Monday, December 31, 2012

Christmas 1 of Series C (Luke 2:22-40)

“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” 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 first Sunday after Christmas comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ, are you ready to die? This seems an odd question the week after Christmas. Talking about death in the season of Christ’s birth seems out of place and improper. But that’s only if we have a shallow, Hallmark view of Christmas. The real story of Christmas is a story about death; it begins when cruel Herod kills the children of Bethlehem, making them the first to die because of Jesus, it then points us to that child’s death, and even has something to say about our own. And so I ask you again, dear friends in Christ, are you ready to die? Medieval Christians spoke of the ‘art of dying,’ the concept of being fully prepared in body and soul when death came. Today we would rather not even think or talk about death, often because we know that we’re unprepared, and we don’t really have any desire to be ready. But refusing to prepare for death doesn’t hold back our greatest enemy, it simply gives him more power. Death is coming, for each and every one of us, for me and for you—are you ready?

Simeon was. He cries out, with a baby in his arms, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace.” He is ready to depart, he is ready to die. Why? Because he has seen the infant Jesus. Luke tells us that this Simeon “was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.” Simeon was waiting for consolation, he looked for comfort for a creation groaning and mourning under the scourge of death. He knew what you knew, even if you try not to think about it: death is coming, for all people, and there is no escape. This world needs a Savior, because this world is filled with people who will die. The Holy Spirit had told Simeon that this world’s enemy wouldn’t claim him until he saw the Messiah, the One who had come to deliver humanity from the scourge of death. Simeon was looking for the Comforter and Consoler, the only One who could bring salvation from sin and from death, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, he knew that this baby boy was the One. And having seen Him with his own eyes, having held Him in his arms, Simeon was ready to die, “for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.” This child still had to grow up and accomplish salvation, but for Simeon, deliverance was as good as done; he wasn’t going to wait around for thirty years—Lord, I’m ready! Let your servant depart in peace!

Anna the prophetess heard the testimony of Simeon. Like the shepherds heard from the angels, like the people of Bethlehem heard from the shepherds, she heard a wonderful proclamation of who this child was and what He had come to do, and she rejoices. She too had been waiting for this moment, with the faithful remnant in Israel, those who still looked for redemption. Luke tells us, “And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of Him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.” She is prepared to die, for she has heard the testimony of Simeon about this child, she has been told who this baby is and what He has come to do. Salvation has come, redemption has arrived, and now she too can depart in peace.

For those waiting for deliverance, the birth of Christ prepares them to die, for they know that with His birth, death’s reign is swiftly coming to an end. They understand that when the child enters the temple that day, only forty days old, it is another step on the path of salvation. For Jesus is brought to the temple in obedience to the Law, His parents follow all that they were commanded to do by Moses. “And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord’).” This child is true man and true God; He has no sin, no impurity, He is holy at the moment of His conception. But yet He is placed under the Law, and that Law demands death to those who transgress it; it is that same Law that condemns you and me to death, for we have broken it in every way. And so when He comes to the temple that day, the sinless one has no need to stand under the Law for His own sake; He stands under it for you.

He comes to the temple for redemption, so that Mary and Joseph may “offer a sacrifice according to the Law of the Lord.” That Law is laid out in Exodus, where the people of Israel are commanded to give every firstborn to the Lord. The firstborn of animals are sacrificed, but firstborn children are redeemed, that is, an animal is sacrificed in their place. Death is demanded by the Law, but the child is spared; the animals die for them. But Jesus had no sin of His own, He was already holy to the Lord. He has come instead to redeem us. He has come to stand in our place, under the Law’s authority, bearing our sin, and then to give His life as the redemption price. Animals gave their lives to redeem the children of Israel, to make them holy before the Lord; Jesus, the Lamb of God, gave His life to redeem all people. Death is demanded by the Law, but you are spared, for Jesus died for you. He entered the temple that day as the sacrifice, the sacrifice that would be offered thirty years later upon the altar of the cross. He would die in the place of all people, He would die in your place, so that death would have no hold on you.

This would involve great suffering, for Simeon tells Mary that this child will be a “sign that is opposed,” and he warns her that “a sword shall pierce through your own soul also.” Jesus was born to die, so that salvation could be brought to all people; Simeon celebrated the death of that child when He called Jesus “a light of revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” With the eyes of faith, Simeon saw beyond that humble child to the work that this child would accomplish, that through Him salvation would be revealed to all people, both Jews and Gentiles. “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel…so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” All people will fall in Jesus, for the thoughts of all hearts will be revealed, with all their sin, deserving the penalty of death under the Law. Many will rise in Jesus, for the thoughts of their hearts will be revealed, showing that they repent of that sin and believe in the one who has come to conquer sin and death. Many will fall never to rise, for they have refused the Christ who raises up, but some will rise for eternity, never to fall again, for they have believed on Him who brought life in place of death.

Christ’s birth prepared Simeon and Anna for death; it even prepared Christ for His own death. Christ’s birth prepares you to die; this child is born to die, bringing you deliverance from death. He prepares you to die by baptizing you into His Name. There you fall, for at the font your sinful nature is put to death, but there you rise, for your eyes of faith are opened to see Jesus as your Savior. Baptism prepares you for death; having entered those waters, you can say, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,” for you have been given salvation. Are you ready to die? Yes, for you have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ!

Each and every day you fall and rise again; your thoughts are revealed by the work of God’s holy Law, showing your sin and corruption. If we cling to those sinful thoughts and deeds in stubborn unrepentance, then we fall never to rise. But when we, through the work of the Holy Spirit in us, repent of our sin and cling to Christ for forgiveness and salvation, He raises us up. Then we see His salvation with the eyes of faith, and we are ready to depart. Christ especially prepares us by giving to us the Lord’s Supper, for there we fall to our knees in repentance and rise in faith, having received His salvation. And then we depart in peace, singing Simeon’s hymn: “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace.” He sang as he held his Savior in his arms; we sing as we have just received our Savior into our mouths. Are you ready to die? Yes, for you have received the Body and Blood of Christ, the price of your redemption!

Are you ready to die? Apart from the redemption of Christ, the answer can only be ‘no.’ If Christ has not died for you or risen again for you, you might as well enjoy all the pleasure and fun you can in this life, because death is coming, and it is the end. But if Christ has redeemed you, if He has died in your place, taking the penalty of your sin upon Himself, if He has baptized you into His death and given to you His Body and Blood in the Supper, then you can answer confidently, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.” You can live in confidence even in the face of death, for you know that it is a defeated enemy, that it has no hold on you. You are ready for death through faith in Christ, through your Baptism into His death, through your reception of His Body and His Blood in the Lord’s Supper. This doesn’t mean that death is no longer an enemy, or that you will never fear death again; it means that you will be ready for death, because you know in whom you have believed, the One who died to redeem you and rose to give you life. In Christ we fall, we depart with Simeon, but we do not stay in the grave, for in Christ we rise, we rise victorious over death, bearing the same victory that He won. In Jesus, only in Jesus, can we depart in peace. In the Name of this baby: our redemption, salvation, comfort and consolation, Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Christmas Eve (Luke 2:1-20)

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!” Grace, mercy, and peace among those with whom God is pleased, through our Savior, Christ the Lord, Amen. The text for our sermon in the dark and quiet of this Christmas Eve comes from the second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ, on that first Christmas Eve, two thousand years ago, a child was born. That is the fundamental, basic fact of this night. A child was born. This child was born under authority; His parents traveled to Bethlehem in obedience to the powers of this world, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” Worldwide events sent this couple to the city of David, events far beyond what young Mary or Joseph could even comprehend. And this child was born in humility; the quaint nativity scenes outside our churches and on our mantles may or may not accurately portray the events of that night, but what they do convey is humility. “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.” 

A child was born that night; born in humiliating conditions, born in squalor, born under the authority of the rulers of this world, but those things hardly make Him unique. This child wasn’t the only baby born outdoors under the rule of the Caesars. No, something else made Him unique, His birth worth celebrating two thousand years later. A child was born that first Christmas night; God’s reaction to that birth would make all the difference. He responded with forgiveness, for this child is no ordinary child; His birth no ordinary birth, as the angels declared: “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” This child is God in the flesh, God come down to save, He is Christ the Lord. With the birth of this child, the world is shaken, everything is changed. The angels sing of a new relationship between earth and heaven: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!” This child brings peace, for through Him God is pleased once again with man. Whatever else this child will do or say, He has come to bring forgiveness, to reconcile man with God.

 A child was born that night; He was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger. A time is coming when the wood of that manger will be fashioned into a cross, for Jesus to hang upon and die for the sin of the world. A time is coming when those swaddling cloths will be used as burial cloths, for Jesus to be wrapped in and laid in a tomb. A child was born that night; He was born to die in your place, bearing your guilt, your shame, your sin. A child was born that night; He was born to lay in a tomb in your place, experiencing death itself for you. A child was born that night; He was born to rise again on the third day, announcing that death itself had been conquered. This child was born to win forgiveness for you, and where sins are forgiven, death has no more power. God’s reaction to the birth of this child is the announcement of forgiveness, for this child who was born would walk the way of the cross to win forgiveness for all people. 

Forgiveness is the only reason the angels celebrate this child’s birth; reconciliation between God and man is coming, and the world needs to be told. God’s first chosen messengers are the lowest of the low, the poor shepherds who are watching their flocks by night. Humble messengers of a humble birth. But they cannot pass on what they haven’t first received. They must be taught, given knowledge of the events of that night and the child born into this world. And so the reaction of the angels to the birth of this child is catechesis: teaching, imparting knowledge of God and His ways, creating faith. “And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people.’” There is no more need to fear! This child will take away all fear, fear of sin and death forever through His death and resurrection. Peace is coming, and God will be well-pleased with you by the birth of this child!

A child was born that night; the shepherds have been told, but their eyes do not yet see. Still, they believe. They believe and then they go to see. They have been catechized, taught about this birth and its significance by heavenly teachers, and this Word from the Lord creates faith. Now they go to see, and when they see, they rejoice. “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” The shepherds react to the birth of this child in the same way that the angels did: with catechesis. They go forth to teach others, to impart the knowledge of this child that was passed onto them from heaven itself to the entire world. Their message hasn’t been silenced to this day. It continues to be passed on, from one generation to the next, from one place to the next, from one person to the next. These words aren’t simply facts, not just a history lesson, but divine knowledge which creates and strengthens faith in the child through whom God gives forgiveness, life, and salvation.

Even Mary, who had spoken with angels, who had carried God in the flesh within her womb, was catechized by the shepherds, although she has a different reaction: “And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” Mary heard the testimony of the shepherds that night, and she saw with her own eyes the child, Jesus, the incarnate Son of God. She heard and saw the great deeds of God, and she treasured them up in her heart. She kept them foremost in her mind, guarding and keeping them as the sure and certain deposit of God’s wondrous working in this world. Christmas Eve was to be the lens by which she viewed all else, for the wonders associated with this child had just begun.

A child was born that night; her child. Mary treasures up all these words and events in order to ponder them in her heart. She considers them all carefully, seeking to understand the works of God more clearly. She converses within herself and with God, reflecting on what God has done in her, what God has done for her. Mary is a young woman of prayer; we saw this when she responded to the news of Christ’s conception with words of obedience and a beautiful song of praise. She speaks to God, humbling relying on Him through the challenges that she will face as she raises the incarnate Son of God, as she hears His teaching, as she watches the soldiers nail Him to the cross. Prayer is her constant companion, as she seeks to understand these cosmic events that began within her womb. She is not alone; through the redemption of her Son, she has a direct connection to the Father’s throne in prayer, prayer that sustains her in all that she will face.

A child was born that night; God reacted with forgiveness, the shepherds by receiving and then giving catechesis, and Mary by careful ponderings and prayer. Tonight, we follow Mary’s example. We treasure up the events of Christmas, the wondrous events that we have heard of and seen with the eyes of faith. This child, this Jesus, is constantly on our minds and on our hearts. And we ponder, we ponder the gifts that flow from the manger. We ponder how this child, Jesus Christ our Lord, will leave that manger and walk the way of the cross to win forgiveness of all our sins and even defeat death itself. We ponder how the divine knowledge of salvation, first proclaimed by the angels, is passed down as a gift and treasure to us, to create and sustain faith. And we ponder how prayer, the gift of communication with our God, is possible only because this child was born to remove the dividing wall of hostility between God and us. We ponder all this in prayerful meditation, because nothing in this world is more important than this child and what He brings; His birth changes not just our world, but eternity. In Him is peace, peace among those with whom God is now well pleased. Glory to God in the highest! In the Name of this child, our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Advent Midweek 3: Catechesis

“But as [Joseph] 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…’” 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 evening comes 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 take education very seriously in our country. We require parents to send their children to school, with the expectation that they will stay for all twelve years. Secondary degrees, from community colleges, universities, and trade schools are more common and necessary than ever before. Then, once you graduate, most professions have continuing education and recertifications, all in an effort to keep you up to date and fully trained for your tasks. About the only place that we stop learning is in the Christian Church. For too many, confirmation is graduation, despite the hundreds of sermons preached specifically to counter such a belief. Sunday morning worship attracts around a third of a congregation’s membership, and bible classes only attract a third of them. Many young children don’t come to Sunday school, and most high school and college age students don’t go to any bible classes at all. The pastoral office is one of the few professions not required to receive continuing education, and so many pastors don’t bother, and their congregations don’t expect them to.

The story of Christmas is a striking example of just how vital teaching and learning is for the life of the Church, for when we find Joseph in our Gospel lesson, we see that he was in desperate need of teaching, for he was about to make a very bad decision. “When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” He was going to do the right thing and protect Mary by divorcing her quietly. But Joseph didn’t have all the facts, he didn’t know everything he needed to. He was in need of catechesis. Now catechesis is much more than simply learning facts or being given information. Catechesis is imparting knowledge of God, giving and strengthening faith. Joseph didn’t need a lesson from a textbook, he needed to have faith in what the Holy Spirit was doing. And the Lord was ready to teach. The angel told him, “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. She will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” In one lesson, Joseph learns all that he needs to. He learns that he can trust Mary; her child is a miracle through the Holy Spirit. And he learns that this miracle child is the promised Messiah, the one who will save us from our sins. God has catechized Joseph, so that he can go forth in his given task as the guardian of our Lord.

When the appointed time came, Joseph’s adopted Son continued the catechesis given to his earthly father. If you own a red-letter Bible, it becomes quickly apparent that the bulk of the content in the four Gospels is the teaching of Jesus. He has come to teach, to bring knowledge of God to His people. He has come to bring divine catechesis, as Isaiah prophesied: “And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.” He taught, He preached, He admonished in order to create and sustain faith in His hearers, to reveal to them the ways of the Lord. But His most important sermon, His most vital catechesis, would contain precious few words. Jesus had come to reveal our Creator as a God of love, and that lesson, that sermon, was given on the cross. There Jesus showed forth His Father as a God of mercy and grace, as He gave up His own life in our place. He demonstrated God’s love through His sacrifice, but that sacrifice was much more than an object lesson. His death actually reconciled us to God, it removed our sin, and with His resurrection on the third day, Jesus demonstrated that death itself was conquered, revealing our God as the God of salvation.

The cross and empty tomb are together the focus and foundation of all catechesis, for they are the object of our faith, they are what we are taught to believe in. Christ sent His Church to spread this knowledge to go throughout the world, so that all people could be catechized, knowing their Creator the only way He can be known, through the death and resurrection of His Son. Isaiah prophesied that in the Messianic age people of all nations would say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that He may teach us His ways and that we may walk in His paths.” Christ has sent out His Church to teach, to catechize, bringing the true knowledge of God and the salvation He has won to all the nations of the earth.

The congregation that takes this task seriously will be built on the foundation of catechesis. Our primary goal will be to educate all people, our own members and those outside of these walls, in the truths of the faith. Inculcating and strengthening faith will shape all that we do as a congregation. We will always be teaching and learning. Our handbook will be the Small Catechism; it will have a treasured place in our lives, not just for confirmation students and prospective members, but for all of us. We will encourage our children to be in Sunday school, we will exhort our high school and college students to attend bible class. We will be as serious about the education of our youth in the Word of the Lord as we are about their education in math, science, English, or history. Our congregation’s life will be focused on teaching and learning, every age, every week.

The pastor who sees catechesis as foundational will always be teaching, but he will also always be learning. He will seek out opportunities to read new books, to hear new speakers, and attend continuing education seminars. He may even seek out an advanced degree, all with the goal of learning more so that he may teach more. The catechism will be much more to him than a textbook. It will be his pastoral manual, so that he will be constantly referring to it in preaching and counseling, as well as when he teaches on any subject, constantly seeking to deliver the truth of God’s Word to those entrusted to his care. He, too, will remain a humble student of the catechism, remembering Luther’s statement that even he remained a pupil of the catechism his entire life.

The Christian who hungers and thirsts for the knowledge of the Lord which creates and strengthens faith will never graduate. You will constantly be learning, seeking new opportunities to learn more about the Lord and His Word. You will study the bible in class and at home, always seeking to mine its inexhaustible depths. The catechism will be a living book for you, not something that you put away after confirmation, but a book that shapes your life as a Christian day by day. You will take in as many classes as your vocations allow, even being unashamed to join adult catechesis and go through the catechism once again. Your mentality will be that of a humble learner, one who has never learned enough or learned it fully enough. You will never be satisfied with God’s Word, but will constantly seek to drink it in.

For God’s Word is the Christmas gift that keeps on giving. We are always in need, and God will never stop providing. He pours out His knowledge upon us through Christ, the Word made flesh for our salvation, the Word which even today God continues to give to us through the Scriptures and through proclamation, forgiving our sins and strengthening our faith. The Word is God’s gift to us, now and for eternity, as Isaiah declares: “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.” Perfect catechesis will characterize the new heavens and new earth, for there our God, who redeemed us through the death and resurrection of Christ, will be fully revealed as a God of love, forever. In the Name of the Word, our great catechist, Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Advent 3 of Series C (Zephaniah 3:14-20)

“Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; He has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil.” 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 third Sunday in Advent comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the third chapter of the prophet Zephaniah. Dear friends in Christ, if there is one emotion that we hear about again and again in the holiday season, it is joy. We have ornaments that say ‘joy,’ we put ‘joy’ on our walls, on our Christmas cards, on our sweaters. We have ‘joy’ banners, ‘joy’ lawn ornaments, ‘joy’ blankets. Our friends, our neighbors, and our families are all exhorted to rejoice in the season, to shout and sing for joy. During the holidays, the opening words of our text are not strange, but simply echo what the entire world is telling you: Rejoice! “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem!”

But there is no joy. In fact, I would submit to you today that for many, the holiday season is the least joyful time of the year. What have we done with the Church’s ancient order of Advent before Christmas, of a time of quiet reflection preceding the joyous celebration? We have ditched Advent completely, and we have pushed the Christmas season back earlier and earlier, so that even Thanksgiving is overwhelmed. We are bombarded with advertisements, the smothering blanket of commercialism and materialism: the deals, the sales, all the stuff that you can buy for yourself or for others. We are stressed out by all the tasks of the season, from the gifts to the parties to the cards. Busyness and distractions consume us, they focus us in a hundred different directions, and only one of which (if we’re lucky) is the Church. We have no joy—there is no time, and too many other things are going on to stop and rejoice. And so, when Christmas Day comes around, we are exhausted, we are finished, we are ready to be done. Instead of the beginning of a season of rejoicing, as the Church has celebrated Christmas for centuries, Christmas Day is the climax, the end, and soon the decorations are being put away. We have not only lost Advent, we have lost Christmas, and with it, we have lost our joy.

During the holidays, we speak of joy, but there is precious little to go around. The rest of the year, Zephaniah’s call for rejoicing seems even more ridiculous. How can we rejoice when we live in this sinful world? How can I rejoice when I suffer, when my loved ones die? The exhortation to joy seems to be a cruel joke, the idealistic declaration of a prophet with His head in the clouds, who has no idea what you and I go through on a regular basis. There is no joy around a hospital bed, as the hospice nurses gather around. There is no joy as I am separated from my family, estranged by the sin that seems to always attack relationships. There is no joy as I face the ridicule of so-called ‘friends’ and classmates. There is no joy as my body doesn’t work as well as it should, letting me down just when I need it the most. There is no joy in the drudgery of my day-to day life, as I work myself to the bone to provide for my family. There is no joy as I watch the news, and see the incredible cruelty that we humans can demonstrate to one another. Zephaniah is simply another in a long line of preachers who has no idea what life is like in the real world, what my life is like. He calls for joy, not knowing how impossible joy is, how mocking such an exhortation sounds. How can there be joy in a world of sin and death? How can there be joy in a world where people get sick and die, where I will one day die?

Zephaniah’s answer is that God has brought joy into our world of sorrow. “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; He has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil.” We can have joy because the King of Israel, the Lord, is in our midst. This is the true joy of Advent, the true joy of Christmas. The King of Israel, the Lord, has come down from His heavenly throne to dwell among us, to be in our midst, even bearing our flesh. The Creator has come to dwell amongst His creation, and He has come to bring joy into the midst of sorrow and mourning. He has come to bring salvation, as Zephaniah declares, “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save.” No wonder the angel declared to the shepherds that first Christmas Eve, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a 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.” Joy can only come into the midst of sorrow and mourning if a Savior has come to take sin and death away, and that is precisely what Christmas is all about. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in our midst, laying in that manger, laying in humility, and He will go forth from that manger to win joy for us.

“The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; He has cleared away your enemies.” Joy comes because the Lord who is in our midst will take away the judgments that were against us, the judgments of death and hell that we deserved for our great and many sins. When Jesus comes into our midst, He comes to bear those sins, to take them upon Himself and bear them to the cross to pay the price for them. On that cross, our judgments will fall upon Jesus, so that they will never fall upon us. Our sin has been taken away, paid for by the once-for-all sacrifice of the Lord who is in our midst. And if sin has been paid for, then our enemies—death, hell, and Satan—have no power over us. The Lord who is in our midst has cleared away our enemies, He has swept them away. Death has been robbed of its power, Satan’s accusations have no more teeth. The Lord has come into our midst, into Mary’s womb, into Bethlehem’s stable, into this dark world, and He walked the way of the cross to defeat our greatest enemies. His resurrection on the third day proves it, it trumpets this victory throughout the world. Easter proves that there is reason for joy. Easter is the only reason that Zephaniah can call on us to rejoice, Easter is the only reason that we can have Christmas joy.

But we are not the only ones rejoicing. “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness; He will quiet you by His love; He will exult over you with loud singing.” The Lord rejoices over us, He rejoices that we have been brought back to Him, that we have been restored by the death and resurrection of Christ. What a beautiful picture we have in our text! We see the Lord Himself rejoicing, shouting for joy over the redemption of His people, over your redemption and mine. Saving us, delivering us from the bondage of sin and death, gives Him indescribable joy. He rejoices over you for you have been redeemed, purchased with the precious blood of Christ. He rejoices over you because you are His, as He intended from the beginning. The Lord rejoices over every Baptism, He rejoices every time a heart is reconciled to Him through the power of His Word. We are told that there is great rejoicing in heaven over one sinner that repents, and it is God Himself who leads the celebration. You are His pride and joy, and He rejoices to call you His.

He rejoices for He has come into your midst to reverse your fortunes, to bring joy into the midst of sorrow. “I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival, so that you will no longer suffer reproach.” He turns mourning into rejoicing because He has defeated death itself; He has robbed it of its power and has made it simply the gateway to eternal life. Those who mourn now will be comforted, they will be brought to the festival, where joy will last forever. You will mourn here in this world, but that mourning will be reversed; soon every tear will be wiped from your eyes and you will rejoice forever with the victory of Christ. “Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.” Those who lived in shame will be praised and renowned in all the earth, for God has defeated their enemies and He has reversed their fortunes. Those who belong to the Lord, who have been delivered by the shed blood of Jesus, look to an eternity where sin and death will be no more, where the lame will be saved and the outcast will be gathered in. There is no more need to fear, as Zephaniah declares throughout our text, as the angels told the shepherds on Christmas Eve, for the Lord’s great reversal turns fear into joy.

“‘At that time I will bring you in, at the time when I gather you together; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,’ declares the Lord.” The Lord brings us into heaven, He gathers us in, and He leads the rejoicing, He is the one whose joy cannot be contained. The joy that Zephaniah calls for is simply an echo of the joy that God Himself has over our redemption. And we do have that joy, for the Lord has done great things for us. This joy is not being happy or having a smile on your face, it isn’t a feeling; it is much deeper, it is the sure and certain joy that is present even in the midst of mourning, even in the midst of suffering. This is the joy of Advent, it is the joy of Christmas, it is the joy the flows from Easter’s victory. True joy comes from the cross, from the empty tomb, for there our judgments were taken away, there our enemies were cleared away, there the Lord who is in our midst, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, won joy for us. He rejoices over us, and we rejoice over Him, for He has defeated our sorrows and brought us the joy the angels promised on that first Christmas Eve. In the Name of the Lord who is in our midst, Jesus Christ our Savior, Amen.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Advent is for days like this

This is why we have Advent.

One of Satan's tricks is to make us distrust heaven, to desire this world and indeed hell itself over an eternity without sin and death.  Instead of crying out, 'Come quickly, Lord!' Satan wants us to say, 'Take your time, Jesus, things are going just fine down here.'  He wants us to cling to this world where our bodies wear out and die, where natural disasters occur, where a young man would take the lives of small children and their teachers.  Advent teaches us that this is all a lie, that it is precisely to deliver us from this world that Jesus came and that He will come again.

Advent is for days like this, when unspeakable tragedy confronts us, when horrors that we cannot imagine invade our lives.  Advent shows us God's answer to suffering; John the Baptist's finger points us to the One who came because we live in a world filled with evil.  Jesus came because of the cruelty of sinful man.  Jesus came to confront and defeat the sin that fills the hearts of people who commit heinous crimes, the same sin that infects us all.  Jesus came to suffer in our place, so that suffering would end forever, so that death would not be our final destination, so that we could have hope when faced with evil.  The answer of God to sin, death, and evil is the death and resurrection of His Son, it is the cross and empty tomb.  That is what Advent is all about: the God who came to us to defeat sin and death, the God who yet comes to us to assure us of His love and mercy in the midst of tragedy, the God who will come again, bringing an end to sin and death forever.  Advent teaches us to yearn for our Lord's return when evil strikes, to cry out with all the Church throughout the ages, even the martyrs under the heavenly altar, 'Come quickly!'

"He who testifies to these things says, 'Surely I am coming soon.'  Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus!"

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Advent Midweek 2: Prayer (Luke 1:5-25)

“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord.” 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 evening comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the first chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ, King Ahaz didn’t want to talk to God. He wraps his response in words that sound pious—“I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test”—but the reality is, he doesn’t want to talk to God. He doesn’t want to pray. He has no desire to bring his requests before God, or hear His answer. But there is only one problem: God has commanded him to pray. “Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, ‘Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven.’” It seems amazing that Ahaz could refuse to pray after God had given him a direct command to do so, but then again, you and I do the same thing all the time. We have been commanded to pray, to call upon the Name of the Lord our God in each and every situation, but so often we are like King Ahaz, we don’t talk to God. We pray when we or someone we love is sick or dying, but so often we fail to daily bring our struggles and triumphs, our challenges and joys, our requests and thanksgivings to God as He has asked us to.

The story of Advent is the story of prayer; prayers offered by God’s faithful people and prayers answered by an even more faithful God. For Elizabeth and Zechariah, it was the prayer for a child, that Elizabeth’s barren womb would be opened. They cried out to God in their distress, they implored Him for relief from their affliction. And God answered. “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.” But this was no isolated incident; when God opens the wombs of barren women in the Scriptures, He is answering the prayers of a suffering couple in order to answer the prayers of all people. The answer to this prayer had eternal significance. “And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

The answer to Elizabeth and Zechariah’s prayer is the gift of a child, but with the opening of this old woman’s womb the prayers of all will be answered. The story of Advent is the story of answered prayers; with the conception of John, the era of salvation has come, the hour that God’s people have earnestly prayed for since the day humanity fell into sin. Isaiah gave words to this cry, the groaning of all creation for redemption: “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence…to make your name known to your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at your presence!” John’s coming in answer to prayer was the sure and certain sign that God was ready to answer Isaiah’s plea. The Lord rent the heavens and came down to Mary’s womb, to Bethlehem’s stable, there to enact salvation, to do battle with our enemies and defeat them. He came in answer to prayer, the earnest pleas of a humanity groaning under the yoke of sin’s slavery. Isaiah asked, “In our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?” The answer is yes—God will rend the heavens and come down, to save us from our sins. Jesus Christ, true God in the flesh, will walk the way of the cross and give up His life as a ransom for sin. His death was God’s answer to humanity’s cries for help; His resurrection God’s answer to death’s reign over His people. Jesus came, He rent the heavens and came down, in answer to prayer, in answer to our desperate need for salvation.

Christ’s coming in answer to prayer doesn’t mean the end of prayer; far from it! It means that prayer is transformed. Christians don’t only pray because we have been commanded to, we pray because Christ has attached great promises to it. We pray because prayer is Christ’s gift to His people through His death and resurrection. He has reconciled us with our God, removing the dividing wall of hostility by His own shed blood, and now we have access to our Creator, intimate access to our Father’s throne. Because we have been adopted as God’s sons and daughters through Christ’s work, we can pray with great confidence. The first words of the Lord’s prayer, ‘Our Father who art in heaven…” are the statement of a new relationship between us and our God, as Luther says in the Small Catechism: “With these words God tenderly invites us to believe that He is our true Father and that we are His true children, so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask Him as dear children ask their dear father.”

The congregation that understands this new relationship, that lives its life fully aware of what it means that we can call God “Our Father,” will be immersed in prayer. We will open and close every meeting, every bible class, every time we gather together, by calling on the God who tenderly invites us to bring every request before His throne. We will be a people at prayer, not neglecting to gather together, but coming together on Sunday morning and throughout the week to bring our petitions and requests before the Lord. Our life together will be a life of prayer. We will not just pray for ourselves, but we will intercede for the entire Christian Church on earth, holding up our brothers and sisters in Christ in every place. And we will pray for our world; for our rulers, and for all people. We will pray for a free and just society, where our fellow citizens are protected and provided for. The Church will hold up the entire world before God’s throne.

The pastor of such a congregation at prayer will be a guide and example, he will be a man at prayer. He will intercede for the flock entrusted to his care, holding them up before the Father individually by name when they have any need. Their concerns will constantly be in his mind and on his lips. He will not neglect to bring prayer into every situation of fear and anxiety or joy and thanksgiving; he will not let a visit pass without offering prayer, without calling upon the God who promises to hear. He will not forget that when he visits the hospital room, the deathbed, or your kitchen table he is there to pray, that all else, save the absolution or the Lord’s Supper, is secondary to that great task.

The Christian who understands both God’s command to pray and the promises He has attached to prayer through Christ will live in constant communication with the One he or she rejoices to call “Our Father.” You will have a regular, orderly life of prayer, opening and closing each day, and celebrating each meal, by offering your petitions to God, using a set format from the hymnal, a devotional book or the structure for daily prayer given in the bulletin. You will pray the psalms, the Lord’s Prayer, and the historic prayers of the Church, using those ancient words to shape and form your own prayer life. Your spontaneous prayers will flow from these structured prayers, as you pray whenever a need or cause of thanksgiving arises. Your prayers will develop a deeper relationship with those you pray for and with, and they will be a witness of Christ’s love to those around you.

Prayer expresses the ebb and flow of a Christian’s life; it accompanies us through every situation we find ourselves in, both joys and sorrows. It is His gift of an open ear, the promise that our Lord is listening to our every request, and it is a joy for Him to hear us. He promises that He will answer, although not always in the way or with the timing we think that we want. Sometimes He answers ‘No’ or ‘Not yet.’ But even those answers carry the great promise that He answers thus for our good, and ultimately for our salvation. Prayer is God’s Christmas gift; His Christmas gift of communication between Him and us, communication facilitated by the shed blood of Jesus, who died that we could pray with joy and confidence, “Our Father, who art in heaven…” In the Name of Jesus, the answer to humanity’s prayers who gave His people the gift of prayer, Amen.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Advent 2 of Series C (Malachi 3:1-7b)

“Behold, I send my messenger and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to His temple, and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, He is coming, says the Lord of hosts.” 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 on this second Sunday in Advent comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the third chapter of the prophet Malachi. Dear friends in Christ: the refiner’s task is purity. He seeks to make pure what is impure, to remove all corruption from iron, copper, gold, or silver. His tool is fire, incredible heat, used to melt the metal and to separate the pure from the impure, so that the waste can be removed and destroyed. He harnesses the fire, this mysterious, powerful force that consumes all if left to itself, but if controlled, cleanses and purifies. In the same way, the fuller’s task is purity. He seeks to make pure what is impure, to remove all corruption from cloth or garments. His tools are powerful soaps, the scorching rays of the sun, and his own feet. The Hebrew word for fuller literally means ‘to tread out,’ because the fuller’s task was to stamp the clothes until every impurity was removed. The clothing was then beaten with sticks, and left at the mercy of the sun to bleach it white. The result, worked by the power of fire and of soap, is purity: metal refined and cloth cleansed. Now both metal and garments can be used for their given purpose, to serve the king.

A man came from God; his name was John. His task was to prepare the way for the greatest Refiner and Fuller, the one who was coming to purify God’s people. John emerged in the desert calling for repentance. “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.” John’s task is to point out your impurity, to declare that you are unrefined metal, you are dirty clothes, you have no purity. Your sin has made you unclean, it has stained you, it has corrupted what God first made pure. The iron is filled with waste, the cloth is covered with spots. You know the truth of John’s words—we have all committed sins that make us feel dirty, but what he teaches is that every sin makes impure. You and I are unclean, impure from birth and adding to that impurity with new stains every day. Neither metal nor cloth becomes clean on its own, but simply deteriorates, becoming more and more unclean. And that is a problem, for God is pure, He is clean, He is holy, and He cannot stand having impurity in His presence. He wants no part of offerings brought by impure people, as He declares earlier in Malachi: “Oh that there were one among you who would shut the doors, that you might not kindle fire on my altar in vain! I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord of hosts, and I will not accept an offering from your hand.” If the ones bringing offerings are not pure, it is better if the doors of His temple are shut! He holds only judgment for the impure and unclean, for He is pure and holy.

And John declares a frightening message: this God of judgment is coming. “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to His temple.” The clean and pure God, who cannot stand impurity, will come to His temple, taking on human flesh in the womb of Mary. The location of God’s presence in the Old Testament was the tabernacle and the temple; now the temple is Mary’s womb, the temple is the body of Jesus Christ, the one born clean and pure into the filth of this world. Purity is entering a world of impurity, and He is coming as the Refiner and the Fuller, He is coming to purify His people. The day when the Refiner and Fuller suddenly returns to His temple is a great day, it is an awesome day, it is the day that God’s people waited for. But on the other hand, it is a day of anguish for those who are impure. “Who can endure the day of His coming, and who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap.” The Messiah will purify His people as a whole, and He will purify them as individuals, and this work will be difficult, it will be arduous, it will carry with it a great cost.

The refiner’s work isn’t quick, easy, or painless. Just ask the metal who is subjected to the heat of his fire, having its impurity extracted and burned away. The fuller’s work isn’t quick, easy, or painless. Just ask the garment that is tread upon, beaten, and left to the burning rays of the sun. To make something clean and pure requires a cost, a price to be paid. But the refiner or the fuller doesn’t pay it. Sure, he gives of his time and his labor, but his work doesn’t cost him in the way that it costs the metal or the garment. Here we find the greatest difference between every earthly refiner and fuller and the greatest Refiner and Fuller, the Lord who suddenly came into His temple, the Messiah Jesus Christ. Purifying man cost Him; it cost Him everything. To purify you, Jesus laid aside His glory, the glory that He had from eternity as the only-begotten Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. He emptied Himself of all that glory to become man and embark on that purifying work.

But that was only the beginning of the price He would pay. No refiner is put through the fire, no fuller is himself trod out and beaten, but to purify you, Jesus is. He Himself faces the fire of God’s wrath over our impurity, He Himself is beaten and bloodied by those He came to cleanse. The Refiner entered the fire so that the metal could be purified, the Fuller was tread out so that the dirty garments could be made white. The Refiner entered the fire in place of the metal, the Fuller was tread out in place of the garments. To purify humanity, to purify you and me, Jesus laid down His own life. His work of refining, cleansing, and making pure was to bear the cost in our place. God is holy, clean and pure, and the Son took that purity into this unclean world to substitute for your impurity, so that you are now declared clean.

Now our Refiner and Fuller goes to work on us. “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver.” Purity flows from the cross to us; Jesus makes us clean because He is clean, and He faced the fire of God’s wrath in our place. But this purifying work comes with a cost as well. To purify you, your sinful nature must be put to death. More specifically, it must be drowned. The baptismal font is the refiner’s fire, the fuller’s soap, for there Jesus removes all of your impurities, cleansing you to stand before a holy God. You are clean! You are pure! The Refiner and Fuller has done this all for you! You uncleanness, your filth, has been taken away!

You are clean, and yet Christ is working to cleanse you. You have been declared clean, and you stand before God with Christ’s own purity. But your sinful nature doesn’t want to be cleansed, it struggles against this work of Christ. It must be drowned anew each and every day, as you return to your baptism in repentance, until it is completely destroyed and sin has been driven away forever. This is difficult work, but Christ is determined to see it through. He is working on you and in you with the fire and soap of His Word to purify you, to burn and scrub away the impurities of sin that still cling to your bones. You are literally put through the fire and scrubbed as you live your life as a Christian in this world. God uses the fires of suffering, the fires of persecution, and the all-consuming fire of His Word to rid you of our sin, to make you pure. This purifying work will not be completed in this life, but Christ will surely finish it, on the Day of His return, as Saint Paul says in our Epistle lesson: “I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ”

C.S. Lewis helps us to understand this by having us think of ourselves as a house. When we first become a Christian, Jesus is busy fixing leaky faucets and repainting walls. That doesn’t bother us too much—we knew those things needed work. But then He starts knocking down walls, tearing up carpet, and throwing away furniture, and we begin to protest. Just wait a minute—this work is too drastic, in fact, it’s quite painful! But Jesus isn’t interested in a nicer house, He is interested in a new house, and He won’t stop until the job is done, until He has completely renewed you on the Last Day.

Jesus puts so much work into cleansing you because He has great things to do with you. Those who are pure “will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.” We were unable to bring right offerings to God because we were impure, but now that we are made pure by the work of our Refiner and Fuller, our offerings are pleasing to Him, they are His delight. These are the fruits of faith: thanksgiving, praise, worship, and good works. They do not make us pure, but they please God because they are done by His purified people. As Saint Paul tells Titus, “[Jesus Christ] gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession who are zealous for good works.”

This purifying work of our Refiner and Fuller is difficult, it is arduous, and it is often painful. It may seem that God is punishing us, or that He has abandoned us. But that is not the case; He is purifying, and His purifying work will not destroy us, as He promises in our text. “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” The purifying fires will not consume you, for God is faithful to His promise. He has declared you clean and pure through the work of the Refiner and Fuller, your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. You are clean and pure before God even now, like metal that has been refined, like garments that have been scrubbed, for you bear the purity of Christ, and now Jesus is working to free you from sin, to make you clean and pure like Himself. His work isn’t always pleasant, it isn’t always painless, but it is always for your good, so that He can present you to His Father on the Last Day, a clean and pure offering, pleasing to Him forever. In the name of our Refiner, our Fuller, who has declared us clean and is making us clean, Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Advent Midweek 1: Forgiveness (Luke 1:57-80)

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people in the forgiveness of their sins.” 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 evening comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the first chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ, St. John’s and Faith are active, busy congregations. We gather together for meals, we have wonderful times of fellowship. We teach Sunday school, bible class, and confirmation. We gather for meetings: Ladies’ Aid, council, voters’, and elders’. We come together to serve the needy, collecting food, sewing quilts, giving from our bounty for the good of others. In the same way, your pastor is busy and active. He teaches, he counsels, he seeks to help the needy in body and in soul. He travels to the hospital, to the nursing home, to the mortuary. He keeps the books, he answers e-mails, he makes phone calls. He goes to meetings, for the work of the congregation and for the work of the church at large. These are all good things for a pastor and for congregations to be doing; in fact, the Christian Church is commanded to do many of them, as a blessing to members and non-members alike.

There is only one problem. If we think that meetings, fellowship, counseling, and classes are what the Christian congregation is all about, we have missed something vitally important. When Jesus came to this earth as a man, incarnate in the virgin’s womb, born in Bethlehem’s stable, He didn’t come to save us from a lack of pot-lucks. Man’s greatest problem wasn’t a shortage of meetings. Humanity didn’t cry out for salvation from the absence of bible class or confirmation. Those are all fine and good, even necessary, but they are not the reason Jesus came. Zechariah, the father of the forerunner, John the Baptist, knew that when his son was born the time of salvation had come, and he knew exactly what God was saving humanity from. He sang that his son came “to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of sins.” Zechariah knew that our greatest problem, indeed our fundamental problem, is sin, sin which separates you from God, leading to death and hell. There is nothing more important than being reconciled with God through the removal of your sins, for those who remain separated from Him will stay that way—forever.

And that is what Jesus came to win. He came to forgive sins, He came to defeat death, He came to shut the doors of hell forever. That is what Advent is all about, that is why we celebrate Christmas. We look to the manger because that little baby boy would one day exchange the wood of that manger for the wood of the cross. His coming is to win forgiveness, to bring that healing balm which brings reconciliation between man and God. This is His primary task, as He says through Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” This task led Him from the manger to the cross, there to shed His blood as the payment for your sin and my sin. 

Now that Jesus has won forgiveness through the cross and empty tomb, He sends forth His Church to give it to sinners. The Church, both congregation and pastor, exist for one fundamental reason: to bring the forgiveness of sins to sinful people, to reconcile them to their God. Christ’s Church is here to bring the reality of Christmas, the reality of Good Friday, the reality of Easter to those desperately in need of salvation. The Church is to proclaim the message that Isaiah gave to her: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” Forgiveness is Christ’s gift to you and me, a gift given through His bride, the Church. The Church lives on that forgiveness, and she lives to give that forgiveness to all of her children; it is her food, her beating heart.

The congregation that understands this, that finds its center and focus in the forgiveness of sins will still have meetings, gather in fellowship, care for the needy, and teach the faithful. But we will do so with rightly ordered priorities and a biblical sense of perspective. Sunday morning will be the vibrant center of our life, as the community of faith gathers together to receive what the Lord delights to give. Our acts of love for the poor and needy will flow from the grace that we are privileged to give and receive. Meetings will seek to find ways to support and expand the proclamation of forgiveness in our midst and in our community, removing any barriers to the free flow of forgiveness from Christ to us and from us to the world. Bible classes will seek to unpack the great gifts Christ gives every Sunday morning. Our fellowship will be that of a people who have heard the absolution together, who have knelt as one at the communion rail to receive Christ’s Body and Blood for the forgiveness of our sins. When we have conflict, we will confront it with the tools Christ has given: repentance and forgiveness.

The pastor who understand his primary task as giving forgiveness will still counsel, he will still visit the sick, he will still assist in administration and teach all ages. But he will do so knowing that the most important tool he has been given in these tasks is the forgiveness of sins. He will seek opportunities to bring the healing balm of the Gospel into the lives of all those who he comes into contact with, knowing that each and every person, young and old, sick and healthy, is in need of what Christ’s blood won. In all the various interactions he has from day to day, he will look to forgive the guilty and the hurting, but he will also set aside time to hear confessions and proclaim forgiveness. And he will confess his own sins to a fellow pastor, receiving Christ’s rich grace himself. All of this will change his relationship to his flock; he is no longer just a leader or counselor, he is a pastor, one who hears of the deepest hurts of his people and brings Christ’s greatest gift into their lives. His task is forgiveness, to reconcile men with God.

The Christian whose life is rooted in Christ’s forgiveness will live each and every day in his or her baptism. You will return to that font constantly, repenting of your sin and receiving the forgiveness that Christ offers there. You will not hold onto your sins, but will seek to bring that burden before Christ and give it to Him, publically on Sunday morning, or privately before you pastor. You will see your pastor as Christ’s ‘forgiveness man,’ sent to you to hear your sins confessed and to proclaim the blessed absolution. You will confess when sin is weighing heavy on your heart, but you will also confess regularly, earnestly desiring the words of forgiveness. You will hunger and thirst for the Lord’s Supper, for the feast of forgiveness that is food for the journey. And you will take that forgiveness into your life; you will seek to forgive those who sin against you, to extend the reconciliation with God that Christ won into your other relationships.

Only forgiveness could form such an important part of our lives together as a congregation and individually as pastor and people. Only forgiveness can be the center and focus, because only forgiveness can reconcile man with God, only forgiveness can deliver us from death and hell. Forgiveness is God’s Christmas gift to us; the coming of forgiveness is what God’s faithful people waited for in the long centuries before Christ’s birth. In Advent, we celebrate the coming of forgiveness into the world, we sing and rejoice that God sent His Son Jesus Christ to suffer and die for the sin of the world. “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for He has clothed me with the garments of salvation; He has covered me with the robe of righteousness.” In those clothes, the clothes of forgiveness, we will stand before God forever, unashamed, in His glory. In the Name of Jesus, who came to set us free from all our sin, Amen.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Advent 1 of Series C (Jeremiah 33:14-16)

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and He shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.” 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 on the first Sunday in Advent comes from the Old Testament lesson just read from the thirty-third chapter of the prophet Jeremiah. Dear friends in Christ, the Lord planted a tree. He took a sprout from the house of Jesse, that old man’s youngest son, and planted David in the midst of Jerusalem, the great and holy city. There, according to the Lord’s good pleasure, that tree grew strong and mighty, becoming a towering monument of God’s grace and favor. This tree wouldn’t quickly flower then just as quickly fade, for the Lord promised David that it would endure, His tree would last forever. “Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom… Your throne shall be established forever.” The tree of David is to be an eternal tree, standing forever on the strength of the promise given by the Living God. 

Fast forward several centuries. That tree still endures, despite the division of David’s kingdom, despite the wickedness of those who sat on his throne. The tree still endures, but it is sickly and weak. Unrighteousness, debauchery, and idolatry have poisoned what God planted. And now, as Jeremiah speaks the words of our text, the enemies of God’s people have come. The Babylonians have surrounded Jerusalem, the holy city, and they are carrying axes. They mean to cut down David’s mighty tree, and it seems that God is willing to let them. He declares, “I have hidden my face from this city because of all their evil.” Their evil has brought them to this point, to the point where Jeremiah will tell the king in the next chapter to surrender in order to save his own life, and that of his people. Israel’s unrighteousness led her to be conquered and utterly destroyed by the Assyrians; Judah’s has led to a siege and the sure and certain doom of exile. Jerusalem will fall, the city will be ransacked and destroyed, but more importantly, the tree will be cut off. It will be hewn down and burned. All that will be left is a withered, rotting stump. The line of David has failed, its great promise has come to nothing. Man’s wickedness, man’s unrighteousness seems to have proved stronger than God’s Word. The Lord promised David, “Your throne shall be established forever,” but in the days of Jeremiah, it appears that his throne won’t last the year.

This is a tragic story, the account of a king and kingdom who were once mighty, enjoying the favor of God, and who now face complete and total destruction. It looks to be the account of a God who keeps some of His promises, or at least keeps them until man becomes too wicked to make it worth the effort. But what does this history lesson have to do with you and me? In a word, everything. If David’s tree is cut down and utterly destroyed, you and I go to hell. The fate of creation, the fate of man, the fate you and I, are all tied to the fate of that tree. That tree carries within its trunk the promise of redemption from sin and death for all people. If that tree dies, hope dies with it, the only hope that we ever had. For God promised that He would bring salvation through David’s line, and if He allows that promise to fail there is no other way; we are doomed.

If David’s tree is destroyed, you and I face the same fate as Jerusalem: exile. In fact, it’s much worse than that; Babylon’s armies are a bunch of playful kittens compared to eternal destruction in hell. Don’t kid yourselves; without the promise contained in that tree, you have no hope. For you are not righteous, not even close. You were conceived and born in sin, in unrighteousness, separated from God in your very nature. So, even if you can manage to live a perfect life after birth, you are already too far behind to ever catch up, even if your good deeds can outweigh the bad (which they can’t). The truth is, however, that you don’t live a perfect life. You covet, you lust, you use filthy language, you think hateful thoughts, you are infected with pride, so that even your seemingly good deeds are tainted with sin. It is as Isaiah declares, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” You set up idols of your own making, idols of money and pleasure, idols of people, idols of things which can neither talk nor think. The unrighteousness of Jerusalem and her fate isn’t an artifact of history; it is a picture of us, it is a demonstration of what we have become, and a preview of what will be God’s punishment.

To all observers, it seems certain that God’s promise has failed, condemning not just Jerusalem, not just David’s tree, but all people to destruction. But as the armies gather around the holy city, waiting to destroy its walls and cut down the tree, Jeremiah the prophet speaks a Word from the Lord: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and He shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” God has not forgotten His promise to David; He has not forgotten His promise to all creation, to you and me.

Yes, Jerusalem will be overthrown, yes the tree will be cut down, leaving only a rotten stump. But from that stump, the stump of David, the Lord will send forth a shoot, the righteous Branch. The stump left for dead by the enemies of God’s people still has life, though not life in itself. Only God can bring forth this Branch, only He can bring life into the midst of death. For this shoot will spring forth in the womb of a virgin, conceived not through man but by the power of the Holy Spirit. He is called the righteous Branch, for this shoot from the stump of David has no sin of His own; He walks this earth in perfection, living the sinless life that we are unable to. Wherever He goes, righteousness and justice follow, coming forth as the flowers in the spring, as He Himself sprung from the stump of David’s fallen tree. He comes, as the fulfillment of God’s promise to David, He comes, in accordance with the words of Jeremiah, He comes this Advent season, as true God and true man, the righteous Branch, our Savior Jesus Christ.

He comes to the gates of the city where David’s tree was cut down and burned, to the holy city, Jerusalem, and He enters to reestablish David’s throne, to plant the tree once again. “The whole multitude of His disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, ‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’” But the Branch didn’t plant Himself in the palace of Herod, nor in the temple courts, but outside the city walls on a hill called Golgotha. There the Branch was lifted high upon a cross, He was planted in the ground on that hill of death, and His blood watered the roots of David’s stump. He came to Jerusalem that day to die, to die for our unrighteousness. The one who is the righteous Branch came to execute justice and righteousness in the land. He brought forth justice, God’s justice of salvation, by allowing Himself to be judged as guilty in place of His people. He brought forth righteousness, His own righteousness, through His death and glorious resurrection. The Branch took root on Golgotha’s bloody hill, in the garden’s empty tomb, and now it has grown into a mighty tree, even unto the right hand of the throne of God. There David’s throne is established for eternity, as God promised him so long ago. There the righteous Branch, our crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ, pours out His gifts upon His people, as the Lord promised through Jeremiah.

“In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’” You and I have no righteousness in ourselves, and no means of earning favor before God on high. Had God’s promise failed, we would’ve been doomed to hell. But God keeps His promises. He caused a righteous Branch to spring forth from David’s stump, and this righteous Branch was judged guilty in place of His unrighteous people. Now we have a righteousness that has been given to us, it isn’t our own. We have the righteousness of the Branch, and so our name will forever be, “The Lord is our righteousness.” The entire Church bears this name, this new name. This righteousness is bestowed upon us, it clothes us, it isn’t our own. The Lord is our righteousness, for God Himself provided the righteousness we needed by sending the righteous Branch to die and rise again in our place.

Jeremiah promised that the days of salvation were coming, despite all appearances, despite the destruction that gathered around the holy city and David’s tree. God kept His promises, His promise to David reaffirmed by Jeremiah, in the first Advent of Christ, His coming as the righteous Branch to enter Jerusalem and die to become our righteousness. Today, we still live by God’s promise through Jeremiah. Despite all appearances, despite the ravages of sin and death that surround us, despite the suffering and persecution that we face in this sinful world, the days of salvation are coming. God will keep His promises, His promise to David proclaimed again through Jeremiah, in Christ’s second Advent, as He comes again in the clouds to bring us to the new heavens and the new earth, the place where righteousness and justice grow like the plants in spring, where Judah will be saved, where Jerusalem will dwell securely. There you and I will dwell securely for eternity, safe from sin, safe from death, just as God promised. In the Name of the righteous Branch, our crucified, risen, and returning Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Living in light of the Resurrection

If the new heavens and new earth are not coming to pass, if Jesus was a liar (or simply crazy) and there is no resurrection of the dead, if this world and this biological life is all that there is, then you had better live for yourself.  You should get all the pleasures you can right now, because there isn't anything better coming down the road.  There is no need for any morality, any service, because life is too short wasting it on anything that doesn't give you what you want for yourself.

But if the Last Day is coming, if Jesus is coming back just as He said, if He truly was raised from the dead, the firstfruits of them that fall asleep, then you are free to live for others.  Not to earn your way into this eternal bliss; that would simply be slavery once again.  That's the bondage of selfishness.  No, truly free.  This world's pleasures are fleeting, they have nothing to compare with what is coming, and so there is nothing worth pursuing in this life for one's own gain.  You can be turned completely outside of yourself to the needs of others.

If you live for others, you will taste eternity, for in the new heavens and the new earth there is no more selfishness, no more pride.  If you live for others you will suffer; you will suffer the scorn of a world that seeks its own way, you will suffer from carrying the burdens of others.  But suffering comes before glory, and the glory that is to come is incomparable with the suffering that preceded it.

The eyes fixed on the horizon, looking for the returning Christ, see the neighbor more clearly than those with their eyes fixed on the ground, curved inward on themselves.

Of course, we don't do this; we live for ourselves, for being curved in on ourselves is our natural condition.  That is why Christ delivers forgiveness to us; repentance and forgiveness is the rythm of the Christian's baptismal life.  He turns us away from ourselves to Him and His cross, His blood-bought forgiveness, and when we look to Him, then He shows us our neighbor in need.  And we serve, stumbling, imperfectly, but forgiven and perfected by His death and His resurrection.  We live in light of His resurrection and the sure and certain hope of our resurrection guaranteed by the empty grave.  Come, Lord Jesus!