Monday, January 31, 2011

Epiphany 4 of Series A (Micah 6:1-8)

“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?” 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 sixth chapter of the prophet Micah. Dear friends in Christ, even if you have never personally dealt with the legal system of the United States, you probably know how a courtroom operates. Television, movies, and books have all made sure of that. First, even before the court can begin its work, there is the summons. “Hear what the Lord says: Arise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the indictment of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth, for the Lord has an indictment against His people, and He will contend with Israel.” All of the parties have been summoned: God Himself is the judge, and all creation is summoned to witness God’s lawsuit. His people are on trial. This means first of all His people Israel, but if you and I think that we can escape this trial, we are gravely mistaken. When everyone is assembled in the great courtroom of God, the judge shows up, and He is not a happy camper.

“O my people, what have I done to you? How have I wearied you? Answer me!” Without introduction or preamble, God the judge launches into us. Notice that God doesn’t directly accuse us of anything- yet. Instead He asks two biting questions: “What have I done to you? How have I wearied you?” He is demanding that we make some defense, that we give Him a reason for our sin. God wants us to tell Him what He has done to us to make us rebel against Him. Our heavenly Father wants to know how He has wearied and bored us so that we either go through the motions as His followers, or even avoid worshipping Him. He demands a reply- “Answer me!”- but none is forthcoming. As we stand in stunned silence, God goes on to tell us exactly what He has done to us.

“I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember what Balak king of Moab devised, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.” God asked us “What have I done to you?” and now He gives the answer. He has delivered us, He has provided salvation. Through Moses He brought the people out of bondage in Egypt. When Balak king of Moab wanted to curse Israel, Balaam could only speak blessings. At Shittim the covenant was broken; in His grace God restored His people at Gilgal. How do His people respond to His gracious acts? God has released from slavery; His people respond with rebellion. He longs to bless His people; they thank Him by going through the motions in their lives and at worship. He restores them again and again; His people respond by avoiding where He brings His grace.

The judge has finally completed His thunderous opening statement. The focus now turns to His people, to you and me. What reply will we make? The first response is that of desperation. How can we possibly satisfy the wrath of this righteous and holy judge? “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?” That is the question that confronts people of every age. What can I bring before the Lord to placate Him, to get Him off my back, to make Him forget about my sin? “Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?” Surely, God, if I come to church a little more often, you can look the other way when I sin during the week, right? “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil?” Ok, God, what if I ratchet it up a bit? What if I not only go to church every week, but I put some money in the offering plate? And not just a couple bucks, but the full ten percent. Maybe some spare change in Pastor’s new ‘alms for charity’ jar, too. What about that, God, will that make you back off? “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” All right, God, what’s it going to take? I’m trying my best, I really am, but I have this sneaking suspicion that your wrath is still there. You told Israel not to sacrifice her children like the nations around her, but here she is driven to such desperation that she is willing to kill her sons and daughters. Your people are grasping for your grace, trying to find something that will end your hot wrath. What do you want from me? What can I do to satisfy you? “With what shall I come before the Lord?”

It is at this point that Micah steps in. This country prophet and preacher has the answer to our vitally important question. “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” God is fed up with our attempts to placate His wrath, He is tired of our sacrifices. He declared through the mouth of another prophet, Amos: “Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them.” God has wearied of people going through the motions, of trying get rid of their sin through their own deeds. Our attempts to earn His favor through what we do are offensive to Him. He doesn’t seek outward acts, but instead a changed heart.

Jesus spoke about that in our Gospel lesson. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven… Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” As Micah said, God simply asks for humility, for justice, for kindness shown to Him and to our neighbors. This has to do with a changed attitude, not with sacrifices or deeds. This is what we also read in the Introit this morning: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked…” Ok, now we know what God requires, but this puts us in even more desperate straits. At least when we were offering our deeds to God, it was something we could do; we could see us earning our way back into favor with Him. But now we’re in trouble. God demands a changed life, but I can’t do it. I could pray and worship more, I could put more in the plate, I could do this and that, but a changed life is deep down within me, and when I look there, all I see is sin.

It makes perfect sense that we would need to earn our way back into God’s favor; it’s reasonable, it’s logical. But the only solution to our sin is not logical, it is not reasonable in the eyes of human wisdom, but instead it is foolishness. St. Paul declares, “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” We couldn’t earn God’s favor; Israel’s extreme attempts to please Him proved that. They cried out in desperation: “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” Their firstborn couldn’t satisfy God’s wrath, but His firstborn could. Jesus Christ, the firstborn Son of the Father, came to do what we could not. He allowed Himself to be given up into death for our sin. Jesus was the firstborn given for our transgressions; He, the fruit of Mary’s womb, was given for the sin of our soul. Christ was crucified for you and me; He made the sacrifice that satisfied God’s wrath, His perfect life in the place of our sinful lives. This makes no sense to the world, but God choose what appears as foolishness as the very means for our salvation.

Because of Christ’s death for our sake, because He has delivered us from the crushing burden of our sin, the situation in God’s courtroom is completely reversed. God is now our advocate; He argues on behalf of His people, not against them. On the Last Day, God will point to you and declare you righteous for the sake of Jesus Christ. The people of God declared their hope in this great reversal in Micah chapter seven: “I will bear the indignation of the Lord because I have sinned against Him, until He pleads my cause and executes judgment for me. He will bring me out to the light; I shall look upon His vindication.” This vindication came at the cross, where Jesus died in your place, where He did all that you could not, where He faced God’s wrath for you. God in His great love refused to leave you in your sin, but instead He acted once again in salvation to deliver you from that sin. He answers His own accusation! Not by ignoring our sin, not by giving us a ‘to do’ list to take care of it ourselves, but by giving up His own Son into death in our place, His firstborn for our transgressions, for the sin of our souls. His judgment is no longer against us but for us; you are judged as righteous because Jesus is righteous, and He has claimed you as His own. You are His because Jesus suffered and died for you!

As we gather here this morning, the question still confronts us: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?” The answer is simple: we come before the Lord with nothing but our sin. We come as beggars, empty handed, because we have nothing to give, not our good works, not our sparkling life, only our sin. And Jesus takes that sin upon Himself and does away with it, giving us in its place forgiveness, life, and salvation. We are beggars who have come empty-handed, only to be given the treasures of heaven itself. We therefore come before God bearing not our own merits, but instead the righteousness of Christ, which He has given to us. Then we seek to serve God and neighbor, not to gain His favor, but because He has shown us favor. We come to this place week after week to receive, to drink deeply from the wells of salvation, until that day when the Lord declares to us: “Come into the kingdom given to you by the death and resurrection of my firstborn.” In the name of God’s firstborn Son, who through the foolishness of the cross brought us salvation, Amen.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Epiphany 2 of Series A (John 1:29-42a)

“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” 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 first chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ, have you confessed anything lately? Now I know that this is a loaded question. When we think of the word ‘confession’ we usually think about the confession of sin. No doubt some of you have confessed sin this past week, asking for forgiveness from the one you have hurt and from God. The confession of sin is an important, indeed vital, part of the Christian’s life, but that isn’t specifically the confession I’m talking about this morning. Instead, today we want to focus on the primary meaning of the word confession: speaking back to God what He has said to us. That is what confession is; saying the same thing that God has said, taking His revelation in through the ears and speaking that word with our mouths. The confession of sin is an important example of this; God in His Word has declared that all people are sinners, and when we confess our sins at the beginning of the service, we are speaking back to God that declaration. ‘Yes, Lord, as you have said, I am a sinner.’ But confession also means speaking back to God and the world not just our sin but also our Savior. We cannot confess unless God has first spoken to us, and He does this primarily in His Word. He reveals who He is and what He has done for us, and we confess that truth to the world.

John the Baptist uttered one of the great confessions of the New Testament in our text for today. “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” But even the forerunner of Christ did not come up with that confession by himself, but instead he speaks to the world what God had revealed to him. “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on Him. I myself did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’” We too saw the Baptism of Jesus last week, we heard from God’s holy Word that the Spirit descended upon Jesus, anointing Him for the task to come. It was that event that brought forth the confession of John; it confirmed for Him who Jesus was and what He had come to do. John can’t keep that confession in, and so it must go out, declaring before the world that this One, walking beside the river, has come in salvation. “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

John confesses that this man, seemingly as normal as you and me, was indeed the very Lamb of God. This Lamb takes away the sin of the world, not just the sins of the disciples, not just John’s sin, but the sin of the entire world. That means you, it means me, it means every single person on this planet. Jesus, the true Lamb of God, has come to take away sin, to remove it from us, to eliminate its penalty, to get rid of it and cast it away forever. He has come that sin will be no more! Though John doesn’t go into how this Jesus will remove the sin of the world, the title ‘Lamb of God,’ does give us some clues. You may think about the ram sacrificed in the place of Isaac, or the declaration in Isaiah 53 that the suffering Servant will stand before His oppressors like a lamb before the slaughter. We should probably also turn to the Passover, where the blood of a slaughtered lamb is the sign for the angel of death to pass over the homes of the Israelites and spare their firstborn. The true Lamb of God will be slaughtered, sacrificed in the place of His people, in the place of you and me, in order to take away our sin. He will remove sin by being sacrificed for it; He will remove God’s wrath over our transgressions and the penalty of death we deserved. His blood will be placed upon us as a sign that death no longer has a hold on us; the seal of our baptism will protect us from the angel of death. “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

But John’s confession is not the only confession we find in our text. Andrew also declares who this Jesus is. “He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah (which means Christ).’” This is a confession of salvation: the one promised throughout the Old Testament, the messiah who was to save God’s people, has come. Listen to his joy: “We have found the Messiah!” This is the anointed one, the one anointed to bring salvation to all the people, the one anointed to bring salvation to you and to me. He is the promised one! The story of the Old Testament has come to culmination in Jesus Christ, the one appointed to save by His death for our sins and His victorious resurrection from the dead.

Andrew couldn’t keep this confession in any more than John could. He had to get it out, he had to proclaim it to others. John tells us that the first thing he did after encountering Jesus was to make the good confession before his brother Peter. Once again, Andrew’s confession did not come from himself, but from the Lord. He heard the confession of John and then saw and heard Jesus Himself. In faith he then confessed, bringing that proclamation to another person, Peter. That is what the confession of Christ does; it leads others to confess, creating disciples along the way. You can see the pattern clearly in our text: first John received the revelation from God. He believed, becoming a disciple of Jesus, and then he confessed. His confession worked faith in Jesus in two other men, who became disciples of Jesus. “The two disciples heard him say this and they followed Jesus.” Then they confessed, bringing others into contact with Jesus. That pattern has been repeated through thousands of years, amongst countless millions of people, until a pastor, parent, or friend confessed the person and work of Jesus to you, and God worked through His Word on the lips of His people, creating faith within you.

Unfortunately, that is so often where the confession ends, because we are often unwilling to confess Christ before others. We have heard the revelation of Jesus in His Holy Word. His flesh and blood has touched our lips, we have been washed in the baptism He instituted. Through those means, the Lord has created faith, the same faith of John the Baptist and of Andrew. Throughout the centuries that faith has brought forth confession from the lips of Christians, confession that eventually delivered to you the salvation accomplished by the sacrifice of the Lamb of God. But how often does that confession which delivered to you the very salvation of Jesus never make it beyond you? Do we go first to our family, friends, and neighbors to confess to them the work of Christ on their behalf? You can see the enthusiasm, the joy in Andrew after He comes to faith, and the first thing he wants to do is confess that God-given faith to his brother. Do we have that same enthusiasm? Do we seek out every opportunity to confess, or do we keep our mouths shut? The reasons are many: don’t want to offend, no opportunity, I don’t know how, but so often these are simply excuses for doing nothing. So often we keep the confession of Jesus private, treating it either like our own personal property, or something not important enough to share with others.

That is unfortunate, for our Lord Jesus Christ, in His great grace, is pleased to use you and me as His instruments to bring others to faith. We have the wonderful privilege and responsibility to confess His person and work to those around us, and He has promised to be active in that Word on the lips of His people. Think about it: Jesus uses you and me, sinful and weak people, to proclaim His salvation to others. And He doesn’t make us responsible for the results; the outcomes are His, because the Word is His. We are simply His instruments, proclaiming to others, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” As Martin Luther once said, we are beggars telling other beggars where to find bread. The key phrase is: “Come and you will see.” That is what Jesus said to the inquiring disciples, and that same phrase is on the lips of Philip just a few verses after our text. We invite people to come and see Jesus, to encounter their risen Lord as He comes to them in Word and Sacrament, bearing forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.

When we invite others to come and see Jesus, we are inviting them to join us in the relationship Christ established, we are inviting them to abide in Jesus. “Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, ‘What are you seeking?” And they said to Him, ‘Rabbi (which means Teacher), where are you staying?’” The word translated here as ‘staying’ actually means ‘abiding.’ They want to abide in Jesus, to be with Him, in intimate communion with Him. The response of Jesus? “Come and you will see.” John tells us the wonderful result of this invitation. “So they came and saw where He was staying [or abiding], and they stayed [or abided] with Him that day.” Jesus broke into this world to abide with you and me, as John the evangelist wrote earlier in chapter one: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Through His sacrifice on Calvary’s cross, God now abides with man as man. Through faith we abide with Jesus and He abides with us. We participate in the very relationship of the Trinity, we abide in and with the God who has delivered us. Because we abide in Jesus, we have forgiveness for all of our sins, even for failing to confess Him before others, and through that forgiveness we know that we will abide with the Trinity for all eternity.

God has always been pleased to work through the weakness of men to spread His Gospel of salvation. He works despite and even through our weakness and sin to take that confession throughout the world. He gives us great and wonderful gifts, and then He sends us in joy to proclaim the mercies of the God who broke into this world in order to forgive, redeem, and abide with His rebellious creation. The confession you take to others is the confession that sustains you all your days: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” In the name of the Lamb, whose confession we proclaim, Amen.

Baptism of our Lord (Matthew 3:13-17)

“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon on this, the Baptism of our Lord, 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, I have always loved rivers. Not far from where I grew up, the Platte River flows wide and shallow, a ribbon of life cutting through the dry prairie. In Fort Wayne, the St. Joseph River flows slow and muddy behind the seminary, and more than once it tried to swallow downtown with flooding. Out in New York, we lived close to the source of the Susquehanna River, which flows clear and beautiful all the way through Pennsylvania on its course to the sea. Now, we live near the mighty Boyer River, which follows a beautiful valley from here to Omaha. Rivers give life, they shape the terrain, like highways they move things from one point to another. But anyone who has visited a big city or a developing country knows that a river can also be a dump, a plays to dispose of all matter of waste and filth.

There was once a river, a filthy river. God had created it, as He created all rivers, and He created it to flow clear and wide, taking life-giving water from one point to another. It provided for His creation, watering plants, animals, and humans. But then John showed up, and he had another use for this river. He cried out from its banks: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” As the crowds gathered, he began to baptize. “Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” They washed their sins into this river, and the waters darkened. As more and more people came to John, the river quickly became a depository for sin. Like toxic waste from a chemical plant, their sin corrupted the waters, as our sin has corrupted all of creation.

Raw sewage couldn’t make this river more filthy than sin, because man’s sin is the dirtiest substance imaginable. It corrupts us, it makes us unclean, even though on the outside we may look great. That’s because more often than not the filth of sin is only found within our minds and hearts. Violations of the sixth commandment such as lust and pornography more obviously make us feel unclean within, but rebelling against the other nine commandments can make us just as dirty. Anger and hateful thoughts against others, even if these thoughts never result in words or actions, consume us within and make us filthy with sin. The ninth and tenth commandments both deal with ‘coveting,’ something that is internal, a desire of the mind for the things of others that may not even lead to action but leaves us dirty all the same. And this doesn’t even scratch the surface, for we all have the grunge of original sin clinging to our bones. Original sin covers us like mud, like the muck that you dig out of a flooded basement, like the grimy oil that inhabits the corners of an auto shop. It is the dirtiest substance out there, and it makes us completely filthy, corrupting us to our very core. It was that kind of filth that was corrupting the river, making it toxic, a cesspool of corruption and sin.

As John continued to stand in the midst of all that waste and filth, Jesus appeared. “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him.” John waded to the edge of the water, protesting. There is no way that Jesus should come here. He is the sinless one. He has no sin of His own to wash away or to repent of. Jesus Himself would someday say, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” Jesus wasn’t sick, He wasn’t dirty. In fact, He was the only clean one to ever live. What need did He have to step into that filthy river and be baptized? “John would have prevented Him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” John knows that he is sinful himself, that he is in need of the same washing that he is giving to others, but not Jesus. He doesn’t need to be washed, because there is nothing to wash.

But Jesus will not be deterred. “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” This action is fitting, it is proper for the fulfilling of all righteousness. And so Jesus, the sinless One, steps into the river where men are washing away their sin, into a river literally flowing with sin, and He is baptized with the baptism of sinners. He is baptized with the baptism of repentance, even though He had no sin to repent of. And yet, this is fitting for the fulfillment of all righteousness. It is fitting for the sinless one to stand in filth of our sin. In fact, that is what He has done since His birth in a grimy stable in Bethlehem. He came to dwell amongst His dirty people, sharing their filth but yet remaining clean. It is fitting that the righteous and clean one would then stand in that toxic cesspool in the place of sinners. Think about it: the sinless One submits Himself to the baptism of sinners. What clearer sign could there be that this one is our sin-bearer! He has come to take our sin upon His own shoulders, to stand in our place for our salvation. It is fitting that God would send His Son to bear our sin. It is fitting because this was the only way that God could cleanse His beloved people from their sin.

Jesus comes forth from the waters, and all heaven breaks loose. “And when Jesus was baptized, immediately He went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on Him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.’” The entire Trinity shows up at this great event: the Father’s booming voice, the Son standing in the waters of sin, and the Holy Spirit descending as a dove. Here Jesus is declared to be the sin-bearer, here He is commissioned to go forth from those filthy waters to destroy the source of that filth. When the Father declares, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased,” He is recalling the words of Isaiah in our Old Testament lesson for today. “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” The Father placed His Spirit upon Jesus to bring justice to the nations, to take the filth of mankind’s sin and do away with it. Jesus is declared the sin-bearer, and He takes on all the sins floating in the river, and all sins ever committed before or since by every person who has ever lived, and He takes them upon His shoulders. The clean one is made dirty for our sake. He is appointed not just to bear our sin, but to be rid of that sin; He is anointed by the Holy Spirit to go- all the way to the cross.

His baptism in the place of sinners points to His death in the place of sinners. At that filthy river He is anointed as the sin-bearer; at the cross He pays the price for that sin. After John baptizes Him, Jesus is called God’s beloved Son; at Calvary, Jesus cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The voice sounds forth from heaven that the Father is well pleased with His Son for His baptism in the place of sinners; no voice booms forth, but on Easter morning, the stone rolls away from the tomb to declare that God is well-pleased with His Son’s death in the place of sinners. Jesus was baptized with your baptism; Jesus died the death you deserved. He stood in your place, He did it all for you.

From the cross flows forgiveness, life, and cleansing. Because of what He would do on the cross, the Baptism of Jesus cleanses the filthy river, and indeed sets aside all waters to deliver the cleansing that Jesus won there. The pastor prays in the baptismal liturgy: “Through the Baptism in the Jordan of Your beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, You sanctified and instituted all waters to be a blessed flood and a lavish washing away of sin.” When Jesus stepped into that toxic cesspool of sin and corruption, He cleansed the waters from their corruption by bearing that corruption to the cross. And now He uses water to bring the cleansing that we all need. Baptism is how Jesus cleanses the grime and filth of your sin. Baptism is how Jesus purifies you and makes you holy in the sight of God, so that for you, death is defeated.

If Jesus died in your place just as He was baptized in your place, then Paul draws the conclusion in our Epistle lesson that your Baptism is into His death. The cross of Jesus stands in between His Baptism and your own. His baptism was in your place, pointing forward to His suffering and death in your place. Your baptism looks back, incorporating you into His death and bringing you all the benefits He won there. But we do not have Good Friday without Easter. “We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. If we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.” Your most important death was in your baptism, for there you died to sin, and therefore for you, death is defeated enemy, and Christ will complete your baptism by raising you from the dead on the Last Day to live before God, cleansed and pure forever.

Having been cleansed by the washing instituted by the clean One, having been incorporated into His death and resurrection, we hear the same voice that Jesus heard: “This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.” You are God’s beloved child through your Baptism into Christ’s death, and He is well pleased with you. Not because of anything you have done, for like all people you still fall into sin, but because of what Jesus has done for you in bearing your filth and corruption to the cross. You are His; His beloved child, His forgiven sinner. You are baptized into Christ; you are a child of paradise! In the Name of the One who stands in the place of sinners, Amen.

Monday, January 10, 2011

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

“Where is He who has been born the king of the Jews? For we saw His star when it rose and have come to worship Him.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon on this, the Epiphany of our Lord, comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ: They came mysteriously, arriving from the ‘east,’ coming with a strange inquiry: “Where is He who has been born the king of the Jews?” Who are these guys? Matthew calls them ‘magi,’ a term that has baffled and fascinated us through the centuries. We’ve called them ‘kings,’ though that is very unlikely. They may have served kings, but they were not kings themselves. Often they are referred to as ‘wise men,’ and that may be getting closer to the truth. For most of the Church’s history, the magi were seen as pagan sorcerers, whose ‘wisdom’ was completely opposed to the True God. They found the child despite their wisdom, only through the guiding of God. In the past few centuries, as we humans have praised our own human understanding and wisdom, people began to revere the magi as examples of the highest learning of their day. I think the truth lies more on the side of the early Church. These ‘wise guys’ were probably sorcerers and magicians for the Persian kings, and one of Matthew’s main points is that their perceived ‘wisdom’ was only a hindrance to tracking down Jesus- they needed the assistance of God.

Perhaps the greatest example of how the ‘wisdom’ of the magi failed them occurs right off the bat. I don’t know about you, but I would think that if you were searching for the true King of the Jews, the person to ask isn’t the man who considers himself the king of the Jews. I’m guessing he’s not going to take the news very well. “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” If we didn’t know much about Herod, we might assume that the people of Jerusalem were stirred up for the same reason he was: a rival to the throne has been born! But there is little indication that anyone in Jerusalem really cared if Herod was deposed by some other ‘king of the Jews.’ They were stirred up and troubled because they could only imagine how Herod would react to this news. He was not a king noted for his kindness and stability. He was known for great building projects, including Jerusalem’s magnificent temple. He was known as an able administrator, able to remain in the good graces of Rome through several emperors. On the other hand, he was well-known for his cruelty and lust for power. He was not a Jew, and resented the fact that many in Israel considered him an illegitimate king. He imposed heavy taxes on the people, and at the time the magi arrived, he was in the midst of his final years, marked by paranoia and murder. In jealousy he killed his advisors, his wife, and at least two of his sons. Jerusalem trembled at what he would do next.

Historians and psychologists have attempted throughout history to understand people like Herod, because he is hardly unique. Again and again the human race has produced people of incredible cruelty, those who lust to dominate their fellow man, who are consumed by jealousy. We can blame chemical imbalances or their upbringing, factors that make them different from the rest of society, which we think is generally pretty good. That’s all well and good, and probably has some truth to it, but I think it lets us off the hook way too easily. God’s Word proclaims that all people, from Herod and Hitler to you and me, have the same basic problem: sin. The cruelty of Herod and those like him is caused by the same sinful desires that affect us all. We are much closer to these evil men than we are comfortable with. They are driven by a lust for power and domination, desires which manifest themselves in our own lives. We want to exalt ourselves at the expense of others, we’re always looking for an edge. That’s why we gossip, that’s why put others down in our thoughts and words. Herod’s jealousy drove him to rage; we may not react in the same way, but envy and jealousy for the things that others have infects us all. At the least, jealousy leads us to say or think ill of our neighbors; at the most, it can lead us to try to get what they have by unjust means. Looking at people like Herod should make us uncomfortable, for in many ways they are simply the extreme examples of the sin that is within us all.

A king like Herod, a king like us, is hardly worth celebrating. The wise men may not quite get it yet, but they are looking for another sort of king, a king that will be completely different from every king that came before. But if Herod gets his way, this king will never take his throne. He gathers his advisors and finds out exactly where this Messiah is to be born, they quote from Micah and second Samuel: “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.” He sends the magi as his unwitting spies; they are to go in secret and find this promised king. Herod has eliminated rivals before, and he’s prepared to do so again. But he has never come up against a king like this. This ‘King of the Jews’ was born in a cattle stall, not a palace. He came into the world not in glory, but as a weak and vulnerable baby. His parents were dirt-poor, wrapping their child in rags, not royal clothes. The language Herod spoke was power and authority, and this child seemed to have neither. But the signs that Herod would judge by mattered little in understanding Jesus, for He would be a king greater than Herod, greater than any king that ever had or ever would rule. He would be King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He would be the One described in the passage Herod’s advisors quoted. “From you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.” Unlike Herod, this child born King of the Jews would truly shepherd His people, for He was a King unlike any other.

His rule would not be manifested or revealed in power and glory, but in humility. He would be crowned with thorns, He would only wear royal robes as soldiers mocked Him. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is only referred to as a King in our text and at the cross. As He suffers and dies, shedding His blood, the inscription above His head declared that the King the wise men sought was hanging on a cross, humiliated before the world: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” His coronation was on the cross, for it was there that the Shepherd would lay down His life for the sheep. He gave His life for sheep who love to wander, for sheep like Herod and you and me. That is how He rules, by paying for your sin on the cross, by giving His life in your place. His death, by destroying the corruption of sin and death, establishes His rule over this fallen creation. Now He reigns as King over all, but not in domination or power, but in grace and mercy. The King of the Jews seeks out lost sheep by forgiving them through His shed blood.

In His great love God manifests His glory in the humiliation of His Son. God Himself is revealed in the humility of a helpless child in Mary’s arms. God Himself is revealed in the humility of a helpless man on the cross. For Jesus is a servant King, a King that rules by giving forgiveness and salvation to His people. That is how God is revealed to us: in forgiveness for all of our sins, in His overflowing love. He manifests Himself in service. The Father quite literally brought to light the humility of Jesus by sending a star to draw the magi from the east. “And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.” When the magi arrived at the home of Mary and Joseph, pagan sorcerers were among the first to worship the King of the Jews.
This humble King is for all people, for you and me who have fallen again and again into sin, and even for people like Herod; no sheep is so lost that the Shepherd cannot find him. Whenever a sinner comes into contact with the King of forgiveness and grace, the example of the magi is once again followed. Matthew tells us in verse ten: “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” Nowhere else in Scripture is so much joy described; Matthew piles on the adverbs and adjectives to describe overwhelming joy at arriving at the house of the King: “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” That is the joy of Epiphany! God has revealed His love and mercy in a humble child, One who would grow up to lay His life down as the Good Shepherd for you and for me. This child is our Savior and Lord, the source of all joy and the object of worship.

The magi declared to Herod that they had come to Judea to worship the King of the Jews, and when they finally enter the house of that King, they have their chance. “And going into the house they fell down and worshiped Him.” That is what we do on Sunday mornings. We go into the house of our King, and He lavishes us with the gifts that He won through His coronation on the cross. Then we respond in worship, giving to our humble and saving King praise and honor. In exceedingly great joy we praise our King for His salvation, for His wonderful gifts given to us. Our King gives and we respond with worship and with gifts. “Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.” Our gifts go in the offering plate, but the treasures we give to our King are much more than the fruits of our labors. We also give to our King the gift of humble service to our neighbors. We do not seek to exalt ourselves, but instead we place others ahead of us, seeking to show them the love and mercy Christ first showed us. We sacrifice of ourselves in service to those around us just as Christ sacrificed Himself for us. Those are the treasures that we give to our King, in response to His great love shown to us.

On Christmas, God gave us the gift of His Son, and during Epiphany we unwrap that gift, as God reveals His Son, He manifests His glory in humility. We rejoice exceedingly with great joy this Epiphany season, for God has revealed Himself in love and mercy through the death and resurrection of our King, Jesus Christ. Thanks be to our King for His gracious and merciful rule! Amen.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

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

“Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 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 I read a few moments ago from the second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ: In our text for today, Luke gives us an account of Jesus’ early life that we can easily connect with. Those of you who are parents can feel the anguish, the distress that Mary and Joseph felt as they searched for Jesus. Many of us have been to big events, carnivals, fairs, concerts, where young children can be easily lost. We can picture in our mind a crying child at the information desk, trying to communicate to the staff who his parents are. We have probably all heard over the speakers the name of a lost child, and a plea for his parents to come retrieve him. No doubt a few of us have been the lost child ourselves. Distress in those situations lasts for a relatively short time, during which so many possibilities go through your mind, all of which are not happy. So we can imagine the anguish that Mary and Joseph felt as they scoured Jerusalem for three days, and then the joy, mixed with frustration, at finding Him in the temple. “And when His parents saw him, they were astonished. And His mother said to Him, ‘Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.’”

What had this twelve-year-old boy been doing for several days in Jerusalem? Luke tells us at the opening of our text that “the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon Him.” Jesus was in the temple proving just that, demonstrating His wisdom to the intellectual big shots of Jerusalem. They were the ones with the PhD’s and He was a twelve-year-old upstart, a boy genius demonstrating to them knowledge of the law they had never seen in a boy so young. “After three days they found Him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” But Jesus wasn’t in the temple simply to show off; instead He had a much more profound reason to spend time in its magnificent courts. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Mary and Joseph responded to that pronouncement in disbelief. “And they did not understand the saying that He spoke to them.” It is hard to imagine how Jesus’ parents, who had been given more information about this child than anyone else, who had heard from Gabriel, from Simeon, from Anna the testimony to the identity and work of their Son, could misunderstand Him, but they did. They are the first to stumble over Jesus’ testimony about Himself, but they would hardly be the last. Luke tells us that “all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers.” Amazement and misunderstanding would follow Jesus throughout His life, as people tried in vain to grasp after who this child was and what He had come to do.

That is hardly surprising, for human wisdom has a very difficult time understanding Christ. Indeed, that is how the world and our own sinful nature attack faith. How can you believe in God? Have you ever seen Him? Jesus is simply a deluded man! Do you really believe that He was born of a virgin? Do you really believe that He rose from the dead? All the claims of Christianity seem ridiculous in the eyes of the world, based in myth, while science, that is something based in fact, in observation. Sometimes we’re too smart for our own good. We trust so much in our human understanding and wisdom that it seems impossible to believe in miracles. If I haven’t seen it, I can’t believe it. Satan uses others around us and our own human wisdom to inspire doubt. Now at this point I could exhort you and me to ‘just believe’ when those doubts assail you, and to a certain extent that is good advice. But on the other hand, such an approach avoids the fact that Christianity is not irrational. I can teach you how to defend the faith against the assaults of the world; you can learn how to prove the Resurrection of Jesus, how to argue for the existence of God. We don’t simply have to say ‘just believe,’ but we can take on the challenges of the world with good, solid arguments.

But arguing for the faith ultimately falls short where it really matters. I can believe that God created the universe, I can believe that Jesus is who He says He is, I can even believe that He rose from the dead. But even Satan knows those things, and that isn’t going to do him any good. It is one thing to believe the truth of those facts, it is a whole other thing to believe that they have any significance for me. That is where human understanding and wisdom fails. Our minds and hearts cannot tell us that Jesus has anything to do with us; in fact, they say quite the opposite. Our mind tells us that we are too sinful, too corrupted, for Jesus to want anything to do with us. Surely He can’t accept me, surely He cannot forgive my sin. We know ourselves, we know the secret sins we keep hidden from everyone else, we know how we have let others down, how we have let God down. How can God love a person like me? Our hearts accuse us, our conscience constantly brings up past sins and failures; we close our eyes, and we see how we have hurt others, how we have grieved God. Our heart tells us: “You are lost. God does exist, and there is no way that He is going to forgive your sin.” Human understanding and wisdom cannot conceive of a loving God; it is impossible, and so it leaves us with our sin, trembling before the One who punishes it with eternal judgment.

We need a different kind of wisdom, a different kind of understanding. Our sinful human minds cannot make the leap from the facts to the application. Only a wisdom from outside ourselves can do this. Only a wisdom given by God can allow us to truly understand Jesus. This is wisdom and understanding that goes beyond what our minds can comprehend- in fact, it runs completely contrary to what human wisdom proclaims to us. St. Paul speaks of this heavenly wisdom in our Epistle lesson: “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished on us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of His will, according to his purpose, which He set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth.” This is the wisdom that makes known to us the very will of God Himself. His plan and purpose was to send Jesus into the world to win forgiveness for those who did not deserve it, to die in the place of those who had grieved Him with their sin.

Heavenly wisdom grasps onto both the identity and work of Jesus Christ. Heavenly wisdom enables us to understand the pronouncement of the boy Jesus in the temple: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Heavenly wisdom declares to us that this boy in the temple, this man walking the dusty roads of Palestine is God Himself in the flesh, the very Son of the Father sent to dwell among us. He is Immanuel, God with us. But heavenly wisdom doesn’t stop there. It also declares to us what Jesus has done. It proclaims that Jesus would return to His Father’s house on another Passover thirty years later, this time to give His life on the cross. He would shed His blood there in accordance with the will of the Father. We cannot stop there, either, because then we are still left with facts that seemingly have no application to our lives. Heavenly wisdom takes the next vital step. It proclaims to us that Jesus is who He is and did what He did for you! It declares that the love of God for you was so great that He sent His Son to bear your sin to the cross and to do away with it there. No matter what your heart tells you, no matter what your human wisdom claims, God has forgiven you for the sake of Christ. The blood He shed, the death He died, was all for you and for your salvation! Human wisdom cannot comprehend the love of a God who would deliver sinful and rebellious people, who would forgive you and me of even our hidden sins. Only heavenly wisdom can declare that Jesus did it all for you.

Where does this heavenly wisdom come from? How do we attain it? The wonderful message is that we do nothing to earn it, but instead it is a gift of God through the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives heavenly wisdom by creating faith within us through the Word of God, as St. Paul writes: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” The Scriptures make us wise for salvation, the only wisdom that matters. I never want to discourage learning more about God and His Word, but the wisdom that clings to Christ is not simply a matter of facts, it is a matter of forgiveness. Heavenly wisdom is ultimately given to us in the forgiveness of sins. It is the sure and certain Word that God proclaims to us: “For the sake of my Son Jesus, your sins are forgiven!” We can trust that Word, we can cling to it despite what our human wisdom and understanding tells us. St. John writes, “Whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and He knows everything.” God knows what earthly wisdom cannot- that Christ has died for you, He has paid for every one of your sins. Only the wisdom given by God applies Jesus directly to you and your sins.

Our Gospel lesson is not the only time in Jesus’ life when He was lost. Some thirty years later, He would be lost again, and those who loved Him would be distressed. But He would be found, again three days later, this time risen from the dead, triumphant over sin, death, and hell. He rose to declare the victory that He won on the cross, He rose so that the message of the cross and empty tomb, foolishness to the world but the wisdom of salvation for you and me, may be proclaimed to all men. He was found that third day so that you may be found, given the faith that makes you wise for salvation. It is that heavenly wisdom that will sustain you this day and every day until you follow Jesus in your own resurrection from the dead. Death has no victory- the foolishness of the cross has defeated it! In the Name of the only Son of the Father, our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.