Monday, December 26, 2016

Christmas Day (John 1:1-14)

Of the Father’s love begotten Ere the worlds began to be

He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending He.

Of the things that are that have been, and that future years shall see

Evermore and evermore.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Before the worlds began to be, before there was anything in all creation, from all eternity, is the Word; uncreated, outside of time, eternally begotten of the Father. The Word is with God, in fellowship with God, as God’s only-begotten Son. He dwells in heaven with God, enthroned in the splendor of the only true God. The Word is no creature, but is Himself eternal, Himself true God. The Word is God, the second person of the Trinity, one God with the Father and the Holy Spirit. There are not three Lords, but one Lord, just as there are not three almighties, but one almighty, and not three eternals, but one eternal. Yet, in the mystery of the Godhead, the Word is one person, the Father another, and the Holy Spirit another. There is plurality in the unity; one God, three persons, three persons, one God. The Father is God, the Spirit is God, the Word is God.

He is Alpha and Omega, evermore and evermore. He is the beginning and the end, He is the source of all things, and He is their end. “All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made.” God spoke, and it happened, “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” God spoke a Word, God spoke the Word, and all things came into being, the Word that was with God and the Word that is God. He is the source of all in creation; every creature, every detail, came forth by the Word, the Word that created in the beginning, the Word that still sustains creation, through the mandate given to all creatures: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” Nothing has its being apart from the Word, nothing has life without Him. “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.” The Word who is God dwells in heaven, with the Father, enthroned in glory, evermore and evermore. We sing stanza two.

Oh, that birth forever blessed, When the virgin, full of grace

By the Holy Ghost conceiving, Bore the Savior of our race.

And the babe, the world’s redeemer, First revealed His sacred face

Evermore and evermore.

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The Word who is with God, the Word who is God, the Word by whom and through whom all things were created, the Alpha and the Omega, the source and ending of all things, this very Word took flesh. Very God of very God, the eternal Word, who exists outside of time, who created time, entered time. The Creator entered creation as a creature. In the womb of a virgin, without human participation, by an act of the Holy Spirit, the Word became flesh and took up residence among us. God of God and Lord of Lords is now a man, He has become flesh. God takes up residence among His people; as the tabernacle of old was the place where God was present in the midst of His people for their good, so now, in the body of Jesus, God dwells among His people once again. The cloud covered the tabernacle, and the glory of the Lord filled it, but now the glory of the Lord dwells in flesh; the glory of the Lord is a man, a human being, one of us, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

We have seen that glory, “glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John saw the glory upon the mountain; He saw Jesus revealed to be the Word from the Father, the very Son of God, full of grace and truth. The glory of the Creator, present in a creature, the glory that filled the tabernacle, once again present among His people. The light that shone forth in the darkness on the first day of creation, the light that existed before sun and moon and stars, had its source in the Word, who is Himself the Light, and now that uncreated, eternal light shines in the darkness of this sinful world. “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” We sing stanza three.

This is He whom seers in old time Chanted of with one accord,

Whom the voices of the prophets Promised in their faithful word.

Now He shines, the long expected; Let creation praise its Lord

Evermore and evermore.

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.” Like a choir, an assembly of beautiful voices, the prophets sang in unity. Each sang a different note, each brought their own unique voice to the choir, each added to the rich tapestry, but all were singing same song: the Word made flesh, the long expected Messiah, the coming the Savior of the world. Moses and Isaiah, David and Micah, Malachi and Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, Elijah and Elisha, and finally, the last prophet, the final member of the choir, John. “He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.” They were not the light, no matter how bold their words, no matter how powerful their miracles, no matter how strong their voice. They came to bear witness to the light.

Their word was faithful, for it pointed away from themselves and toward the Word who was coming in the flesh. “He came as a witness to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through Him.” The Light, the Word, must increase, they must decrease; they pointed away from themselves and toward Jesus, crying out with John, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” One who follows Moses must believe in Jesus, he who clings to Isaiah’s words of hope must worship the One he proclaimed, those in awe of Elijah and Elisha’s great deeds must marvel at the One who fulfills their works. With their voices, voices raised in one accord, the prophets, the saints of old, from Adam and Eve who received the first prophecy to John who baptized the seed of a woman promised to them, the prophets pointed to Jesus, and cried out, “Let creation praise its Lord!” We sing stanza four.

O ye heights of heaven adore Him; Angel hosts, His praises sing.

Powers, dominions, bow before Him And extol our God and King.

Let no tongue on earth be silent, Every voice in concert ring.

Evermore and evermore.

“He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him.” The prophets proclaimed Him, the angels sang His praises, the shepherd and the magi were His ambassadors, John pointed to Him, and God the Father Himself declared of Him, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” But the world did not know Him. He created all things, He was the instrument by which God spoke creation into being, but the creatures He gave life to did not receive Him. He was the One proclaimed by the prophets, promised to our first parents and every generation since, but when He came, His own people rejected Him. He came to save, and they put Him to death. He came of the Father’s love begotten, and they hated Him. They spat in His face, they scourged His back, they pressed thorns into His brow. Heaven sings His praises, and the world shouts, ‘Crucify!’ The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness gathers around it, the darkness tries to destroy it.

But the darkness has not overcome it. “To all who did receive Him, who believed in His Name, He gave the right to become children of God.” Let creation praise its Lord, high and exalted upon the throne of the cross, winning there the peace promised by the angels on the night of His birth. Let the angel hosts sing as He sheds His blood for the life of the world. Let powers and dominions bow before them, acknowledging as Lord the One declared the King of the Jews. Let no tongue on earth be silent, let every voice echo the concert of the prophets, singing with them, pointing to the cross, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” And all who thus sing, all who thus believe, are reborn, made the children of God, “not of blood or of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” All who sing His praises are His children, all who sing His praises are reborn, all who receive Him have a new identity: children of God. We sing stanza five.

Christ, to Thee, with God the Father, and O Holy Ghost to Thee

Hymn and chant and high thanksgiving And unending praises be,

Honor, glory, and dominion, and eternal victory

Evermore and evermore.

Evermore and evermore, heaven and earth is joined together in praise of the Word made flesh. Evermore and evermore, heaven and earth, long divided, long separated, stands unified by the peace promised at the manger, the peace won at the cross, the peace delivered by the risen Christ. Evermore and evermore, this Jesus is praised in heaven and on earth in unity with the Father and the Holy Ghost. Evermore and evermore, we who are children of God, born of God through Christ, will stand praising our Lord. Evermore and evermore, creation is restored, evermore and evermore, the curse will be removed, evermore and evermore, the Word is flesh and ever will be flesh. Evermore and evermore, His praises ring, evermore and evermore His saints sing, evermore and evermore the manger, the cross, the empty tomb stand as tokens of our salvation. Honor, glory, and dominion, and eternal victory; evermore and evermore. Amen.

Advent Midweek service (Psalm 85)

“Lord, you were favorable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob.” You acted in salvation, you saw your people in distress and you did not remain idle. You rent the heavens and came down; you came down to deliver, you came down to save, you came down bring your people out of captivity. When your people languished in slavery, with backs bowed in hard labor, you came; when your people dwelt in exile, far from home, you came; when your people were threatened with annihilation again and again, you came. “You withdrew all your wrath; you turned from your hot anger.” You were angry with your people, and justly, for they sinned, they turned away from you. They rebelled again and again, but in love, in mercy, you turned back to them. You rent the heavens and came down, releasing them from the bondage they deserved, the cruel overlords who were the agents of your wrath. But all of this was preliminary. When your people dwelt in the dark night of sin, subject to death, in the captivity of Satan, you came. You rent the heavens and came down, taking up residence in the womb of the virgin, and coming forth to walk the way of the cross. You came to die, to die in the place of your rebellious people, to die bearing their iniquity. You are the God who comes, and you came in humility, you came in victory, you came with healing in your wings.

“You forgave the iniquity of your people; you covered all their sin.” You did not ignore my sin, you did not turn your face from it, you did not make an exception in my case. No, your hot anger burned against my sin with as much intensity as it deserved. My sin deserved death and hell, and that is what you poured out against it. You did not spare one ounce of your wrath, but you raged against your Son, not against me. You did not ignore my sin, or the sin of anyone on this planet, but you placed it on Jesus, and your hot anger burned against Him. You covered my sin with the blood of Jesus, with His righteousness; because He died under your wrath, your wrath will not come upon me. “You withdrew all your wrath; you turned from your hot anger.” That is what happened at the baptismal font: your anger turned away, your wrath was withdrawn. I am saved, I am delivered, because you came, you came to this world at your first Advent, taking on flesh to walk the way of the cross, and you came on the day of my baptism, rending the heavens and coming down to make me one of your dear children.

You acted in the past; will you not act again? “Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us!” We are languishing, dying in this world of sin and death, a world filled with decay, a world that still faces the just penalties of its sin. The sin and suffering of this world seems to have no end; every day we hear of violence and poverty, the incredible cruelty that humans show to one another only reaches new heights, terrible things happen to the innocent. A seven-year-old was hit by a car crossing the street last week, trying to get to school; will you not act? “Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations?” How long will you wait, O Lord, how long will you delay? How much more suffering must this world endure? Why don’t you do something? You acted in the past, will you not act again? The world has been in the throes of death since the day Adam and Eve fell into sin, death has reigned over man and beast since teeth sunk into the fruit. How much longer must we endure this penalty? How much longer must we return to the dust, must the ground bring forth thorns and thistles?

“Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” Make us alive, we are dying! Bring us some joy, we are filled with sadness! This world sucks the joy from us, it brings us down into the depths of sorrow. We face the pain of loss, the shame and humiliation of our own weaknesses, the guilt of our sin. We live with aches and pains, our bodies rebel against us, they are racked with cancer, our hearts are ticking time bombs, diabetes lurks around every corner. This world fills us with tears, as we mourn those who are lost to us, those who have died and those who are estranged, those we don’t talk to anymore, those who have hurt us or we have hurt, and the relationships left tattered and torn. All who have hurt us, all who have left us, leave a hole in our heart. Deliver us from this corrupted world! O Lord, how long? “Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation.” Show us your love, we are drowning in hate, the false and fleeting love this world offers. Grant us your salvation, we are surrounded by sin and its corruption. We can’t endure this world much longer, we are hanging on by a thread—do you want us to fall? We are at the end of our endurance—would you have us give up? Your people are dying—what do you have to say for yourself?

“Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for He will speak peace to His people, to His saints; but let them not turn back to folly.” What you have for me is a Word. A Word, not a miracle, not a spectacular show of strength, power, and majesty. A Word. You won’t take all my problems away, you won’t give me heaven on earth, you won’t remove every instance of suffering from my life. Health and wealth aren’t your promise; an easy life is not your guarantee. Instead, you will give me a Word, a Word of peace. “Surely His salvation is near to those who fear Him, that glory may dwell in our land.” In the darkness of sin, in the bleak night of death, under the shadow that envelops this earth, the Light shines. The Light comes into this world, and the darkness of this fallen creation cannot overcome it. His salvation comes near to His people, His glory shines in the night. He rends the heavens and comes down this Advent, speaking peace to His people, His saints, those who fear Him, and His glory dwells in the midst of our land. His glory dwells in this place, it dwells wherever this Word of hope, this Word of peace is spoken. Do not turn back to folly, dear friends, do not give into despair, do not cry out to return to Egypt when the scarcity of the wilderness overwhelms you. Do not take comfort in the pleasures of sin, but in the assurance of the Word. A Word is His gift to you, a Word that assures you in the midst of your suffering, a Word that gives you His promises, a Word that guarantees for you sure and certain victory.

Because Jesus came at His first Advent, sin, death, and the devil have already been defeated, they will not triumph over you. Because Jesus comes every Lord’s day, you are constantly reassured in the midst of your sufferings that He will never leave you nor forsake you. Because Jesus will come again on the Last Day, you have the assurance that nothing, and no one, can destroy you, that no suffering will last forever, that death itself is an empty shell. In Jesus, “Steadfast love and faithfulness meet, righteousness and peace kiss each other.” God’s faithfulness and justice met with His love in Jesus, as the sinless Son of God was put to death in your place, fulfilling God’s justice against your sin to bring you His perfect, abundant love. God’s perfect righteousness and His everlasting peace kissed in Jesus, as the sinless Son of God fulfilled all righteousness upon the cross, dying to make you righteous so that you would be at peace with God forever. In Jesus, “Faithfulness springs up from the ground, and righteousness looks down from the sky.” God was faithful to His promises, preached by His prophets of old as they walked this earth, and righteousness, perfect righteousness, rent the heavens and came down to cover you on the day you were baptized into Christ’s name.

“Yes, the Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.” There is a place where suffering will be no more, where death will not even be a rumor, where conflict will be erased, where the divisions we once had will no longer matter. In that place, “Righteousness will go before him, and make his footsteps a way.” Righteousness, perfect righteousness, will characterize that place, and it is your home, the Promised Land that is your inheritance, when at long last, and for one final time, Christ rends the heavens and comes down, answering your prayers, and the prayers of the Church of all ages, forever. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Second Sunday in Advent (Luke 21:25-36)

“Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the twenty-first chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ: is the world prepared for the Last Day? Does the world know that it’s end is coming, that the Savior it rejected is returning to judge both the living and the dead? The strange thing is, I think this world knows that the end is coming, this world has an inkling that progress will not continue unabated forever, deep down this world knows that eventually the institutions and technologies that we trust in will fail. My evidence? Movies, books, TV shows, and video games. Our popular entertainment is filled with stories about the world falling apart, about the end of our current way of life, the destruction of those pillars of society that we cling to so tightly. The vision of the future presented in movies is not utopia anymore, but dystopia, a ruined future, populated by villains and zombies, a world devastated by war or ecological disaster. From Wall-E to the Hunger Games to the Walking Dead, this world has some sense, deep down, that the end is coming. Maybe these movies and shows are meant to be prophecies, maybe they simply give expression to our deepest fears, but in some limited way, the world is reading the signs of the end, and the world is terrified.

“There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” The world fears the end because all the world can see is the sweeping away of everything that it holds dear. There is no safety in these dystopic futures; there is tyranny and oppression, there is violence and poverty. This is not a world that you want to dwell in, this is not a reality that you want to have happen to you. So people are spurred on to seek solutions, to safeguard themselves from apocalyptic disaster. Everything from stronger governments to powerful medicines, to things like recycling and doomsday shelters are all enlisted to avoid the disaster that is coming.

There’s a fundamental problem with these solutions: the end of the world isn’t coming from any action of man, and so no solution of man can halt it. The end of the world is an act of God Himself, and the only solution, therefore, is repentance, crying out for deliverance. Every minute that this world endures is due to the patience of God over the corruption wrought by sin, but eventually, that patience will run out. The only answer is to turn from the sins that fix your eyes on this doomed world and lift up your head toward God, begging for salvation. “But 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. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth.” This world, as much as it might fear the destruction of all that it holds dear, steadfastly refuses the only hope that is has been given to it: repentance.

Their hope comes from somewhere else. You see, these doomsday stories always have the ‘good guys,’ who are working their way through that terrible, destroyed world, and they will be the ones to rebuild. There is the potential of a new day, a resurgence of human culture, that from the ashes society will rise again. At the end of the movie, The Book of Eli, Denzel Washington’s character reaches an island where culture is preserved, and he gives them a copy of the Bible, to shelve next to the Koran. The message is clear: humanity will survive. What these stories try to get across to us is the same as any war movie: the triumph of the human spirit, that we as humans can overcome anything, even the utter destruction of our society. Yes, there is much to fear, but there is hope, and it is founded upon you and your fellow man, the heroism that dwells within. Salvation comes from you, and only from you; and together with other heroes, you can overcome.

That is where all of these stories fail so utterly. When the Last Day comes, you cannot save yourself, no matter how much ammo or canned goods you have stored in your cellar. No band of spunky humans will have the ability to rebuild anything, for everything will be destroyed. “The powers of the heavens will be shaken,” Jesus says; they will indeed be shaken, shaken apart. All that God so carefully put into place; the order that once characterized creation, will utterly fall apart. This is no disease, no ecological disaster, not even World War Three; this is the unraveling of creation itself. Environmentalists claim that we can destroy this world; they’re wrong—man can’t do it, but God can, and He will. The Last Day is complete, and it is total, and the only savior on that Day is the Savior that is coming on the clouds to greet His own.

“And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” The world should fear; it is bowed low, engrossed in its sins, refusing to repent. When that Day comes, there will only be fear, “people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world.” But for those who repent, those who believe, those who cling to the One who is coming on the clouds, that Day will be a Day of victory. “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Lift up your heads, straighten your backs, dear friends. Do not be bowed low with sin, do not let this world drag you down into the filth, but stand tall in repentance, in faith. For the One coming on the clouds is the One who descended once before, who descended from heaven for your salvation. The One who is coming on the Last Day is the One who shed His blood for your sins, who rose again from the dead. The One who is coming is your crucified and risen Savior.

The angels told the disciples as they gazed into heaven, “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.” The One who is returning from heaven on the Last Day is the One who ascended into heaven having destroyed sin, death, and Satan. So rejoice, dear friends, rejoice to see the signs that are coming on this earth. We do not rejoice that these terrible things have happened to us or our neighbors, we rejoice in what these events point to—the end of all sin and suffering when Christ returns in glory. The world is coming do an end because your Savior is returning. Rejoice to see this world hasten toward its end; rejoice that your redemption is drawing near. The One who is coming is your Savior, your Lord, who forsook His rightful place at the right hand of God to take on human flesh for your salvation. The One who is coming is Jesus, who suffered at the hands of evil men, who faced the whip and scourge for you. The One who is coming is the One who loved you so much that He would not leave you in your sins; when the Last Day comes, so does your redemption: do not fear, rejoice!

There is no fear for the one who is in Christ, only joy. There is no fear for the one who is in Christ, only anticipation of what is to come. The tumults and terrors of this world, as horrifying as they are, as much as they may impact your property, your health, even your life, are signs that Jesus is drawing near. “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.” Every natural disaster, every market crash, every outbreak of disease should cause us to rejoice that Christ is drawing near—again, not in the disaster itself and the suffering it causes, but in the promise that the disaster points to. We cry out, ‘O Lord, how long?’ and rejoice to know that He is drawing ever nearer; the signs tell us that this world will not last for long.

There is no need for fear; the end of all these signs is your redemption. There is no need for fear; the end of all these signs is your Savior returning on the clouds. Jesus’ advice? “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Straighten you backs; raise your heads. Stand tall, not bowed down with fear, not troubled by the terrible events described in the Scriptures. These signs must happen, but they are precursors to a reality that is indescribable, a reality without sin, a reality without evil, the new heavens and the new earth where you will dwell with Jesus, body and soul, forever. That is what the Last Day will bring, that is what we anticipate, that is what Christ brings with Him when He returns upon the clouds.

Are you ready? You must be, for all the signs point to Christ’s return at any moment; every sign of the end that Jesus gives us has happened and is happening right now. There is nothing left to be accomplished. Jesus can come at any moment, before the end of this sentence or the end of this sermon. He says it best Himself: “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 very point of a trap is that it goes off suddenly—are you ready? The world would keep you drowsy, with your head down; the advice of Jesus is to be awake, alert in prayer, with your head lifted in anticipation of His return. “Stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” Are you ready to stand before Jesus? The answer is found in our text. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” You are ready because you are in Christ, you are covered by His blood, you are redeemed by His death. The only shelter on that Day is to be in Jesus. You are ready because you have a life in Christ that is indestructible, you have been claimed by the Word which endures even when all else passes away. His Word will not pass away, and neither will you, for the One who is coming is Jesus, your Savior, your Lord. In His Name, Amen.