Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Christmas Eve (Luke 2:1-20)

“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Christmas Eve 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: O holy night, the stars are brightly shining, and in his palace in Rome, Caesar Augustus sleeps the contented sleep of the powerful. Even now, he knows that thousands, maybe millions of people are moving, traveling in obedience to his word. “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” Caesar sets out to register all the world, for, dwelling amongst the splendor of Rome, he believes that he rules all the world. And he does, except for most of Asia, most of Africa, all of North America, all of South America, and Antarctica. But who wants Antarctica anyway? To Caesar, the world lives and dies under Rome. This arrogance is typical of the powerful; I’ve seen Washington D.C., I’ve seen the monuments that we have erected to our country and its founders, monuments that look, oddly enough, like temples. The people of Rome worshipped the Caesars; we too have our own nation-worship, with its high feast days and saints, its pilgrimage sites and sacred texts.

But Mary and Joseph refuse to participate; they do not worship the Caesars, they do not look to them as the final authority. They do not pay homage to secular monuments built like Greek temples; they hold to one sacred text, and it is not the U.S. Constitution. They do not owe Caesar worship, and they knew it, but they do owe him obedience. “Honor your father and your mother,” Paul points out, is the first commandment with a promise, “that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” Joseph doesn’t take Mary to the mountains to hide, he doesn’t refuse to travel to Bethlehem, he doesn’t join the many who violently resisted the census. No, in obedience to God he was obedient to Caesar. “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David.” If anyone had a reason to rebel against Rome, it was someone from the kingly line of David. But if anyone knew that obedience to God meant obedience to the one whom God sets in authority over you, it was a descendent of the man after God’s own heart. Joseph would never offer sacrifice to Caesar, but he will obey this decree; he will go to Bethlehem.

Their journey is insignificant to the extreme; had Caesar been told of it, he would’ve considered it beyond his notice, except that it served as a magnificent example of how the world moved when he spoke a word. It almost seems to be a joke that we are even talking about Mary and Joseph two thousand years later; how many others traveled to their hometowns at the whim of Caesar, and are lost to history? Caesar knows nothing about angel visitations, or a child conceived in a virgin womb. No angel appeared to him, no messenger came from God to instruct him. Not that Caesar would’ve listened; in the halls of power, the only voice that mattered was his own. But Caesar was just a pawn. Not a king, not even a rook, but a pawn. The most powerful man in the world, who set out to register the “all the world,” was simply a small piece in a drama that he knew nothing about. The main event was not in the halls of power in Rome, it was in the womb of that virgin traveling to Bethlehem.

“And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 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.” Your eyes couldn’t tell you the story that night; the best they could give you was a story of poverty, of displaced refugees. All your eyes see is the story of a small town overwhelmed by an unplanned family reunion; no guestroom available, only a manger. And then, finally, all your eyes see is a baby. There isn’t much you can say about this baby; a baby is a baby, adorable, loved by His parents and completely helpless. Surely there were other babies in Bethlehem that night, maybe even born that night. What was special about this baby you cannot know by looking, only by hearing. Caesar in Rome didn’t know; he wasn’t told. The people of Bethlehem didn’t know; they slept through that holy night. The priests and Pharisees didn’t know; they failed to keep watch. The only ones who knew were those who were told, and God chose to tell shepherds about the birth of His Son. “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. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

Shepherds are told about the birth of this child, for this child will grow up to be a shepherd, the Good Shepherd, who leads His flock to green pastures and quiet waters, the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep. He comes as our Savior, our Savior from sin, death, and the power of the devil. He comes as the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed One, appointed to bear your sin to the cross. And He comes as the Lord, God in the flesh, Immanuel, God with us. He comes for all people. Caesar thought with arrogance that his decree would register all the world; Christ comes to bring forgiveness, life, and salvation to all the world, to all people of every time and place. Caesar’s census could only register those living under his rule at that time; Christ’s salvation goes forth to all people, of every tribe, nation, language, and century, even to you, even to me. “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Unto you this child is born; He is yours, He is for you. This child is God’s gift to you, yes you, living thousands of years and thousands of miles away from the first Christmas. This child is for you, to take away your sins by bearing them to the cross, to give you eternal life by rising in victory over the grave. This child is for you because He will live a perfect life in your place, die under God’s wrath in your place, and rise again in victory as the firstfruits from the dead. He is for you; He is for all. No one is forgotten, no matter how insignificant; Christ died and rose again for all. He is the Good Shepherd that lays down His life for the sheep, all the sheep. His Word has a power and scope that the Caesars could only dream of; at His Word, sins are forgiven and death is destroyed.

Caesar Augustus had his glory; at his word, nations moved, by his command, armies conquered, and the architectural wonders of Rome testified to his greatness. But those magnificent buildings now lie in ruins. Impressive ruins, to be sure, but ruins just the same. And it is utter foolishness and arrogance for us to believe that our monuments will escape the same fate. The glory of this world, no matter how great, cannot escape decay and destruction. Only Christ’s glory will endure though all else pass away, and the shepherds are sent to see it, wrapped in humility. They are not told to go to Rome, they are not sent to the temple; the angels send them to a feeding trough. “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” Caesar’s glory stands out all the more next to the Christ Child’s humility, but appearances are deceiving. Through humility this Child will have glory that will last far beyond that of Caesar or any other man. The humility of the manger will lead to the humility of the cross, and a grave with sinners, but on the other side of the cross is the very glory of the right hand of the throne of God, from whence He will return on the Last Day to raise you and all the dead, giving that same glory to you and all believers in Christ. All this is hidden in a manger, wrapped in swaddling cloths; your eyes cannot tell you the truth, only your ears, listening to the voice of the angels.

This is God in the flesh come to save, as John Chrysostom preached on Christmas over sixteen hundred years ago: “For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His Spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit that He may save me. Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels. Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh. He did not become God. He was God. Wherefore He became flesh, so that He Whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. He was placed in a manger, so that He, by whom all things arc nourished, may receive an infant’s food from His Virgin Mother.” What the shepherds see is a baby, a child, but more than that, a Savior, Christ the Lord. Heaven could not contain Him, but He located Himself in Mary’s womb, in a manger, upon a cross, in the Word and holy Sacraments, for you. This child is born unto you, He is born for you, just as He died for you, and He is risen for you. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!” Amen.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Third Sunday of Advent (Matthew 11:2-10)

“Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the eleventh chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ: a Sunday morning worship service is one of the few remaining places in our society where you can find people from every walk of life gathered together. Think about it—we’ve divided and subdivided out society so much, we live in silos, isolated from people that are not like us. We socialize with those who have the same interest as us, who are the same age, who have the same social or economic status. We divide our children into grades, we put out elderly in nursing homes, we have different hangouts, even different stores, for those who are different from each other. Especially in a city, you don’t have to interact with people who aren’t like you if you don’t want to. But one of the few remaining places where all sorts of different people interact is where you are sitting at this very moment—a church sanctuary. Here, in this room, are rich and poor, high status and low status, infants, teenagers, adults and the elderly, all gathered together. In Sunday morning worship it doesn’t matter what your bank account says, it doesn’t matter whether you watch the Walking Dead or no TV at all; it doesn’t matter what your race, age, or gender is. All that matters is what you came here for.

But maybe that is the greatest difference of all. We are all here together, sharing the same room, interacting with one another, despite our difference, but are we here for the same reason? Jesus had watched the masses go out to John, the residents of a diverse city all running into the desert to see and hear this preacher. And now that John sits in prison, Jesus asks the question that is asked of you today: Why? “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?” Why are you here? What did you come to see? What drew this diverse group of people to Good Shepherd Lutheran Church this day? “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?” Did you come to seek a shaking reed, a flimsy plant that moves this way and that in the winds of this world? Did you come to this place, as many came to John, to have someone tell you what you want to hear, to have your itching ears scratched?

Did you come here today seeking affirmation, seeking to hear someone say that the sin you are living in is not really a big deal, that it doesn’t matter? Do you come here to present yourself before the altar of God in unrepentance, wanting the church to tell you God doesn’t care about how Christians live their lives? Your ears are itching to hear that what the rest of your body and mind is engaged in is not actually sinful; your ears want to receive the stamp of approval from the Church on how you choose to live your life. Your ears want to hear God’s black and white Word made into a nice shade of gray, they wish to hear that the teachings derived from the Scriptures are flexible, changeable, that they can move with the winds. They want to hear that this doctrine, or that command, is not really binding, that it doesn’t really matter. They know how the winds of this world blow, they know how unpopular the teachings of the Bible are, from Jesus as the only way to heaven to free will to the six-day creation, to greed and adultery, and they want to hear a flimsy reed tell them that it’s just fine to blow in the wind, that none of this really matters. What about you? Is that what you came to see?

Or did something else draw you? “What did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing?” Did you come here today because this church is your social club, the place where you gather with your friends, where you might meet that cute guy or girl you’ve been keeping your eye on? Did you come only because someone expected you to, so that you can fulfill your family obligations? Did you come here to keep up appearances, to make sure everyone considers you a Christian man or woman?

Or are you really interested in those fancy clothes? Did you come here today seeking prosperity, hoping to hear how the teachings of Christianity can give you a healthier body, a more robust bank account, or better kids? Did you come here today itching to hear how Christianity can make your life better, how you can have your best life now? Do you join with the masses on Sunday morning to collect some biblical principles to apply to your work, school, or relationships? Your ears are itching to hear how Christianity will benefit you in the here and now; they want to find out the secrets to having the job, the relationships, the life that you want. Your ears are seeking to know how to make God act and answer your prayers in the way that you want them answered. What did you come here to see? Did you come to see a man in a high-dollar suit, telling you how the Scriptures can make you as successful as he obviously is?

If that is what we came to see, we, like the people who ran from Jerusalem to the Jordan to see John, will be very disappointed. Jesus doesn’t think that we’ll find much in the way of fancy clothes when we go out to hear from those whom He has sent. “What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses.” John didn’t care much about clothes, or money, or power; he gave up everything to serve as the appointed messenger of the Lord. And it hasn’t changed much today, even if your pastors don’t take a vow of poverty. It doesn’t matter how much we paid for our suit; we cover it with a robe. No, this is not the place to have itching ears scratched; this is not the place to see soft clothing and hear how you can get some for yourself. Repent of all the sinful reasons for being in this place and learn from Jesus why we come here: “What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” Did you come seeking a Word from God, spoken through His messengers? Did you come seeking a Word that calls you to repentance and then forgives all of your sin? Did you come to hear what God has to say to you this day, both Law and Gospel?

Why do you come here? What did you go out to see? You came seeking many different things, but what you see is a finger pointing to Jesus. That is what John was, and that is what the Church is, a finger pointing to Jesus, a voice speaking His Name. “This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’” As John prepared the way for Christ’s earthly ministry, so the Church prepares for Christ’s return in glory, speaking of Him, pointing to Him in the midst of your affliction. Are you trapped in the bondage of sin? Here the finger points to Jesus, who died for that sin and forgives it in this place through His powerful Word. Are you lonely, disconnected from others in this sin-sick world? Here the finger points to Jesus, who creates true fellowship through His common grace, fellowship that has its highest expression at the Lord’s Table, but also is found in the other activities in this congregation. Do you struggle under the sufferings of this life? Here the finger points to Jesus, who comforts you with His presence and the promise that the darkness will end and the Light will shine forth in glory when He returns.

What did you go out to see? More than a prophet? Yes, more than a prophet; in this place you hear from your Savior. You came to this sanctuary and you hear Jesus, speaking through His servants, speaking the Word that you desperately need to hear. You came and you hear Him say to you, sinner though you are, ‘I forgive you all you sins.’ You came and you hear Him say to you, ‘I died for you; I suffered all that your sins deserved in your place, that you would have a place in heaven.’ You came and you hear Him say to you, ‘I rose in victory on the third day that you would live even though you died, so that on the Last Day you will be raised as I was and you will live forever, as I do.’ You came here and you did not simply to hear that Jesus died and rose again, or even that He will return one day. You can read that in the Bible, or other books, at home. You came and this day you hear from a fellow human being, one sent by Christ to speak these very words, that Jesus died and rose again for you, and that He will come again in glory to raise you up in victory and give you a place in the New Heavens and the New Earth. That is why the messengers of the Lord cannot be reeds shaking in the wind; their task is to proclaim to you Jesus, consistently, constantly, and they are accountable to God for that work. Saint Paul says, “It is God who judges me.” Not the winds of man, not the opinions of others, but God Himself, who has sent Him, who has sent the Church, as He sent John the Baptist, to speak of Jesus.

The way of the Church isn’t to issue a survey, asking people what they want and then giving it to them. The Church gives to all people what they need. It seems we are not united in anything here: not in age, not in social or economic status, not in our interests and desires. We are not even united in why we walked through the doors this day. But we are united, we are one, in what we truly need and what Jesus desires to give in this place: Himself. We are united in that we are all sinners in need of mercy and grace from a loving God, and we are united in that God has shown us this mercy and grace in the death and resurrection of His Son. Rich or poor, young or old, we are all together sinners saved by Christ; we are all together those for whom Christ died. This is the rock-solid message that the Church is built upon, that the Church has the privilege to proclaim; she is not built upon the whims of men, she does not proclaim the satisfaction of wants and desires stained by sin. The Church is no flimsy reed, for she is built upon the Word which is immovable, though all else give way. “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” Thanks be to God, for it is this Word, and this Word alone, that gives us Jesus. In His Name, Amen.

Second Sunday of Advent (Malachi 4:1-6)

“But 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.” 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 second Sunday in Advent is the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the fourth chapter of the prophet Malachi, the last words of the Old Testament. Dear friends in Christ: Behold, the day is coming, it is coming soon. We live in the light that precedes the dawn, at that moment when the darkness seems the deepest and yet the light begins to brighten the eastern sky. You know that time, the moment where we are suddenly awakened and do not know if it is the middle of the night or the beginning of the day. We sit up in bed, confused, wondering if the night is spent or if it has barely begun. That is where we dwell in these gray and latter days, in darkness so deep that it seems that it will never end, but yet with a glimmer of hope on the horizon. The day is coming, it is coming soon. The sun is rising; when, we do not know, but we do know that it will rise. We live our lives in the strange interplay of hopeful light and deepest darkness that comes right before the dawn. At that moment, we can rightly ask: Is the night ending, or is the day beginning? It’s really all a matter of perspective. How do we see the approaching of day? Do we welcome the light, or do we fear it? Is the night ending, or is the day beginning?

For the arrogant, the prideful, those who had confidence in themselves, the night is ending; the darkness that they reveled in is coming to a swift end. “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming will set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.” They fear the coming of the day, they shudder from the very hint of light, from the rumor of sunrise, because God has warned them about the destruction that will come at dawn. They will be consumed, utterly destroyed, cursed forever. God will purge all evil from the land; nothing unclean, nothing wicked, will dwell in His perfect new creation, the land He promised to His people. The arrogant have no inheritance with Him, but will be cast into the fire, the fire that is not quenched, the home of the worm which does not die.

God doesn’t do this out of spite; He is not a capricious God, delighting in the destruction of people He created. Instead He graciously calls on the world to repent, to escape from the judgment that is to come. “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” As Elijah the prophet called on the wicked kings of Israel to repentance, as John the Baptist fulfilled this prophecy by calling the Jewish people to repentance, so the Church stands today, in the darkness before the dawn, as Elijah, calling the world to repentance. The Church warns all people that the dawn is coming, that the darkness they revel in will not last forever, and she calls on them to repent, to turn and welcome the light, to look forward to the day.

But the arrogant love the darkness more. The prideful are those who have been called out on their sin, who have been told that their behavior, their lifestyle, is wrong, but have refused to repent. The Church reminds the world of these words: “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.” The prideful think they know better than Moses, who received the Law, and God, who gave it. They make their own rules and live by them. The arrogant are those who love their own pleasure more than they love their neighbor, more than they heed God’s Word. Those infected with pride look to their own accomplishments, their own bank account, the titles they hold, and they guard these accolades jealously. They make sure that those around them know their exalted position, that they receive the proper respect their money, or their office, or their accomplishments deserve. The arrogant are constantly looking for a slight, always ready to be offended, to break off relations with any who don’t view them as highly as they view themselves. 

The preaching of Elijah was intended to turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, but the arrogant have hearts turned in on themselves. The neighbor in need matters little unless they have something to give, some contribution to make to the storehouse of pride that dwells in their darkened hearts. The arrogant, the prideful, love the night; they would rather sit in darkness than welcome the light. And so they quite rightly fear the coming of the day; if they deny it will come it is because they are afraid that it will come, that God’s Word will be proven true.

The arrogant will see the light of dawn and in terror they will cry out that the night is ending; the humble will see the rays of sunshine and rejoice to proclaim that the day is beginning. For they heeded the call of Elijah; they repented, they turned from their sin in faith. The humble are not those who have kept all of the commandments perfectly, they are those who see themselves in the mirror of God’s holy Law and repent. “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.” The humble remember the Law by striving to live in accordance with it and repenting when they sin against it. The humble acknowledge that God is God and that they are not, and submit in obedience under His Word. Their lives are ordered by the Ten Commandments, but not in the arrogance of thinking they are made right with God by their obedience—for they know their sin—but instead knowing that they are made right with God despite their disobedience.

The arrogant refuse to repent, and thus refuse God’s deliverance from the destruction that the day will bring; either they think they have no need of salvation, or they think they can save themselves, foolishly counting on the worldly things they take pride in. The humble despair of themselves; they know they cannot achieve salvation on their own, that apart from God’s aid, apart from His salvation, the coming of the dawn inspires only fear. The humble know and confess that they are infected with the disease of sin, that they are wounded by the deeds of darkness. And God promises healing.

“But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.” Who is this sun, the sun that brings light into the world, whose coming is the coming of the dawn, the break of day? It is none other than God’s own Son, Jesus Christ. And how will Jesus bring the healing that all people need? Not by deeds of power, but by an act of humility. “He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” His wounds bring the humble healing, for He was pierced for the transgressions of all people, even for the arrogant, He was crushed for the iniquities of the nations, even those infected with pride. He came to bear the curse that God threatened for all who reject the preaching of Elijah. “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” No one need fear the coming of the day; no one need be in terror for the arrival of the light. Jesus wants all people to receive His return with joy, to repent and believe—that’s why the Church calls the world, she calls you, to repentance.

See your sin and repent of it! Jesus died for all; He died for you. Repent of your sinful arrogance, repent of your pride. Repent and in humility know that you cannot save yourself, but that Christ has saved you. The humble fear God, not the coming of the day; they shun the darkness in repentance and welcome the light in faith. Look to that day not in fear, but with joy! “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 of righteousness rose early on Easter morning to heal you of the affliction of sin that clings to your bones, to even cure you of death. The sin, the sorrow, the suffering of this world will end; the sun who rose on Easter will rise on the day that is coming, and the night will be over, all evil will be no more. “And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.” When the day dawns, you will be set free from all that held you captive in the darkness of this world, and there you will have joy that is indescribable. “You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.” When the day dawns, you will realize that this world of sin and death was a locked cage, and now you are free. The long age of confinement will be over; the light has come, and night will be no more, for your Lord has returned in victory, just as He promised, and He has come to give to you a new body, a new creation, light forevermore.

Behold, the day is coming, it is coming soon. We live in the light that precedes the dawn, at that moment when the darkness seems the deepest and yet the light begins to brighten the eastern sky. The sun is rising; when, we do not know, but we do know that it will rise. At that moment, we can rightly ask: Is the night ending, or is the day beginning? It’s really all a matter of perspective. How do we see the approaching of day? Do we welcome the light, or do we fear it? We heard Jesus’ answer: “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Because Jesus went from speaking those words to hanging on a cross, because He rose again in victory, because He has promised us that He will return again, we need not fear the coming of the dawn, but we lift up our heads in confidence, not in ourselves, but in the salvation He has given to us. The day is beginning, the day that will never end, the glorious day that we will have us leaping like calves released from the stall, forever. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.