. “And when He entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up.” Jesus shakes things up, He throws things into an uproar, He has a habit of overturning tables, of upsetting those comfortable lives that we are gladly living.

Jesus is coming, but you know, it seems much safer if He stays where He is at. Yes, it is much more convenient when God stays up there doing His thing and stays far away from my life, and especially my sin. When it comes down to it, a God who comes to us is a frightening and uncomfortable concept. I have sins I really don’t want Him to see and I would rather not have Him poking around my life. In our Epistle lesson for this morning, Paul says, “Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” But you know, sleep is good! It is much easier to stay in bed than to actually live out this Christian life, and if Jesus comes, then I’m probably going to have to love my neighbor, serve others, and demonstrate with my life who I am in Christ. The works of darkness are so much easier than those of the light, but if Jesus shows up, then I should probably strap on this rusty, heavy armor of light. Jesus is coming, but it sounds like He is just going to stir up trouble in my life. When God stays safe and sound in heaven where He belongs, then I can get away with all of my favorite pet sins, with living my life the way I want. I’m pretty good at keeping those hidden sins from my friends and family, and as long as God doesn’t interfere, I’m pretty good at keeping them from Him. But if Jesus is coming, I have a feeling that He’s going to find them, because He just seems to have a nose for the stuff. Jesus is coming, and I’m pretty sure that it isn’t a good thing.

But yet Jesus is still coming, whether we want Him to or not, whether we celebrate His arrival for all the wrong reasons or quickly try to sweep our sins under the rug, He is coming. Jesus is coming, for this is the goal and culmination of His entire life on this earth, because it is absolutely necessary to fulfill the Father’s will. Take note of that final phrase. Jesus’ coming is ‘absolutely necessary to fulfill the Father’s will.’ His coming does not aim to fulfill human expectations and fears, the expectations of the crowd gathered that day or the fears of the religious leadership. His coming does not aim to fulfill our fears of God nosing around in our sinful lives. His coming is in fulfillment of the Father’s will and the Scripture that the Father gave, specifically this prophecy: “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’” Jesus doesn’t come seeking glory, He doesn’t come in triumph. He doesn’t come to debate the Sadducees or kick out the Romans. He has proclaimed the Law powerfully throughout His ministry, but He doesn’t come now to root around in your life, looking for secret sins. Jesus is coming, and He is coming in humility.

He comes in humility, not in power, because Jesus is coming in order to die. He is coming for a victory and a conquest, all right, but His victory and His conquest will only come by submitting in humility to death. He enters Jerusalem as the sacrificial Lamb, there to offer Himself up as the payment for all of our sin. Jesus is coming for one last week of teaching and preaching, healing and miracles, He is coming to stir things up one last time, and Satan is waiting to take full advantage of this opportunity. He will incite one of those closest to Him to betray Him unto death. Satan will then successfully tempt another crowd, this time not lining the entrance into the city, but instead standing before Pontus Pilate, to cry out “Crucify Him, crucify Him!” Finally Satan will tempt the governor to lose his backbone and give Jesus over into the cruel torture and execution of the scourge and the cross. But Satan doesn’t get it. He doesn’t realize that Jesus entered Jerusalem in humility, not in power and glory. He finds out only to late that Jesus is coming to win a victory, but not the victory that the crowds nor the evil one expected. Jesus is coming to crush Satan’s head, but He will do that by humbly submitting to the humiliation, pain, and torture of the cross. Satan’s seeming triumph will be Christ’s great victory. Death will be conquered by His death, and His resurrection on the third day is the seal on that victory. Then Jesus will have glory, then He will have power, but only after the humiliation of the cross. He submitted to that humiliation for me, for you, to pay for all of those sins that we foolishly think we can hide from God. Jesus is coming, not to condemn us for our secret sins, but to pay for them, to destroy its power and hold over us, and the penalty of death we deserved for it. Jesus is coming, and He comes bearing salvation!

Today, here and now, Jesus is coming, and because He is coming in humility, you have no reason to fear His arrival. He comes bearing the gifts that He won by entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday centuries ago. Jesus is coming, with healing in His wings, with forgiveness for all of your sins. Jesus is coming to bind up your wounds, to give you Himself. Jesus is coming so that you can participate in the victory that He won through His humiliation and death. The crowds may have misunderstood His entrance, but their cry of praise is one that we echo. “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” Those words should sound a bit familiar, because we sang them last week, and we will sing them again next week. Just before communion, when our Lord Jesus Christ comes to us with the gift of His Body and His Blood, we sing the Sanctus: “Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Sabaoth; heaven and earth are full of Thy glory. Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He, blessed is He, blessed is He that cometh in the Name of the Lord. Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna in the highest!” Jesus is coming, and He comes bearing forgiveness for all of our sins each and every day, but especially when He invites us to partake of His Body and His Blood, the very redemption price that He in humility paid for you and me.

Jesus is coming, and in this Advent season we look toward His first coming, when He became man and was born of the Virgin Mary on Christmas Eve. We have a God who knew that we are unable to come to Him, and so He came to us to accomplish salvation for us, to bring us salvation and peace. Jesus is coming: He came as a baby in Bethlehem, He came into Jerusalem to deliver us, He comes to us in the Supper of His Body and Blood, and He will come again to bring us to be with Himself. That is also what we anticipate this Advent season, Christ’s return in glory. His coming for our salvation was in humility, but His coming again will be in His unveiled glory, to bring us forgiven sinners to His side for eternity. Jesus is coming- Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest! Amen.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Proper 29 (Malachi 3:13-18)

“They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this last Sunday of the Church Year comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the third chapter of the prophet Malachi. Dear friends in Christ: The accusation from God thunders forth from the heavens in the first verse of our text. “‘Your words have been hard against me,’ says the Lord.” The scene is the heavenly courtroom. You and I are sitting in the witness chair, face to face with our God who is at the same time the prosecutor and the judge. Doesn’t seem all that fair, but hey, He’s God. He is always the judge, because who else can the Creator of all things be, and in this case He is the accuser, because our sin is against Him. We stammer, our minds searching for an answer, an explanation, or an excuse that will satisfy our God, but all that comes out of our mouths is a question. “How have we spoken against you?” It’s a good strategy- make God prove His case. Unfortunately, God is ready to do so, and He has all the evidence He will ever need. He will quickly show us that we are on trial for putting Him on trial, for accusing Him of injustice. God wants us to wrestle with Him in prayer, but the prosecution plans to demonstrate that these words go far beyond the prayer of faith to the very edge of unbelief.

God reads the charges, quoting from our own words. “You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts? And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.’” Wow, we really said all that? It doesn’t seem possible that we would be so bold, so rebellious, so disrespectful. We open our mouths to protest, but God is ready to press this point home. He shows us our thoughts and our words, the thoughts and words that come forth when we see how non-Christians live. Why do non-believers have all the fun? They get to do what they want, live how they want, enjoy life to the fullest. They seem to live such carefree lives, without being burdened with all the rules and responsibilities that come with being a Christian. Do you hear us, God? Your rules are dragging us down! Being a Christian is like going to a funeral each and every day. All we talk about is your rules and our sin, and to be quite frank, God, its ruining my life! There are so many things I want to do, but because I’m a ‘Christian,’ I can’t. And that wouldn’t be so bad if what you offered was exciting, but this Christian life is boring! That pastor stands up and talks about sin and Jesus, sin and Jesus each and every week, and I’m tired of it! Why can’t I have all the fun that my neighbors have, why can’t I live life to the fullest? I mean, look at all those other people- if they are truly breaking your Law each and every day, why do they prosper? Why don’t you just strike them down?

God pauses in His presentation, and the entire courtroom senses that the prosecution has reached a turning point in its argument. It is one thing to say that Christianity is a downer, but what follows is even worse. “And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.” This statement calls into question God’s justice. God, if you do not punish those who defy you, I’m going to go all in; I’m going to call those who disobey your commands blessed. That’s what they are, blessed because you have not executed your justice against them. Christians aren’t the blessed ones, because we just suffer, we just walk around in funeral clothes. We don’t prosper, but those who despise you do. They put you to the test and they escape. God, you just sit there and let them defy you, and therefore they are blessed. There is only one conclusion to this line of thought, and that is where the prosecution concludes its case. God calls our attention once again to Exhibit A: “You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God.” He pulls out His Hebrew dictionary and looks up the word translated as ‘vain.’ “Let the court note that this word has the meaning of worthlessness or emptiness.” This is about as bad as it can get. God accuses us of saying that serving Him is pointless, it is worthless. It literally has no meaning at all, it has no benefit, and indeed those who do not serve God seem to have His blessing. This line of accusation toward God has taken us to the very verge of unbelief; now we see exactly what God means when He said to us, “Your words have been hard against me.”

The courtroom sits in stunned silence. What will God do? Will He destroy us, condemn us eternally as we deserve, or will He allow us to put Him on trial, will He provide the evidence that He is indeed a God of justice, that He has not forgotten about us? In the back another prosecutor, the one whose is called by Scripture the ‘accuser,’ Satan, sits with a smirk on his face. He wants us to be isolated complainers, he wants us to be alone, to face the sin of this world by ourselves. When we are Christians in isolation, we are so easily enticed to complain and accuse God, we are so vulnerable to unbelief. But God knows this, and so as the judge deliberates, He tells us, those on trial, to gather together. “Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another.” He calls on us to be the Church, a community of believers that support one another in good times and bad. In this community of faith, we call each other to repentance when we sin, we work to bring back those who have been isolated and come dangerously close to unbelief, we help each other through the difficulties and questions that come from living in a sinful world. But it is not all about us in the Church, it is about Him. God gives His promises in the context of the community, within the Church. And it is within the Church that He gives His verdict.

God’s answer to our complaint, to our hard words against Him is one word, one name, one person: Jesus. “Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord and esteemed his name.” The Lord inclined His ear to you in your time of trouble and He sent His Son to deliver you. He heard your complaint, He knew your sin, and He sent Jesus to pay for that sin. Jesus is His answer to our sin, even our sin of complaining and accusing Him, He answers the charge by the prosecution: “Your words have been hard against me.” Jesus took that sin upon Himself and carried it to the cross, where He paid for it with His own blood. But Jesus does not only answer for our sins of hard words against our God, but through Him God in His grace provides an answer to our complaint. God has not forgotten us, He has not abandoned us, but instead He has written our names in the book of remembrance. This is a book written with the blood of Jesus. This is a book of those who have been claimed by our Lord Jesus Christ, who have been baptized into His Name, and therefore bear that Name into eternity. God has not forgotten you, and you know the truth of this because Jesus died and rose again for you, inscribing your name in the book of remembrance. His cross and empty tomb are the seal on God’s promises, the proof that despite all appearances to the contrary, you are loved by God and He has remembered you.

The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ means that God has vindicated Himself, He has shown Himself to be both a God of justice and a God of love. His just wrath was poured out upon Jesus on that cross so that you could be shown love. And on that basis of that sacrifice God will deliver us on the Last Day, He will show things as they truly are. “They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him.” Because Jesus shed His blood on our behalf, we will be God’s treasured possession on the Last Day, we will belong to Him. Listen again to what He says: “They shall be mine.” He looks at each of you today and says, “You will be mine!” Jesus died for you, to make you the Father’s own, to make you His child, to write your names in the book of remembrance. Being a Christian does not mean that we are condemned to a boring life of rules, but instead it is the proclamation each and every day that we have a God who loves us, and who proved it by sending Jesus Christ to die for us, delivering us from all our enemies and bringing us to the joyous halls of the new heavens and the new earth for all eternity, which will be anything but boring.

Jesus’ victorious death and resurrection means that the Last Day is not a day of terror or punishment for us, but is instead the great and glorious day when God makes us His own for the sake of His Son. God said, “I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him.” On these last two Sundays of the Church Year, we hear a lot about the fire and brimstone of the Last Day. Jesus is very graphic when describing the tribulations that will come upon the earth on Judgment Day, as well as the harsh punishment that those who have rejected Him will face. Hell is a reality that we cannot ignore. But as God declares to the court, on that Day you will be spared from eternal punishment for the sake of Jesus Christ. He endured that punishment, the very punishment of hell, for you so that He could spare you from it. On the Last Day, God will make all things clear, as He says in His closing statement: “Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.” On that Day the Lord will spare you and me in His great compassion, His compassion for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. The case is closed, for the judge has satisfied His own accusation against us. He not only has provided forgiveness for whenever we speak hard words against Him, but He in His grace has provided an answer to our complaint. His answer is always Jesus, and it is an answer that is true, that is real, that is founded on the blood that He shed for you and for me. Thanks be to God that He will spare us for the sake of Jesus! In His life-giving name, Amen.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Proper 28 of Series C (Luke 21:5-28)

“Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the twenty-first chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ: Mohamed Gurhan was born and raised as a faithful Muslim in the country of Somalia. It was not until he was in his twenties that he began to question the faith he had been raised in, and soon he embarked on a religious journey that finally ended when a friend gave him a Bible. As he read about Jesus, the Holy Spirit created faith within him, and he was baptized. What joy there was for him to finally know his Savior! But if he had any illusions that the life of a Christian is easy, they were soon shattered. Being a Christian in Somalia brings dire consequences. He was arrested, fired from his job, twice lost his home and worldly possessions, and had his children kidnapped multiple times by Muslim relatives. But the worst was yet to come. When he began to work as a translator with Lutheran Heritage Foundation, the government issued an order for his death, and he and his family were forced to flee into hiding, where they remain to this very day.

Jesus was thinking about people like Mohamed Gurhan and his family when He spoke the words of our text for today. “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake.” Martin Luther liked to say that when we baptize a child, as Samantha was this morning, we do them no favors. Now, obviously Baptism has wonderful benefits, but what Luther emphasizes with such a statement is that being a Christian means having enemies, those who want to harm us spiritually or perhaps even physically. It’s easy for us to simply shrug off this story or the others I will tell this morning, because we live in a country where no one is going to issue an order for our death because we confess Christ- at least not yet. But that would be a mistake, for we still have determined enemies, and while persecution is much more subtle among us, it is no less real. Baptism has made you and me enemies of Satan and this sinful world, and they will stop at nothing to attempt to tear us away from our Savior. Jesus has told us that this will happen, and history tells us the truth of His words.

The year was 1523. Only a few years earlier, Martin Luther had started the Reformation, and it was already spreading throughout Europe. With great joy at the rediscovery of the Gospel, two Augustinian monks from the town of Luther’s birth traveled north to the Netherlands. These two men, Johann von Essen and Heinrich Vos, then proceeded to preach the doctrines of Martin Luther, that man is made right with God not through any work of his own, but only through the grace of Christ alone, which is grasped through faith alone. But such preaching and teaching could not be tolerated in an already troubled country. They were brought before the rulers and told to repent of their errors and reject the teachings of Luther. They refused, and on July 1st, 1523, Johann von Essen and Heinrich Vos became the first men to die for the sake of the Reformation. They were burned at the stake, an act that demonstrated to people on both sides how serious this religious conflict really was. They were the first Lutherans to give their lives, but would hardly be the last.

Jesus declared to the disciples, as well as to you and me, that persecution would come not only from friends and family, but from the political and religious leadership as well. “But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake.” Persecution is a public thing, and throughout history it has often been official government policy. But as I’ve said before, this often happens in a more subtle way. Religious freedom is slowly eroded away, and Christians are restricted in how and where they can express their faith. Secular atheism is pushed on our students in high school and especially in college, as our children have their faith attacked by those whom we trust to educate them. The word Jesus uses here for ‘persecute’ means to run after someone, to harass them, and when we understand this definition, we can see persecution all around us. It is difficult for us to see this as a good thing. Facing persecution from our friends and family is one thing; how can we stand up against the power of rulers and governments if they choose to persecute us? But Jesus resolves to use the persecution of His saints before kings and governors to serve the cause of the Gospel.

Polycarp of Smyrna, besides having a funny name, was one of Christianity’s earliest bishops. So early, in fact, that he probably knew the apostle John personally. He fled from persecution several times, but finally gave himself up, saying, “The will of God be done.” His Roman captors drug him to the arena, where they demanded that he reject Christ and offer incense to the emperor. The local ruler wanted to let this elderly man go, and said to him, “Swear the oath, and I will release you; revile the Christ.” Polycarp replied, “Eighty-six years have I been His servant, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” Having made this bold confession of his faith and trust in his Lord Jesus Christ he was condemned to be burned alive. There in the arena, before kings and governors, Polycarp of Smyrna gave his life for the sake of Christ.

Jesus warned us about persecution, he even warned us that we may, like Polycarp, be called upon to stand before rulers and authorities for the sake of His Name. But even this tragedy, that someone should be persecuted or even killed simply for confessing the truth, can be used by Jesus for the good. He says, “This will be your opportunity to bear witness. Settle it therefore beforehand how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.” Persecution is an opportunity to witness, to confess the faith that has been delivered to us. The martyrs of Christian history went to their deaths confessing Jesus, and many people were converted as they died. We may perhaps never receive a greater chance to stand up and confess the hope that is within us than when someone is persecuting us for our faith. Jesus uses persecution, He uses the deaths of His saints to spread the Gospel, the proclamation of His own martyrdom.

The year was 33 AD. Only a few years earlier Jesus of Nazareth had emerged, claiming to be a prophet of God, claiming to be the promised messiah, but more than that, declaring Himself to be the Son of God. For this He is persecuted, they drag Him before the Sanhedrin and the Roman governor. There He gives the good confession: “so they all said, ‘Are you the Son of God, then?’ And He said to them, ‘You say that I am.’” He is condemned for that confession, for daring to identify Himself as God in the flesh come to bring salvation. His own family, the Jewish people, hand Him over to the Romans to be crucified, and there He gives His life, He sheds His blood. But there is an important difference between the martyrdom of Jesus and the other accounts I have told you about today. Mohamed was persecuted and Johann, Heinrich, and Polycarp gave their lives for Jesus, but Jesus gave up His life for you. He gave up His life to defeat your enemies, those who persecute you, those who attempt to tear you away from Him. On the cross that day He crushed Satan’s head, meaning that while your enemy can rage and roar, even stirring up persecution against you, he does not have the final victory. Christ has defeated him and delivered you. He paid for all of your sins so that Satan has nothing to accuse you with. And with His resurrection on the third day, even death has no victory. Persecution can even take the lives of God’s saints, but as Johann, Heinrich, Polycarp, and countless other Christians throughout history knew, death has no final victory, but instead the victory remains with Christ. They triumph even as their lives are taken because Jesus has paid for their sins, just as He paid for your sins and my sins. We are reconciled with God, and so we can face persecution with confidence that the victory has already been won.

Jesus teaches us in our text for today that persecution is a sign of His return again in glory. It is a characteristic of living in the last days, the time between Christ’s Ascension into heaven and His coming back as He has promised. On that Day, the persecution of Christians which has characterized human history since the cross will end. “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” All of creation will quake in anticipation of Christ’s long awaited return, and then He will appear. “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with great glory.” For those who trust in Jesus Christ, those who have been claimed by His blood, those who have been baptized into His death and resurrection, this is a sight of rejoicing. We will look and see the crucified one returning to bring us from this valley of the shadow of death into His new creation, where there will be no more sorrow, no more sin, no more persecution. Our enemies will be trampled under, and victory will be given to those sinners, you and me, who have been covered in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, while on this earth we languish, suffering under sin and persecution, we know that our Lord has not abandoned us. We know that the persecution and even the death of Christ’s saints are simply the signs that Christ’s return is coming ever nearer. Because we have been delivered by Jesus, because He holds the victory, He says to us: “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Our redemption is indeed drawing near, and so we cry this day and every day: “Come, Lord Jesus!” In the name of our returning Lord, Amen.

Monday, November 8, 2010

All Saints' Day (Revelation 7:9-17)

“These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this All Saints’ Day comes from the first lesson read a few moments ago from the seventh chapter of Revelation. Dear friends in Christ: In chapter thirteen of Genesis, God gives to the patriarch Abraham a great promise. “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them… So shall your offspring be.” In chapter twenty-eight of that same book, God says to Abraham’s grandson Jacob, “Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” God promised these two men an abundance of offspring, a multitude that would be difficult, if not impossible, to count. In our reading for today from the book of Revelation, the apostle John saw the fulfillment of that great promise, a promise that spans the entire Bible: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

The elder who is showing John around this great vision asks the obvious question: “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” Can you really blame John for deferring to his angelic tour guide? “I said to him, ‘Sir, you know.’” The answer of the elder is striking and beautiful. “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” These are the saints, all the saints who from their labors rest, they are the unnumbered multitude of spiritual children promised to the patriarchs of old. These are those who have gone through great tribulation. They have faced the evil and sin of this corrupt world and they overcame- not by themselves, but because of the gracious deliverance of the God of Abraham and Jacob. Many of them shed their blood for the sake of Jesus Christ, dying horrible deaths because they refused to forsake Him. In giving up their lives they followed the pattern of Jesus, the Lamb who shed His blood to atone for our sin, who shed His blood to make us clean. These are all the saints, they are you and I, all those who have been washed in the blood of the Lamb, those who bear the white robes of purity before God forever.

What do saints do? They worship. More specifically, they worship the One who brought them salvation, the Triune God. “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” Both the Father and the Lamb, Jesus Christ, are given heavenly worship because they are together with the Holy Spirit the one God of heaven and earth, but they are especially worshipped because they have brought salvation through the death and resurrection of the Son of God. They are worshipped without ceasing, they are worshipped with great joy, they are worshipped in the great heavenly throne room, the Divine Service of the Lamb in His Kingdom. Their white robes show the cleansing of the blood of Jesus Christ, which has wiped away their sin, and the palm branches are a sign of victory, the victory of the Lamb over sin, death, and Satan. It is because of His victory that they stand there, that they have no part of the condemnation of hell, that they have been delivered from the great tribulation, and for that they give Him joyous worship. “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Why do they worship? They worship because “He who sits on the throne will shelter them with His presence.” They worship because God has protected them, He has brought them through the great tribulation by the blood of the Lamb, and now He protects them from all evil for eternity. “They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat.” The fires of judgment over sin will not touch the saints, for God’s wrath was poured out on the Lamb, and therefore will not be unleashed against them. They are protected by the shelter of the Lord for all eternity. “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

That is the picture of heavenly worship, that is the picture of your destination and your future in the presence of the Lamb who shed His blood for you. But what about earthly worship, what about today? Like the elder in our text, this morning we ask, “Who are these, sitting before this pulpit, and from where have they come?” You are those in the midst of the great tribulation, living in a world full of sin. You are those who see the effects of this sin each and every day, in your own life and that of others. You live in the midst of the great tribulation well aware of your own sin, and your need for a Savior from that sin. You are among those who bear the name of Christ, and therefore may be called upon to shed your blood for His sake, following the pattern that He set like the saints of old and your brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world. You wear ordinary clothes, yet those clothes say nothing at all about your status before God. For you are indeed those who have been washed clean by the blood of the Lamb, those cleansed by Baptism, which incorporated you into Christ’s death and resurrection. In Him you died to sin, and in Him you were raised up as His child. Even though you cannot see it with your own eyes, you truly are one of God’s saints, one of those purchased with His blood.

What do saints do? They worship. We offer praise to the Triune God for His great deliverance, we worship God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit as one God who acted to deliver us. We give praise to the Triune God as we sing the Sanctus: “Holy, holy, holy Lord God of power and might: Heaven and earth are full of your glory.” We worship the Son as the Lamb who was slain for our sin by singing the Agnus Dei just before we receive His Body and Blood: “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world; have mercy on us.” On Sunday morning we are doing what the saints are doing in heaven, our worship mirrors their worship in every way, with one exception: our earthly worship is faltering, it is often weak, it can even be nonexistent. We need God’s gifts so desperately, for we are dwelling in the midst of the great tribulation and we ourselves are sinful, but sometimes we cannot even bring ourselves to where those great gifts are offered. When we do come, we can often go through the motions, following the words on the page, but forgetting the significance of those words. We are here in body, but perhaps not in mind or spirit. The saints in heaven worship God with great joy and enthusiasm, remembering His great deeds of salvation, while the saints on earth worship Him too often thinking only about lunch or the NFL. The Divine Service is a weekly proclamation of what Jesus Christ has done for us in the midst of this great tribulation, but it can become simply something we do to check off our list. Why is this? Our worship can become faltering because Satan, the world, and our sinful nature know that we need it. If they can cut us off from contact with God’s great gifts, then they can much more easily entice us away from our loving God.

Satan can roar and accuse, he can attempt to entice us away from the gifts of God. The world can encourage us to find something better to do with our time on Sunday morning. Our sinful nature can distract us from focusing on the Lamb as we worship. But that unholy trinity has no answer for the forgiveness of Jesus Christ. The Lamb shed His blood to forgive your sins of faltering and weak worship. He redeems you, He forgives you, He loves you not because He has decided to ignore your sins, but because He paid for them. We come here to receive the forgiveness of Christ even for our failing to worship Him properly, we come here unable to please God on our own, but instead depending on another, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. All the saints that went before us were also sinners, and so they all needed the forgiveness of Christ. They have passed through the great tribulation while we still remain in it, but we are linked together as those redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. That is one of the reasons why in many churches the communion rail is a half circle. As we gather here on earth receiving the forgiveness of Jesus Christ in His Body and Blood, we can imagine the other half of the rail populated with those who have gone before us. Their worship is our worship; heaven joins earth wherever Christians gather to receive God’s gifts and give Him thanks and praise. When we come here to this place, we stand at the border between earth and heaven, and we join all the saints in the great praise they give to God: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

Death takes us over that border, it brings us from earthly worship to heavenly worship. It is the last enemy, but it has already been triumphed over by the empty tomb of Jesus Christ, and therefore is simply the gate to heavenly glory. On the day that the Lord brings us to be with Himself and all the saints in eternity, we will look toward the throne of God and see “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and people and languages.” The words of the elder to Saint John at the end of our text will then describe you and me as well: “Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne will shelter them with His presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” In the name of the Lamb who was slain, Amen.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Reformation Day (John 8:31-36)

“If you abide in my Word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Reformation Day comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the eighth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ, Martin Luther was in trouble. This monk had sparked the Reformation just four years earlier by speaking out against the Roman Church’s selling of indulgences. Railing against abuses and false teaching seemed a lot easier when he was safe and sound in Wittenberg. But now he was in Worms, standing before the pope’s representatives and the Emperor himself. Things had suddenly become much more serious. But Luther could take comfort from what God’s Word said in passages such as our Introit for today: “I will speak of your testimonies before kings, O Lord, and shall not be put to shame.” Therefore with boldness, but yet also with humility and with the knowledge of what this confession meant before God, Luther declared: “Unless I am convinced by the teachings of Holy Scripture or by plain reason- not by popes or councils alone, since they have so often erred and contradicted themselves- my consciences is bound to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything. Here I stand- I can do no other. God help me. Amen.” Luther took his stand that day on the Word of God, he took his stand on the truth.

Jesus has some pretty amazing things to say about that Word and about that truth in our text for today. After hearing Jesus speak about His intimate connection with the Father throughout chapter eight of John’s Gospel, many people believe in Him. With joy our Lord proceeded to give them a message of encouragement, a message of strengthening, a message of Gospel. “So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in Him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’” What is that Word? What would be so important that Jesus would encourage us to abide in it, that Luther would take his stand upon it? Sure, it is the Bible, it is the teachings of Jesus, but it is so much more than that. It is a performative Word, a Word that does what it says. It is a Word that declares to you, “Your sins are forgiven,” “You are God’s child,” or even “This is my Body, this is my Blood.” This Word conveys to us the promises of Jesus, for this Word is Jesus Himself. He is the Word of God Incarnate, come to sinful man to give them the Truth.

Luther took His stand on the Word of God because He believed that it proclaimed to Him the truth. This is nothing other than what Jesus promised in our text. “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” This is not merely intellectual knowledge, but instead knowing the identity of Jesus and knowing what He has come to do. Knowing the truth means knowing that only Jesus can save us, that He has come as God’s Messiah to set us free. Knowing the truth means knowing that we have a God who loves us for the sake of His Son. Knowing the truth means trusting Jesus and Him alone, depending on no one else for our salvation. And when we know this Truth, Jesus promises that we will have what we so desperately need: freedom.

It is on that point that Jesus’ hearers object. “They answered Him, ‘We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, “You will become free.”’” You can imagine the shoulders of Jesus slumping at this statement. He has just given them a beautiful message of encouragement, the promise of freedom thorough Him, and they object to this!? The hearers cannot just receive with joy this wonderful proclamation of the Gospel, but instead complain, “Why do we need freedom? We’re not slaves!” Human beings, not just those who argued with Jesus that day, but you, me, and all people have a certain blind spot when it comes to seeing our own slavery. In America this is especially common, because we drink the sweet nectar of freedom and liberty each and every day, making it almost impossible to see ourselves as anywhere close to slaves. Why would I need freedom? I’m already free, free to do what I want- nothing has a hold on me!

Martin Luther knew that those objections were at best misguided, at worst, outright lies. He knew that we are all slaves to sin, because it was his own crushing awareness of sin that drove him to the Reformation in the first place. He knew that he was a poor, miserable sinner, and all he saw when he went to church was an angry God that wanted to punish him for that sin. The more he tried to amend his life by himself, the more sin wrapped its chains around him. That, my friends, is how sin works. Jesus says, “Truly, truly I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” Sin enslaves us, it binds us and refuses to let us go. We can see this especially with addictive sins like drugs, alcohol, or adultery, but the truth is, all sin works this way. All sin is addictive, from lying, to hurtful thoughts, to anger and gossip. We know from our own experience that this is true, we know that when we indulge in a sin we cannot just stop, but we are dragged deeper and deeper into it until we are truly slaves. This slavery does not end well, as Jesus tells us: “The slave does not remain in the house forever.” Because of our slavery, we have no permanent place in the Father’s house, we will be excluded forever. As Saint Paul teaches: “The wages of sin is death.”

That is what Luther realized- that we were all slaves to sin and that slavery excluded us from the Father’s house for eternity. His search for a merciful God seemed to hit one dead end after another, leaving him nearly in despair. But, as Luther thankfully discovered, this word of condemnation was not the final word on the subject. God had spoken another Word, in fact the Word incarnate, Jesus Christ. This same Jesus said in our text for today, “The son remains forever.” The slaves could not dwell in the Father’s house, but the Son could, and because He had the authority of sonship, He could set the slaves free. “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” And thanks be to God that the Son did exactly that! Jesus Christ came to proclaim freedom to the captives, but not just to speak of freedom, He came to actually break our bonds, to remove the death grip of sin from us and make us ‘free indeed.’ His cross broke our bonds wide open, defeating the power of sin to hold us captive. He suffered there for your release, He shed His blood for your redemption, He allowed Himself to be bound for your freedom. The Son came and put Himself in the place of the slaves, paying for their bondage. Paul declared that “the wages of sin is death,” and on Good Friday Jesus paid that price in full for each and every one of us. Having paid that price, Jesus defeated our last enemy and slavemaster, death, by triumphing over it on Easter Sunday. Death could not hold Him captive, and it will not hold you captive either, for His victory is your victory.

The Son stood in your place, wearing your bonds so that He could break them, and therefore He gives to you the status that He has had from all eternity. Jesus declared, “The slave does not remain in the house forever; the Son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” We are truly set free by the triumph of Christ, just as He is truly the Son of God, as the centurion cried on Good Friday, just as He is truly risen, as the disciples exclaimed on Easter evening. The Word incarnate came to us to proclaim the truth, that God has sent His Son to deliver the world from bondage. And the Son continues to set captives free through the truth of His Word each and every day, and especially when the body of Christ gathers here to receive His gifts. For when a pastor stands before you and says, “As a called and ordained servant of Christ, and by His authority, I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” you are being set free from sin by the powerful Truth of God’s Word. That is how Jesus fights slavery- with forgiveness. We have been released from the eternal bondage of sin and exclusion from God’s house, but as long as we remain in this body and life we still fall into the slavery of sin. That is why Christ continues to work to break bonds each and every day with His Words of forgiveness and release. We live in the forgiveness of Christ, because without it we would easily fall back into bondage. That forgiveness testifies to us our new identity: we are no longer slaves to sin, but instead we are truly freed children of God. And it is the children who dwell in their Father’s house for all eternity.

That is the message that saved Luther, and that is the message that Luther dedicated his life to proclaiming. The entire Reformation was all about proclaiming clearly again the beautiful Gospel of the freedom from sin that Christ won for us. Luther looked around him and saw a Church that refused to proclaim that freedom, instead placing people back under the yoke of slavery. People were pointed to their works for a right relationship with God, and as he found out during his time at the monastery, such a focus on ourselves only has the effect of enmeshing us deeper and deeper in the slavery of sin. We needed a merciful God, and this merciful God came to us in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Luther probably wouldn’t have much joy in seeing his name on church signs, for he would rather not have the focus on himself. Instead, he would find his joy in going inside of those churches and hearing the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ proclaimed clearly to sinners. That is what the Reformation was about, that is why he took his stand before the Emperor, so that sinners could hear the proclamation of the Gospel again. His goal wasn’t to make something new, but instead to proclaim once again to all people the good news: Jesus Christ died to break your chains, and for His sake you will dwell in the Father’s house for all eternity. Thanks be to Jesus for His work of setting us free! In His name, Amen.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Thy Strong Word Radio Broadcast

Once again, I am up for the daily morning radio broadcast at KDSN in Denison, Iowa. What follows is a transcript of each day's devotion, which focused on the upcoming celebration of the Reformation.

Program number 1 for October 25th

Good morning! This is Rev. Christopher Maronde, pastor of St. John Lutheran Church in Kiron and Faith Lutheran Church in Deloit. As some of you may know, October 31st is Reformation Day. On that day the Lutheran Church celebrates the work of Martin Luther, a monk who God used mightily to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Most of the various churches that we see in our communities are various offshoots of the Reformation that Luther sparked. This week, I wanted to talk about Luther and the Reformation as we look toward Reformation Day on Sunday. Today we will set the stage by looking at Luther’s own struggle with sin, a struggle that led him to the four ‘alones’ of the Reformation, which we will talk about in the days to come, ‘Scripture alone,’ ‘grace alone,’ ‘faith alone,’ and ‘Christ alone.’

Luther’s life was filled with spiritual struggle and conflict. He was fully aware of his own sin and God’s punishment for that sin. Luther knew only of a God who judges, a God who condemns, and His condemnation is terrible, it is unavoidable, it is final. I think that we today have much to learn from Luther’s struggles. We are in a culture that dismisses sin- we are not conditioned to look at ourselves as sinners. But that is what you and I are. We can fight it all we want, you can tell our pastors to quit proclaiming it, but the simple fact is that we are poor, miserable sinners. And as we read in Romans, “The wages of sin is death.” Luther’s awareness of his own sin is something that we can all learn from, as it is only from an awareness of sin that we have any need for a merciful God. Those without sin have no need of a Savior.

This acute awareness of his own sin drove Luther to find salvation for himself. It drove him to the monestary, where he was an exemplary monk, and he followed each and every regulation and instruction to the letter. But he could not find peace. As he said himself: “Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience… I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners.” The more he worked toward his own salvation, the more he was aware that he was reaching for an impossible goal. All he deserved was death, eternal death. He needed a Savior from sin, and thanks be to God he was turned to God’s holy Word, which shows us our sin, but much more importantly shows us our Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, who shed His blood to pay for that sin. Much more on that great Gospel that was revealed through the Scriptures to Luther tomorrow!

Let us pray: Almighty, everlasting God, for our many sins we justly deserve eternal condemnation. In Your mercy You sent Your dear Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who won for us forgiveness of sins and everlasting salvation. Grant us true confession that, dead to sin, we may be raised up by Your life-giving absolution. Grant us Your Holy Spirit that we may be ever watchful and live a true and godly life in your service; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen. God’s blessings on your day!

Program number 2 for October 26th

Good morning! This is Rev. Christopher Maronde, pastor of St. John Lutheran Church in Kiron and Faith Lutheran Church in Deloit. Yesterday we spoke of Luther’s awareness of his own sin. Luther knew that he was a sinner, and all he could see was an angry God ready to crush him for that sin. Luther was nearly driven to despair, but by the grace of God, he was delivered.

It was Scripture that saved Luther, and that is no surprise. God has a habit of changing hearts through His Word- He has been doing it since the Creation, and he has not stopped since. Luther was led through his struggles and anguish to Romans chapter one, verse seventeen: “For in [the Gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” These words tortured him, as they gave a picture of a righteous God who condemned all those who did not live up to His righteousness. God, however, continued to work through His Word. Finally, Luther realized that the righteousness demanded here was the righteousness of Christ given to us as a gift by faith. It was at that point that the Scriptures opened up for him, and for us! He said, “There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the Gospel, namely… the righteousness with which God clothes us when He justifies us.”

Jesus Christ was the one who fulfilled the requirements of the Law by becoming man, by taking on our human flesh. He was the one who faced the wrath of a just God over your sin, the one who died on the cross to fulfill all righteousness. On that Good Friday, Jesus hung upon that cross in your place, taking on the punishment that you deserved, and when He said ‘It is finished’ your salvation was completed. He shed His blood for you! He defeated your enemies- sin, death, and Satan. He dealt them a blow from which they will never recover when He stepped forth from the tomb on Easter morning. This same Jesus Christ then bestows on you His righteousness won on that cross through faith. This righteousness covers you like a robe so that when God looks at you from the judgment seat, He only sees Jesus. Righteousness is no longer an unattainable goal- in fact, it is not a goal at all, but a gift, a gift given to you through His shed blood. You are a poor, miserable sinner, but because of what Christ did for you, you are now saved from your sins, you do not have to fear the wrath of God. What wonderful news! The Scriptures all opened up for Luther to reveal the glorious narrative of God saving His fallen creation through the sacrifice of His Son. Therefore, the first great pillar of the Reformation is ‘Scripture alone.’ We’ll look at the next pillar, ‘grace alone,’ tomorrow morning.

Let us pray: Blessed lord, who has caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning, grant that we may hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of your holy Word we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen. God’s blessings on your day!

Program number 3 for October 27th

Good morning! This is Rev. Christopher Maronde, pastor of St. John Lutheran Church in Kiron and Faith Lutheran Church in Deloit. Yesterday we heard about how Luther was turned from the crushing awareness of his sin to the pages of the Scriptures. Listen again to what he read in Romans chapter one: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” This week we do not celebrate a man or even a movement, but instead we commemorate the Gospel, and God’s chosen instruments used to proclaim that Gospel clearly. God chose a simple Augustinian monk from Germany to reform the Church, to create a movement that would result in the Gospel once again being clearly proclaimed. This should be no surprise to any of us. God has a certain habit of using means, whether it is water, bread and wine, or the sinful lips of a pastor. He takes hold of those means and uses them to create and strengthen faith, He connects them with His Word in order to give life. But because He likes to use sinful human beings, you, me, and many others throughout history as His means, the proclamation of the Gospel rarely occurs without trial or stumbling. Even Martin Luther, a figure that seems to tower over history, was a sinful human, and it would be his struggle with sin that would define the rediscovery of the Gospel.

Luther needed a God of grace because there was simply no way that he could achieve anything on his own. Grace alone was what was required, God’s free grace for the sake of His Son Jesus Christ. Saint Paul wrote in Ephesians chapter two: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Grace is not truly grace unless it is a gift. It is something freely given to us by God, given to us when we could do nothing to earn it. In fact, it was given to us when we were completely opposed to God, in open rebellion against Him. That’s what makes God’s grace so amazing. Saint Paul says in Romans chapter five, “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Jesus Christ died for you, for me, for all people, even those who nailed Him to the cross. What amazing love! What wondrous grace! This leads Luther to what I think is one of his more profound observations. He said that “we are beggars,” that is, we come before God empty-handed, with nothing to give Him but our sins, and yet He takes those sins and pays for them in His overwhelming grace. That is the kind of God we have. Thanks be to Him for His abundant grace!

Let us pray: Lord God, heavenly Father, from Your hand we receive all good gifts and by your grace we are guarded from all evil. Grant us Your Holy Spirit that, acknowledging with our whole heart Your boundless goodness, we may now and evermore thank and praise You for Your loving-kindness and tender mercy; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen. God’s blessings on your day!

Program number 4 for October 28th

Good morning! This is Rev. Christopher Maronde, pastor of St. John Lutheran Church in Kiron and Faith Lutheran Church in Deloit. Earlier this week, we heard of how Martin Luther watched the Scriptures open up to him like a flower in the spring, revealing to him the great treasures that it held for him. Those Scriptures revealed to him a God of grace, who in loving-kindness sent His only begotten Son to die for our sins, to deliver us from death to live before Him forever. The only question that remained was: how do we receive this grace proclaimed by the Scriptures? Luther found the solution in the same passages that pointed him to ‘grace alone.’ We heard Paul say yesterday in Ephesians chapter two: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” For Luther, only faith could appropriate the free grace of Christ Jesus. In addition to ‘Scripture alone’ and ‘grace alone’ we now have ‘faith alone.’

But the thing about faith is that it is never alone. It always has an object, something to put its focus on. Faith does not focus on itself, it does not exist in a vacuum. Faith looks to Jesus Christ and Him alone, focusing on our Lord because He is the One who has delivered us by the shedding of His blood for us on the cross. Faith believes in the promises of God declared in Holy Scripture, the great promises of salvation through Jesus Christ. Faith alone saves us, but faith does not exist apart from the object of that faith, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Where does this faith come from? Luther emphatically denied that it came from anything in us. Instead, he declared in the explanation to the third article of the Apostle’s Creed in his Small Catechism, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” Only through the work of the Holy Spirit can we believe in Jesus and take hold of His free gifts. That is the amazing thing: not only is grace a free gift, but the faith which grasps onto that grace is a gift as well! Luther proclaimed the primacy of God-given faith throughout his life. His personal struggle had led him to see the folly of trying to earn his own way to God, and now he trumpeted faith alone as the means by which man is reconciled to God. Scripture alone showed him that grace alone won by Christ alone is the basis of our salvation, and that salvation is only appropriated and applied to us through faith alone.

Let us pray: Almighty God, our heavenly Father, because of Your tender love toward us sinners You have given us You Son that, believing in Him, we might have everlasting life. Continue to grant us Your Holy Spirit that we may remain steadfast in this faith to the end and finally come to life everlasting; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen. God’s blessings on your day!

Program number 5 for October 29th

Good morning! This is Rev. Christopher Maronde, pastor of St. John Lutheran Church in Kiron and Faith Lutheran Church in Deloit. Over the past three days, we have discussed ‘Scripture alone,’ ‘faith alone,’ and ‘grace alone.’ Having heard about those three ‘alones,’ it should be no surprise that the final ‘alone’ is Christ alone. Everything this week has been about Christ, and that makes perfect sense, because all of Luther’s life and work focused on Christ.

From the day when the Lord worked through His Word to bring him Jesus as his righteousness, Luther’s life focused around proclaiming and defending this message, this glorious Gospel of God’s free grace for the sake of Christ. Every sermon and every page that came from his pen dripped with the blood of Jesus, it revolved around Christ and Him alone. This focus on the Gospel also led Luther to highlight the Sacraments, those means by which God comes to sinful man, the means by which He comes to you. In Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, Luther did not see something you do for God, but instead simply another way that God’s overflowing grace comes to you. Baptism encapsulated the Gospel, as the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given to you through water joined with the Word. In your baptism, you are clothed with Christ’s righteousness; you are one of those who, in the words of Revelation, are “coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” As Luther says in the Small Catechism: “Certainly not just water, but the Word of God in and with the water does these things… with the Word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit.”

In the Lord’s Supper, the fact that God took human flesh, becomes reality, a reality that you join in each and every time that you receive His Body and Blood. As he states in the Large Catechism: “Here you have both truths, that it is Christ’s body and blood and that these are yours as your treasure and gift. Christ’s body can never be an unfruitful, vain thing, impotent and useless.” When you receive the Lord’s Supper, you receive the very Body and Blood of your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the same Body and Blood which was given and shed on the cross for all of your sins, and now it is given to you for the forgiveness of your sins. Luther always taught that salvation was accomplished on the cross, but it is distributed to His people in His Word and Sacraments- and it is distributed to you each and every Sunday in Christian churches throughout the world!

Let us pray: O God the Father, the fountain and source of all goodness, who in loving-kindness sent Your only-begotten Son into the flesh, we thank You that for His sake You have given us pardon and peace in this Sacrament, and we ask You not to forsake Your children but always to rule our hearts and minds by Your Holy Spirit that we may be enabled constantly to serve You; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen. God’s blessings on your day!

Program number 6 for October 30th

Good morning! This is Rev. Christopher Maronde, pastor of St. John Lutheran Church in Kiron and Faith Lutheran Church in Deloit. This week we have journeyed from Luther’s awareness of his own sin and his desperate searching for a Savior to the pages of Holy Scripture, which revealed the grace of God in His Son Jesus Christ, given to the world and received by faith alone.

Luther’s goal was never reform for the sake of reform, or change simply for the sake of change. His goal was to proclaim the Gospel freely, detached from all had been added to it. He did not introduce anything new, but instead sought to restore what had been lost, to bring the Church back to its Scriptural roots. How do we follow in his footsteps? We do this first of all by defending the Gospel with everything we have, opposing any teaching that adds any ounce of our own effort or striving to the Gospel. This isn’t just a struggle between Christian churches and false teachers, this is first of all an internal struggle. That is what Luther was talking about when He spoke about a daily return to our Baptism. Listen to what he says in the Small Catechism: “What does such baptizing with water indicate? It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” What we especially need daily repentance from is our own attempts to please God with our own righteousness, rather than trusting in the righteousness given by Christ alone. We despair of our own abilities to earn anything before God and instead throw ourselves on the mercies of Christ our Savior.

Secondly, we can follow in Luther’s footsteps by proclaiming this same Gospel, freely and clearly, to all whom you come into contact with. That is how the message of God’s free grace through Christ first spread in the earliest days of the Church, and things hardly changed in the days of the Reformation. From hundreds of pulpits and countless mouths came forth the message that God has been reconciled to His rebellious creation through the blood of Jesus Christ. Today things may seem much different than during the Reformation, but one thing hasn’t changed: all people need to hear about Jesus. The victory of Christ rings forth from every Christian, because we cannot help but speak of what God has done for us in Jesus. Thanks be to God for the victory He has given! Thanks be to God for giving us Martin Luther to proclaim to us that truth so clearly!

Let us pray: O God, our refuge and our strength, You raised up Your servant Martin Luther to reform and renew Your Church in the light of Your living Word, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Defend and purify the Church in our own day and grant that we may boldly proclaim Christ’s faithfulness unto death and His vindicating resurrection, which You made known to Your servant Martin through Jesus Christ, our Savior, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen. God’s blessings on your day!