Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Holy Innocents (Matthew 2:13-18)

“A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” 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 observance of Holy Innocents 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: Rachel is weeping. She weeps this day, so soon after the rejoicing of Christmas. The angels have departed, the shepherds have come and gone back to their flocks, the Magi have returned by another route. Even the holy family has fled. The nativity scene is empty, and all that remains is Rachel, weeping. She weeps for her children, young and tender, the toddlers and infants of Bethlehem. She weeps for her children, who have yet to take a breath, the unborn of a nation. She weeps for those innocent of any crime, yet struck down in cruel violence. In the evening, they rest safe in their cradles, safe in the womb, the safest places any child should be; in the morning, the cradle is empty and so is the womb, but the graves are full. She weeps, for her children have become martyrs, witnesses, not like the great martyrs in the centuries of the Church, who bore witness by confessing the faith, but martyrs, witnesses still. They witness not by their words but by their death, and Rachel weeps. She refuses to be comforted, for her children are no more.
They have paid the ultimate price as a witness, a witness to the reality of evil in this world. She weeps, for Rachel’s children have given a witness to the world of man’s hatred of God. She weeps, for her children witness to the rejection of the Messiah. Her children die because this world hates Jesus, because Herod hates Jesus. The cute baby in a manger, adored by the shepherds, worshiped by the Magi, and acclaimed by the angels, is to him a threat, a threat that must be destroyed, whatever the collateral cost. “Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.” Rachel weeps, for her children have proved that man will do anything to destroy the threat of Jesus. For Jesus is a threat; a threat to our schemes to earn our own salvation, a threat to our pretentions to not need a Savior, a threat to our desire to live apart from God, to seek heaven by some other path.

All who are associated with this child, even the ones who are the same age and live in the same zip code, come under the murderous hatred of the world. Rachel weeps, for her children bear witness that this world does not condemn death as an enemy, but embraces it as a friend, as a tool to be wielded to clean up a mess, or to get adults what they want. Her children witness to man’s hatred of the Fifth Commandment. Certainly, every society in the world condemns murder, but in our nation at least, these are just words, and Rachel’s children pay the price when they stand in the way of adult desires. She refuses to be comforted, for the cradles and the wombs are empty, her children are no more.

They have borne witness not by their words, but by their death, to man’s love of self, an all-consuming love that drives sinful humans to do anything to get what they want. Rachel weeps, for her children witness to Herod’s love of his throne. When he hears of the Christ child, the one born king of the Jews, he is troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when the Magi return home by another route, Herod smells conspiracy, and the man who had no regard for the Fifth Commandment, who killed most of his sons and his wife, did not hesitate to show that he would do anything to protect his throne. Now Rachel weeps, her children are no more; they bear witness to the supremacy of adult interests.

Man’s love of self drives him to do anything; it leads him to break each and every one of the commandments, but especially the first. Satan’s enticing words haven’t changed: “You will be like God.” You can decide between life and death, you can make up your own ethics. The desire for cures leads to the creation of life just to be destroyed in research, the desire for children leads to life left frozen and often forgotten. The desire to finish school, to find a better time, better finances, or a more appropriate parent, leads to life destroyed in one of the safest places on earth. You may never have brought tears to Rachel’s cheeks, but the same desire for self-preservation, for protecting your own interests, the desire that dwelt in Herod’s heart, dwells within your heart as well. You and I are not above breaking the commandments to get what we want, and Rachel’s children, the children of Bethlehem, and the children of our nation, bear witness against us. She refuses to be comforted; forty-one years and millions of her children later, she still has tears to cry, for her children are no more.

But one child was spared. Rachel weeps for all her children, but God acted to deliver one of them from the slaughter. “Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Rise, take the child and His mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy Him.’ And he rose and took the child and His mother by night and departed to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.” Rachel’s children witness to the reality of evil; this child, the Christ child, witnesses that evil is impotent. The Christ child bears witness that while evil can—and does—rage in a world fallen into sin and corruption, it cannot defeat God. Evil will not triumph, though it certainly does its damage, though it brings great tears to Rachel’s eyes. Herod’s bloody plans failed; he died, and no one wept, but as Rachel shed her tears, the Christ child lived, He was delivered from death. 

In humiliation, He did become an exile, He was driven from His home, and the God of the universe, laid in a manger, was cast out even from that humble beginning, living as a foreigner and alien in Egypt. But He did not remain there. “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my Son.’” This child bears witness that the new Exodus has come; He is the new Israel, come to triumph where Israel failed, come to triumph where you and I failed. He, like Israel, is exiled in Egypt, He, like Israel, is brought forth from exile. Like Israel, the Christ child does battle with Satan in the wilderness, engaging in combat with our ancient foe. Like Israel, like you and me, He is tempted to seek His own interests, to seek only His own good.

But He triumphs where we so often fail, He is without sin. Rachel’s children are called the ‘Holy Innocents,’ but while they were certainly innocent of any crime—other than standing in the way of adult interests—they were not innocent of sin. Her children were infected with the same disease that afflicts us all. But this Christ child, is the true Holy Innocent. He is holy, true God begotten from eternity and born into the world in our time and space as God in the flesh. He is innocent of any crime, yet, as Rachel’s children bore witness, He inspired the murderous hatred of the world, who sought to destroy Him. And destroy Him they eventually did, in God’s own time and according to His own purposes. For the Christ child walked this earth in the place of Israel, in your place and mine, and while He committed no sin, He bore all sin unto death, even the sins that bring tears to Rachel’s eyes. He lived our life—perfectly—and then He died our death. The Holy Innocent died in the place of the guilty, in your place and mine. God delivered Him from Herod’s wrath only to deliver Him up at the proper time to destroy evil forever. 

The Christ child, spared from the slaughter of Bethlehem, returned from exile as God’s answer to the weeping of Rachel; He came because such tragedies occur in this world of sin. The resurrection of the Christ, as God brought Him out of the exile of death, bears witness that even death is overcome, that on the Last Day no child will ever die again. God comforts the weeping Rachel with these words: “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work, declares the Lord, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, declares the Lord, and your children shall come back to their own country.” 

Rachel’s children died for Jesus so that He could return and die for them and all children, born and unborn, as the true Holy Innocent; He even died for those who put them to death. The Christ child dies for Herod and his soldiers, He dies for every person who brought tears to Rachel’s eyes, from the doctor who caused the death, to the mother who asked for it, to the father, friends, or parents who pressured her into it. He dies for them all, and His forgiveness is given to them all, to bring an end to their mourning, to give them a hope for their future, to bring them back from the land of the enemy. His forgiveness is greater than your sin, even your sins against Rachel’s children; God forgives your every sin for the sake of Jesus, the Christ child who came out of exile to give up His life for you.

Rachel’s children bear witness by their death; witness to the reality of evil in this world. The Christ child bears witness by His death; witness to the impotence and final defeat of evil. His cross, His empty tomb, bear witness that your every sin is forgiven, that death itself is conquered, that the children of Rachel have not borne witness in vain. You and I may one day be called upon to bear witness by our death, but even now, we are called upon to witness with our lips. We are called upon to bear witness for those who cannot speak for themselves, standing up for all of Rachel’s children who are threatened by death. We bear witness that our God is a God of life in word and in action, providing for those who carry children in difficult situations, giving of ourselves for their physical needs. And, finally, we are called to comfort those who mourn, to speak not the Law to the broken, but the sweet word of the Gospel, which forgives every sin, which drives away guilt and brings eternal peace. That peace is yours through the Christ child, the Holy Innocent, who stood in your place, even unto death. In His Name, Amen.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Christmas Day (Isaiah 9:6)

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon His shoulder, and His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” 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 Christmas Day is the Antiphon for this festival of joy, Isaiah nine verse six. Dear friends in Christ: a child is always a gift, and certainly every child is a gift in some sense to us all. But every child isn’t born to us or given to us; as much as we may rejoice with them, that gift was given to his or her parents, and we do not call that child our own. The only children I can call ‘mine’ in any real sense of the term are those who have been given to me, biologically through procreation or legally through adoption.

The one exception is the Christ child. He is Mary’s son, carried in her womb, but yet He is not given only to her. Isaiah declares “to us a child is born, to us a son is given.” This child is born to us, He is given to us! This child is your child, and mine, He is God’s gift to us; just as surely as God gives children to specific people when and where He pleases, so He has given this child to all people. He was born not just to Mary, not even just to the people of Israel, He is born to all people, of every tribe and nation and language. Isn’t this what we heard the angels say? “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” He is born to us, He is given to us, even though we are poor, miserable sinners, even though we deserve no such gift, even though our hearts are turned inward, even though we rebel against God at every turn. God has given this child to us, to this whole rotten mess of humanity; in fact He has given this child to us because we are a rotten mess.

This child is given as a gift to sinners; He comes to be the gracious King of those who deserve nothing but anger and wrath. He comes to release us from the burden of our sin and rule over us in grace. We are told through Isaiah, “the government shall be upon His shoulder.” He is a King, the King promised to David, the King that will establish his throne forever and ever, the King that we needed, or else we were doomed to eternal death. And he rules, not as the kings of the nations do, by terror and coercion, but by bearing His people upon His shoulders. He takes sinners upon Himself and He bears them, lifting them and all the burdens they carry. We dare not try to carry Him, no matter how small He appears on this Christmas Day; He comes to carry us, to take our burdens away from us and place them upon Himself. The people do not bear this King; He bears them.

The Christian Church is found nowhere else than the beaten and bloodied shoulder of Jesus. He carries His people, for He carried their burdens, the burdens of sin and death, and He bore them to the cross. That heavy load was borne even unto death. This child was born to poor, miserable sinners to bear our sin; He was given to us to take that burden to the cross and do away with it there. Any who refuse to be carried by Christ, who insist on carrying their own burdens, are not Christians at all. A Christian is one who is carried upon Christ’s shoulders, like a lamb by its shepherd. Those whom He carries are His people, His government, His children; those who are not carried by Him, who want to walk by themselves or desire to help Jesus bear the load are not His kingdom, His church, or His people. There is no greater comfort this day and every day than to know that your sins are not upon your shoulders but upon His, that you yourself are borne upon His shoulders, safe and secure upon this child, your King.

For He is our gracious King; He rules in mercy according to His names, the first of which is “Wonderful Counselor.” He is the unexpected Counselor, the mysterious Counselor, the extraordinary Counselor, who works in ways that we do not expect. To destroy sin, death, and the devil, He allowed Himself to be taken captive by them, even letting them put Him to death. To win victory He submitted to the worst defeat. With the same seeming weakness, against what our eyes tell us is true, He counsels us with His Word, with the sweet message of the Gospel, declaring to us in the midst of our sufferings and trials that the victory has already been won, that He has triumphed over all that assails us. We don’t know which way to turn in this world of sin and suffering; we are aimless and wandering, harassed at every turn. But He speaks words of comfort; He relieves our hearts when sin and guilt surround us with the precious words of absolution, He reassures us at the time of death by declaring to us His victory over the grave. And when Satan tempts us, He points us to the crushed skull of the serpent, lying at the foot of the cross.

Isaiah calls Him “Mighty God;” this child born to us, this son given to us is no mere human, but is God in the flesh, mighty to save. We are so weak and helpless; sins that we think we have conquered keep coming back, the devil continues to tempt, sufferings come at us like the waves of the ocean. We are beaten down and helpless against all that this world throws at us, and looming behind it all is the certain threat of death. But where we are weak, there this child is strong. He is born to conquer in the fight, to take our enemies head on and triumph over them. At His coming the demons tremble, at His coming diseases flee, at His coming death tries to take Him, and finds itself conquered. Nothing that attacks you in this world has the victory; all your enemies will be destroyed, for they have been triumphed over through the cross and empty tomb. The Christ child has won the victory, He will stand on the Last Day as our “Mighty God.”

He stands tall on the Last Day because His kingdom, carried upon His shoulder, will last for eternity. Isaiah calls Him “Everlasting Father” because He makes us God’s children forever. We were estranged from God, divided from our Creator. Our sin had built a wall that we couldn’t scale. We has the status of slaves, even worse than slaves; we were slaves condemned to die, slaves who had no hope of freedom, nothing to look forward to but death and an eternity of wrath. But then a child was born to us, a son was given to us, and He took our sin upon His shoulder and bore it to the cross. A child was born so that we would be children, a son was given so that we would be sons. He came to bring us into God’s family once again, to give us adoption as sons, and as His beloved children we have an inheritance that lasts forever. Our status has been changed, now we are God’s children, no longer estranged, no longer slaves; we can in boldness call God ‘Our Father.’

And if we are children, then we are at peace with our God, then this child can also be called “Prince of Peace.” The angels sang of peace on that first Christmas Eve, and the task of the Christ child was to bring peace by removing all that brought hostility. He was Himself forsaken by God in place of fallen humanity, so that the barrier between God and man would be torn down, and when He emerged from the grave in triumph, He said, “Peace be with you,” echoing the angels on the night of His birth: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” His government, His kingdom, is then dedicated to one task: bringing that peace to the world, bringing that peace to you and me. He is the Prince of Peace because He makes peace between God and man whenever He baptizes a child into His Name, whenever He speaks through a pastor the words of absolution, whenever the Gospel is proclaimed from a pulpit, whenever He gives the gift of His Body and Blood. He is constantly bringing peace, and when He returns, peace will fill all the new heavens and the new earth, for He is the Prince of Peace.

That is the child that is born to you, the son that is given to you. This child bears you upon His shoulders, who carries you to His Father’s house. This child counsels you with His Word, comforting you in the midst of affliction with the Gospel. This child conquered in the fight, who triumphed over your enemies. This child has made you a child of God by winning peace between you and your God. That is the child that is born to you, the son that is given to you. Take these words, and write them as big as heaven and earth: this child, the Christ child, is given TO ME! He is given to me, He is mine just as much as He is Mary’s, just as much as He is given to each and every person on this planet. Set these words, set this child against all your enemies. Confess freely: I am a poor, miserable sinner, deserving of nothing but God’s wrath; I am unholy, unrighteous, and wicked. But against that truth I set another one: this child, born into the world as God promised through Isaiah, is born to me, He is given to me, and He bears me on His shoulders, He has given me all that is His and He has taken all that was mine: my sin, my death, my judgment. This child is given TO ME and is mine forever, and because of Him, because He walked the way of the cross and emerged victorious on the other side of the grave, I have His righteousness, His holiness, His life, His inheritance. For eternity I will praise Him, calling Him by each one of His beautiful names: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. In the Name of Jesus, the child born to us, the son given to us, Amen.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Advent Midweek 2 (Isaiah 11:1-10)

In the beginning, there was a tree. It stood in the midst of a Garden, a sacred grove planted by God Himself. The tree’s branches were laden with fruit, fruit that was a delight to the eyes and good for food. But it had not been given for food. Instead, this tree was the place of worship, the place where the first man preached his sermons, telling his bride of how God had given to them the fruit of every other tree, even the delicious fruit of the tree of life, but when it came to this tree He had said, “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” In refraining from its fruit, the man and the woman worshipped God, they served Him in obedience, and they dwelt in the Garden of paradise. But one day a serpent was in that tree, a creature more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He placed doubt in the woman’s mind, he led her first to question God’s Word, then to desire God’s place. And when she looked at the beauty of this tree, she gave up resistance and ate. And she gave some to her silent husband, who was with her, and he ate. And in the eating of the forbidden tree, the man and the woman lost all the trees. They were cast from the Garden, paradise was left behind, and they were cut off from the tree of life. They, and all their children, were now doomed to wander in the wilderness, scratching the earth to force it to yield its produce, only to die in the end as wanderers from their home.

God promised restoration for His exiled creation, He promised that He would bring them back into the Garden, that they would eat of the tree of life once more. He said to the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your [seed] and her [seed]; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” The seed that would conquer the serpent and restore the Garden was passed from generation to generation, and finally God planted it in Egypt. There it first sprouted and grew, even under the yoke of bondage. This seedling God then transplanted, bringing it out from Egypt with His mighty outstretched hand. He established it in the Promised Land, a place that was a dim shadow and reminder of the Garden that man had left behind. From generation to generation, God cut back the withered, unhealthy branches; He often had to cut quite deep, but He preserved the tree, and ensured that it would flourish. In time, God’s promised Seed, the Seed that would crush the serpent’s head and restore the Garden, had become a great tree, and David saw its branches spread wide and its trunk grow thick, and it seemed that nothing would stop God’s promised seed from bearing fruit.

But at its greatest moment, the tree began to rot from within. David was a man after God’s heart; his descendants were by and large men after their own. The faithfulness of David turned to apostasy in the kings of his line. God prophesied judgment, He warned His people again and again, but they did not heed. Wickedness increased, as man trusted in man rather than in God. The serpent spoke his lying words once again, enticing man to usurp God’s place. He wants us to desire God’s authority, and we are glad to oblige. But the Creator of the universe is a jealous God; He will not let any take His place; finally, His patience ran out, and He acted in wrath. With the Babylonians wielding the axe, the tree God planted from the promised Seed was cut down and burned with great violence and suffering. All that was left was a stump. The line had failed, the promised Seed had been cut off; humanity, all who had lived and all who would ever live, even you and me, were doomed to a life of labor that ended only in death, followed by an eternity of God’s righteous wrath. Never would we see the Garden again; the serpent had triumphed.

Almost six hundred years passed. The stump became withered and completely devoid of life; the serpent reveled in his victory. But God had other plans. On one night, the barren, withered stump sent forth a flash of green. “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” The stump seemed dead, but there was life there, the life found only in the promised Seed. This shoot is not another king in David’s line, this shoot is a new David, but yet greater than he. He is called both the Shoot and the Root; He comes from that line and He is Himself its source. He is both man and God; born of the house of David, but yet before David begotten of the Father from eternity. He is the promised Seed, who has finally come forth as promised so long ago. The kings of Judah rotted the tree with their apostasy; this Shoot is faithful in all things. “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 the fear of the Lord.” The Shoot from Jesse’s stump triumphs where man failed, He conquers where man was defeated; He is the faithful King.  “With righteousness He shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; He shall strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, and with the breath of His lips He shall kill the wicked.” He judges not as sinful men do, but with justice; He speaks God’s Word of truth, both the Law to condemn sin and the Gospel to forgive it. He declares Himself to be the promised Seed, the One sent by God the Father as promised in the beginning.

And for that men hated Him; they raged against Him, readying their axes. He used no other weapon than His words, but His enemies could not abide them; He condemned the wicked and acted in justice toward the poor, and the rich and powerful wanted Him destroyed. The axes were called for, and the tree was felled. The Shoot and the Root of Jesse, the tree that is the promised Seed, was nailed to a tree, He was placed upon a cross. There He was cut off from man and from God; on that dark day it seemed that once again God’s promise was thwarted by the rebellion of sinful man. But this time, the stump remained barren and withered for only three days, and Easter morning revealed the Shoot and Root of Jesse standing tall once more as the tree of salvation, never to be cut down again. For in being cut off, in being nailed to the tree, the Shoot and Root of Jesse, Jesus Christ, crushed the serpent’s head just as God had Himself promised so long ago. He was cut off in the place of rebellious humanity, in your place and mine; the perfect tree submitted to the axes so that you will never be cut off, so that all of the serpent’s power over you would be destroyed. The one who overcame by a tree is by a tree overcome; the cross, two barren pieces of wood, is now a life-giving tree, and all who look to it shall be healed. “In that day the root of Jesse, who will stand as a signal for the peoples—of Him shall the nations inquire, and His resting place shall be glorious.”

His resting place is glorious because it is the Garden restored; God’s exiled people now have the promise that they will one day return home. “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fatted calf together; and a little child shall lead them… The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.” The serpent’s power will be no more, the children of God will play without fear, for you look to the tree of the cross, and there your every sin and rebellion, your every attempt to usurp God’s place as your fathers did before you, is forgiven by the shed blood of the Shoot and Root of Jesse, your Savior Jesus Christ, and you will dwell in peace. “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.” And in the center of the Garden restored stands the signal for the peoples, Jesus Christ the Shoot and Root of Jesse, and to Him the nations will be gathered, to Him you will be gathered, for it is only by the tree of His cross that the Garden will be restored, that the promise will be fulfilled. The exile is over, the wandering has come to an end, you will eat of the tree of life forever. “In that Day the Lord will extend His hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that remains of His people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Cush, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea.” His mighty arm will bring the remnant to Himself, to dwell in the Garden, looking to His signal, forever. In the Name of Jesus, the Shoot and the Root of Jesse, Amen.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Advent 2 (Luke 21:25-36)

The end is coming. It is coming soon. You know it; you feel it in your bones. It seems that deep in the heart of every human being, whether they believe the Scriptures or not, there is some awareness that all things will one day come to an end. Apocalyptic movies and books are as popular as ever; Christians do not corner the market on end-times teaching. The end is coming. It is coming soon. You know it; you see the signs. Every natural disaster, every war, every instance of mass human suffering, starting with the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, is a sign, a reminder that the end is coming, just as every disease, from the common cold to cancer, is a sign, a reminder that your end is coming. When an earthquake destroys whole cities, when a tornado cuts a path of destruction, when Ebola threatens whole nations, the signs are proclaiming, ‘Soon, O world, your end will come!’ The end is coming. It is coming soon. You know it; you hear of it in the Scriptures. You hear the voice of Christ, telling us about the tumult, the terror of that day. The natural order, set in place by our loving Creator, will be torn down in His wrath. The wars and rumors of wars that came before will seem but a footnote to the turmoil of that Day. But these things only precede the great moment, the revelation of the only-begotten Son of God: “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” The naked glory of Jesus Christ will be seen by all, for He has come, and He has come, as we sing, “to be our judge.”

Does this make you afraid? Would you rather not hear about the end times, would you rather hear of Christmas, of joy and light, of Santa Claus and reindeer, of mangers and stables? Do you want to hear about the Christ child instead of Christ the judge of the living and the dead? The last days are not days we hope for, but days we hope to avoid. Have you been taught by the popular media or even the church to view the last days with terror, to fear Christ’s return, to pray that you would die safely in your bed rather than see those days come? This earth is writhing in birth pangs; it has been since the moment Christ ascended into heaven, and the delivery is coming. “There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” The terror of those days will be so great that people will faint because of them, they will live in distress and perplexity, trapped in a prison of fear, consumed by anxiety.

And no terror is greater than the climactic sign: “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” At that point, the time of repentance is over; God’s gracious patience has come to an end. Christ has come, and He is the judge of the living and the dead. Christ has come, and His enemies weep. Malachi shows us the judgment of almighty God: “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble.” Are you afraid, as I was in my youth, that the Last Day will catch you committing a sin? Are you afraid, as so many are, that you will be ‘left behind’ when Christ returns in glory?

Do not be afraid; have no fear. The terror of that day is not for you; the turmoil of these latter days will not destroy you. Do not be burdened with fear and anxiety, do not faint from the terror. Instead, when this world demonstrates that its end is near, stand tall, for that means that your salvation is coming, and it is coming soon. “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” These signs are not signs of your judgment, they are not signs of your destruction, they are signs of your deliverance, they are signs that the victory is near. Every labor pain of this fallen world proclaims to you that your Savior is coming, and He is coming soon. Your redemption is drawing near. Straighten up, raise up your head, receive the Last Day with joy, because the Last Day brings your crucified and risen Savior to give you all that He won, because the Last Day brings to you final and ultimate deliverance from this corrupted world, from sin, death, and the power of the devil.

The old order of things will pass away; thanks be to God, for the old order was filled with sin and death. On that Day, whether you are dead or alive, you will see your Lord in all of His glory, coming to make all things new. He comes to judge between the sheep and the goats; thanks be to God, you know that verdict already: not guilty, for Christ was declared guilty in your place! The comfort that you have if you died tonight is the same comfort that you have on the Last Day: Christ died for you, He rose for you, He has baptized you into His Name, He has forgiven your sins, He has fed you with His very Body and Blood. Do not fear, on that Day He will not cast off those whom He has made His own, the ones He has clothed with His righteousness. Lift up your heads; have no fear!

Look forward to that day with eager anticipation; yearn for the deliverance that will come; cry out for Jesus to come quickly and make all things new. Do not be burdened by the sin that so easily entangles, the sin that keeps you from diligently watching. Instead, keep a watchful eye on the signs: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” Keep watch for the signs, so that you will be prepared for that Day, so that it will not come upon you suddenly and your faith be shaken, so that in His long delay you will not be lead into impenitence and unbelief.

Do not let the sin of this world distract you from watchful waiting, from eager anticipation of that Day. Do not let this sinful world convince you that there is more joy in the things that are passing away, that the world to come is to be dreaded, not anticipated. Do not let sin consume you, deadening your senses and your conscience so that you are prevented from keeping a careful watch. “Watch yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that Day come upon you suddenly like a trap.” The New Testament condemns drunkenness because it is the enemy of watchfulness, because it is emblematic of how all sin consumes us, fixing our eyes on the things of this world rather than on the Christ who will return. The addiction of sin bows our heads down, down to the dust of this fallen world. Repent and stand tall; do not be burdened by sin, let not your eyes be fixed on the things of this world, let not the cares of this life take over, like the seed was overwhelmed by the thorns.

Lift up your heads; do not be weighed down, but remain alert and watchful. “Stay wake at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” Be prepared, be watchful, not by your own efforts, not by looking busy or by making sure He won’t catch you sinning, but by living a life of repentance and faith, by hearing Christ’s Word of promise. “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all this has taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” The generation of unbelievers will endure until that day, only to pass away into eternal judgment. But Christ’s Word to you will endure, and because of those promises you can stand before the Son of Man on that day with head raised and back straightened.

You see, the whole point of Jesus’ incarnation was to enable you and me to stand before Him on the Day of His return. He suffered, He died, and He rose again so that when the end comes, it will be a day for victory for you and all who believe in Him. That is the only reason why the Gospel of Luke, or the New Testament, or the entire Bible was written, and it is the only reason this place exists. Both Church and Ministry exist for the sole purpose of making people ready to stand before their Lord on the Last Day. How? By washing away the stain of sin and bestowing the robe of righteousness in the font, by proclaiming boldly the forgiveness of sins through the redemption of Christ from this pulpit, and by placing Christ’s Body and Blood into mouths here at this altar. In this place you hear the Word, its promises are applied to you, and you have Christ’s guarantee that this Word and all who believe it will endure even the fires of the Last Day. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” You have received Christ’s gifts, you have been made His child, your sins have been forgiven, and this day I proclaim to you again that your sins are forgiven. In this place you are made ready to stand before your Lord, in this place the chains of sin are cut away, in this place you keep prayerful watch, until that Day when all that Christ’s Word promises comes true.

The end is coming. It is coming soon. The only thing that will endure on that Day is Christ’s Word of promise. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” His promise is that for you and me, for all who believe in Christ, who wear the robe of His righteousness, who have been claimed by His blood, the Last Day is not a day to fear and dread, but a Day to yearn for, a Day to anticipate, a Day to rejoice in. As Malachi proclaims, “For you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.” The sun will rise on this darkened world, and all things will be made new: the heavens and the earth, even your own body, as your mortal remains are raised up in victory to stand before the Son of Man forever. Body and soul you will go leaping from the stall; His resurrection will reach its fulfillment in your own. On that Day will come to pass the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory.” O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? You were conquered by the crucified and risen Christ and your end is coming, along with the end of sin and Satan. Your end is coming. It is coming soon. Christ our Lord says in the last verses of the Bible: “Surely I am coming soon,” to which the Church replies, “Amen. Come Lord Jesus!” Yes, yes, we cry, it shall be so. In the Name of Jesus, our crucified, our risen, our returning Lord, Amen.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Thanksgiving (1 Timothy 2:1-4)

“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high position.” 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 Thanksgiving is the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the second chapter of Paul’s first letter to Saint Timothy. Dear friends in Christ: Thanksgiving, like most other secular holidays, is not without its rituals. The practices of most families include a big meal, some football, and in my family at least, the putting up of the Christmas tree. Many families go around the table and ask each person what they are thankful for. Think of all the tables in America, where this same question is being asked over and over again. Think of your table, your family. Think of yourself. How do you answer that question? What are you thankful for? I don’t have any survey data to back it up, but I’m guessing that most people aren’t thankful for the government around the Thanksgiving table, and the poll data at least indicates that most people aren’t thankful for their president. Nor do I expect that many people are thankful for the blessings that have come to strangers or to their enemies. Most people are thankful for is what has benefited them, what has come into their lives for their own good.

And we certainly should be thankful for such things, and thankful to the One who has given them all, as we are taught in the Small Catechism. “God certainly gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people, but we pray in this petition that God would lead us to realize this and receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.” Do you want a list to work with around the Thanksgiving table tomorrow/today? Luther gives us one: “Daily bread includes everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money, goods, a devout husband or wife, devout children, devout workers, devout and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, self-control, good reputation, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.” The primary difference between the Christian and the non-Christian at the Thanksgiving table is the object of their thanks, it is to whom that thanks is given.

But the differences run much deeper. Not only is the object of thanksgiving different, but so is the subject, what we are thankful for. The non-Christian gives thanks for what good has come into their own lives, and their prayer (as much as they do pray) is the same. They think first of their own needs and their own blessings, and they rarely, if ever, pray for their enemies, for their rulers, or for those outside their immediate circle of family and friends. The Christian is called to be different. Saint Paul directs us: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people.” The Christian prays first for others, even non-believers, even enemies, even strangers. We give thanks when our neighbors receive blessings, when God provides for them the fruits of the earth. We say at the end of the explanation to the First Article, that marvelous exposition of all the gifts that God gives us: “For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.” We thank and praise Him for all the gifts of the earth, even when they come to someone else, even to someone we consider our enemy. It is very difficult to hate someone you are praying for: try it sometime, in fact, try it today, because that is what you are called upon to do if you bear the name of Christian. We are to pray for the good of others first, we are to hold them up to our heavenly Father before ourselves, begging Him to provide for their every need before we ask Him to provide for our own.

The Christian prays for all people, but one group in particular. “First of all then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and petitions be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions.” We are called upon ‘first of all’ to pray for our rulers, for those in authority over us. We are to pray for them, whether we voted for them or not, whether we agree with their actions or not. Christians are not subversive, we do not despise our government; Saint Paul wrote these words about a government that would unleash vicious persecution of Christians, that would even put him to death. Christians pray for the health of their rulers, they pray for wisdom and discernment, that they would rule with honor and justice. In this way, we are simply acting in accord with the Fourth Commandment, “Honor your father and your mother.” What does this mean? “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents and other authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.”

We pray that our rulers would fulfill the task which they have been given; the task of preserving temporal peace and security. This is not so that we have a comfy life, but so that the Gospel can go forth freely into the entire world. We pray for rulers “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” The gifts of the First Article are here given for the sake of the Second Article. This has happened before; God used the temporal authorities to be the instruments of His Son’s sacrifice—we have the name of a Roman governor in our creed! The temporal authorities, in the hands of almighty God, were used to accomplish salvation, through them His holy, precious blood was shed; through them the innocent was declared guilty, so that we, the guilty, would be declared innocent by God. 

Through them the price was poured out that redeemed you, me, and all people. Why? “That I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity.” The resurrection of our Lord is the guarantee that all this is true; that the price has been paid, that salvation has been accomplished, that God intends for all people to live under Him in His kingdom forever. And after the empty tomb God is not finished with the temporal authorities. He used them to accomplish salvation, and He intends to use them (often without their knowledge) to distribute salvation. He is interested in temporal peace so that the proclamation of His Son’s death and resurrection would go forth freely into the entire world, even to you and me.

Therefore we pray that the Gospel would go forth, that all people would be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. We do not pray against our enemies, we do not pray against unbelievers, we pray for them, that God would work through the proclamation of His Word to bring them to repentance and faith. That is God’s will, and it is then to be the will of every Christian, as we are taught in the explanation to the Third Petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “God’s will is done when He breaks and hinders every evil plan and purpose of the devil, the world, and our sinful nature, which do not want us to hallow God’s name or let His kingdom come; and when He strengthens and keeps us firm in His Word and faith until we die.” Our prayer for our enemies is that they would be converted, that they would cease to be enemies. We pray that God would bring an end to their evil so that others are not harmed. It is God’s will that all people are saved, and His will is to be our will, as we hold all people up to Him, praying that He would provide for all of their temporal needs and all of their eternal needs.

What can you say to all this? After hearing all that Saint Paul expects from the prayers of one who is called a Christian, do you realize that you fall far, far short, that your prayers and thanksgivings have imitated those of the non-believing world around you? Repent. Cast your sin upon the sin-bearer, upon your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, for we have a God “who desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” God’s will, His desire is that you would dwell in heaven for eternity, and His Son paid the price to fulfill that will by shedding His blood. God’s good and gracious will is to break Satan’s hold upon you by proclaiming the Law which puts to death and the Gospel that makes alive. God’s good and gracious will is that you would be called to repentance and forgiven by Christ’s blood-bought mercy and grace. The Gospel that is for all people is for you. It is God’s gift to you; you are forgiven, you have eternal life; He has redeemed you, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won you from all sin, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood, and His innocent suffering and death. It’s all for you; He did it for you, for that was His good and gracious will. And it is given to you this day, as it was on the day of your Baptism, as a gift. “I believe that I cannot by own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept in the true faith.” The Gospel is entirely His gift, and this day He gives from His abundance one again, placing forgiveness, life, and salvation into your mouth in the holy Supper of His Body and Blood.

And if all that comes to you comes as a gift, without any merit or worthiness in you, the gifts of the First Article, the gifts of the Second Article, and the gifts of the Third Article, then there is nothing left but thanksgiving. We give thanks to God for giving us all the fruits of the earth, we give thanks to God for giving His Son into death to redeem us from sin, death, and the power of the devil, and we give thanks to God for bringing that salvation to us in the means of grace. What better way to celebrate Thanksgiving than to gather in His house, giving Him great thanks and praise for the gifts He gives, and receiving those very gifts in Word and Sacrament? And thus this Thanksgiving is a foretaste of the thanksgiving to come; for when we dwell with our Lord in the new heavens and the new earth that He won for us, what is left but thanksgiving? Thanks be to God, for all of His great gifts, poured out in abundance upon us, poured out in abundance upon the entire world. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.