Sunday, December 29, 2013

Christmas 1 Sermon

Jesu Juva

“All According to Plan”
Text: Matthew 2:13-23; Galatians 4:4-7; Isaiah 63:7-14

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

On Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, we heard again the story we know so well - the story of Christmas; the story of the birth of the Son of God for us. St. Luke told us again of the journey to Bethlehem, the manger, the angels and shepherds (Luke 2:1-20). And St. John told us those amazing words: The Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:1-14)

Today, St. Matthew tells us exactly what kind of world Jesus was born into. And it’s quite a different picture. A world of jealousy. A world of hate. A world of sorrow. A world of deception. A world of anger. A world of inconvenience. A world of trouble. A world of fear. Or in other words: your world. For are not all these things what plague you too? They are the fruits of sin. The sin that continues to make this world quite a different place than it was created and meant to be.

We could call these the fruits that hang off the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that tempt us still today. Fruits that look so good and tasty and just what we need . . . but that once we sink our teeth into them, they produce nothing but evil; nothing but bitterness and strife and sadness.

You know it. Think about it. The last time you exploded in anger - did that solve your problem? Really? The last time you seethed in hatred - did that make things better? The last time you burned with jealousy - did you get what you wanted? The last time you stewed in resentment - did that satisfy you? Yet how often do we do these things? And keep doing them? Or have them done to us? Causing sadness, causing division, causing fear, causing so much hurt.

So Jesus. He comes and doesn’t just have the really cool stuff happen to Him - the angels and shepherds and wise men. But this. Our this. He goes through what we go through; what you go through. Whatever sin has stung you, Jesus has felt it too. 

That is what we hear from Matthew today. God’s people have to go to Egypt to save their life. Jesus too. His people are brought out of Egypt by God. Jesus too. They can’t go home right away, however. Jesus too. They live in the midst of their enemies. Jesus too. They live in the midst of sorrow and death. Jesus too. The first few years of life for Jesus were spent in travelling and fleeing, living in weird and unusual places, and in fear for life itself.

Merry Christmas!

Well, yes, actually! This is, in fact, what makes our Christmases merry! That God came to be with us in all this. That Jesus came to protect and rescue us from all this. From all the sin that plagues us from without, and from all the sin that plagues us from within. 

As I seem to say a lot in Bible classes, God never promised you an easy life; that He would keep all trouble from you, give you all you want, and make you better off than everyone else. Maybe that’s true for you; probably not! But what He has promised you is what we hear today: that whatever happens to you, He will be with you through it all. And so Christmas. Immanuel: God with us.

And God with us at just the right time. That’s what St. Paul said. When the fullness of time had come, or, at just the right time, God sent forth His Son. Now, you have to admit, hearing all that we heard from Matthew today, it sure doesn’t seem like just the right time! And to think about that a little more broadly, it sure doesn’t seem like the right place either. If location is everything (as realtors tell us today), then right in the backyard of an fearful, jealous king doesn’t seem like the optimal place for this birth. But of course, it was. All of it. According to plan.

For nothing can stop what God has ordained. The beginning of Jesus’ life is not trouble or worry free, but He is protected and preserved. Which should tell us something when a few years later, suddenly Jesus is not protected and preserved. When a few years later, one of His own turns on Him, He is arrested, beaten, treated as the worst kind of criminal, and then hung up to die a criminal’s death on a cross - a Roman warning to the world: do not be like this man, or this is what will happen to you. This too then is God’s will. This is the plan. Everything to fulfill God’s Word. Everything to fulfill God will.

We’re going to hear that a lot this year as we read through Matthew’s Gospel. It is one of his themes, one of his most-used phrases: this was to fulfill. It is not an accident, it is not chance or fate. It is God for you. God saving you. Even if that saving doesn’t happen exactly as you think it should . . .

And it’s the prophet Isaiah that helps us think about that a bit. For he starts out today by saying: Let me tell you of the steadfast love of the Lord! And he talks about Moses and the exodus . . . and then how the people rebelled and grieved His Spirit. You know the story. But let’s think just a moment about why they rebelled and grieved Him, and if it’s not the same as what we’ve been thinking about.

And so God brings His people out of Egypt - that’s great! But in just a day or two, they find themselves trapped between the Red Sea on the one side and the Egyptian army on the other. So, God, is this how you save us? Is this what your plan was? Really? Then they travel to Mount Sinai where Moses disappears for forty days. So, God, is this how you save us? Is this what your plan was? Really? Then they find themselves in the desert with no water and no food. So, God, is this how you save us? Is this what your plan was? Really? Then they get to the border of the Promised Land and discover the people already living there were really big and really strong. So, God, is this how you save us? Is this what your plan was? Really?

You seeing a pattern here? The people wondering about God and His plan and His ways, yet God saving His people. It’s not always easy, it may not always make sense to us, but it is God in His steadfast love saving His people. His love rescuing, His love disciplining, His love providing, His love struggling. To make for Himself, Isaiah says, a glorious name. Not because He needs the glory, but so that all the world know His glory and know Him as their Father. As a God of love. As a God dependable and reliable and saving. A God who doesn’t walk away when the going gets tough, but loves all the way to the cross.

So now, too, your life. Not the right time? Not the right place? Not making sense to you? Lord, I really don’t need this cross right now? Shhhh. 

God divided the Red Sea. Moses came back down the mountain with the Word of the Lord. God provided food and water in the desert. God defeated those big, bad people in the Promised Land. God came as a baby. God hung on the cross. God died for you. God rose from the dead for you. God gives you His Spirit. God baptized you and made you His child. God forgives you. God feeds you here with His Body and Blood. God gives you parents to protect and raise you. God gives you friends to help and care for you. God gives you your body and life and all you have. God gives you a family and a church. God is Immanuel, God with us, still. 

Not exactly what you had in mind? Maybe that’s a good thing! You think maybe we’ve tried our own way long enough? 

So maybe it’s time to try love instead of anger, confession instead of excuses, forgiveness instead of revenge, gladness instead of jealousy, service instead of selfish, prayer instead of spite. Receiving all this from Him who came to be with us in our sin, and then giving all this to those He sends to us now. For as St. Paul said, because of Jesus we are no longer slaves to sin, but sons of God. Yes, God fulfilling His plan for you.

In the Name of the Father and of the (+) Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Christmas Day Sermon

Jesu Juva

“Ten Fingers and Ten Toes!”
Text: John 1:1-14; Isaiah 52:7-10; Hebrews 1:1-6

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Ten fingers, ten toes. Or so the saying goes. When a child is born, the parents count and thank God for the gift of child. The parents count and wonder: what will this child be? What will this child do?

I don’t know if Mary and Joseph counted or not - I suppose they did. But they did not have to wonder what this child would be or do. They knew. The angel had told them. This child is the Son of God in human flesh. Or as we heard today: The Word who was in the beginning and was with God and was God . . . became flesh and dwelt among us. And He came to save His people from their sins. What those ten fingers and ten toes would do is fight . . . to the death.

But those ten fingers did not fight by being clenched into fists, but by being stretched out in mercy, fighting not against flesh and blood, but for flesh and blood. Fighting not against the men and women the Word came to save and came as a brother to, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12). And so those ten fingers fought this battle by reaching out and touching lepers, healing the sick, casting out demons, and raising the dead.

And those ten toes, too. They did not fight by rushing into battle, but by walking with the lonely, the outcast, the sinners. Walking the countless dusty paths in Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, and stopping to help wherever there were people in need. 

But most of all did those ten fingers and ten toes fight by having the fight taken out of them, when they had those large, cold, hard, iron spikes driven through them, attaching them to the cross. This was hand-to-hand combat, you could say. Your God, your Saviour, fighting for you. Fighting to the death . . . and then through it.

It would have been easier to just drop a few bombs and be done with it. That’s what we do today isn’t it? And not just with wars. I mean in all of life. We keep our distance now. It’s easier. Less messy. And so we fly bombers over our enemies from 30,000 feet. We attack and criticize and vent our frustrations on the internet. We no longer leave our houses to pay our bills, buy our things, or get our news. If there’s a need somewhere, just send money. We fly drones from half a world away. And the next battlefield, we are being told, will be a cyber one. Hand-to-hand and face-to-face? Not so much anymore.

God could’ve done that too - dropped a bomb on our world and dealt with the problem of sin once and for all. Just nuke it. Nice and neat. Do away with it . . . and us.

But no. That wouldn’t do. God wants no one to perish; no a single soul (2 Peter 3:9). And so just as God specially created Adam from the dust of the ground, getting His hands dirty, if you will, so to rescue Adam He would do the same. He would get His hands dirty - His ten fingers and ten toes, to save us. The eternal Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

That’s the miracle we rejoice in this day. That the God who created all things and still upholds the universe by the word of His power, has come in human flesh and blood to fight for you. You are simply too precious not to. Each and every person, worthy of His time, His attention, His blood, His ten fingers and ten toes. No matter who they were or what they had done, His ten fingers and ten toes were there for them. 

But that wasn’t just true 2,000 years ago. Christmas isn’t just the celebration of history - it is more than that. It is the celebration that those ten fingers and ten toes are still here for you, fighting for your ten rebellious fingers, your ten wandering toes, and all the rest of sinful you. The fingers and toes of the baby in the manger and man on the cross are here now just as they were then, reaching out to save, baptizing, absolving, feeding. God doesn’t mail it in. He comes. He comes to homes, hospitals, and hospices. He comes to churches, cities, and countries. He comes to the wealthy, the weak, and the wondering. He comes, and He won’t stop. 

And this coming . . . speaks volumes. The author of Hebrews told us that Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son. The sending of His Son showing you how much God loves you and will do for you. The appearing of His Son showing you that God does stay away, far off, delegating, protecting His holiness, His honor, and His glory, but comes to embrace you and give you His holiness, His honor, and His glory. These His Christmas gifts to you. To restore what you had lost. To raise you from death to life. To bring light into the darkness, and joy into sadness.

So last night may have been filled with many Silent Nights, but today Isaiah says the watchmen lift up their voices and sing for joy, and he calls on all the Lord’s people to join together in singing! For today, God has bared his holy arm. He rolled up His holy sleeves and got to work. No less God than He was before, but now also true man, to save men. To save you.

Ten fingers with dirt under their nails. Ten toes all dusty and with dirt stuck between them. Two hands and two feet with holes punched through them. One back with too many lash marks, and one head with innumerable thorn holes. And one heart pierced for you, broken for you, but filled with love for you. Love that no spear, no death, no devil could take away. Father, forgive them.

The world may hold Her wealth and gold;
But thou, my heart, keep Christ as thy true treasure.
To Him hold fast Until at last
A crown be thine and honor in full measure (LSB #372 v. 6).

And with that gift, those gifts, given to you . . . well, take a look at your fingers, your toes . . . are they dirty? Maybe we can give a few gifts like this. That your feet be the beautiful feet that Isaiah spoke about. Beautiful not because they’re clean, but because they’re dirty, dusty, and grimy. In serving. In loving. In forgiving. In being there. Like Jesus’. Proclaiming the good news of great joy that has come to us this day - in words and deeds. Come this day, but for every day. Come to Bethlehem, but for every place. Especially every place today wrapped in sin, fear, pain, struggle, war, and death. For now, as then, ten fingers and ten toes can make a world of difference.

Merry Christmas.

In the Name of the Father and of the (+) Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Eve Readings, Meditations, and Carols

Christmas Eve Readings, Meditation, and Carols
Saint Athanasius Lutheran Church
December 24, 2013

The pages that follow contain the Scriptures, meditations, and hymns that were heard and sung this Christmas Eve. The meditations take into account the readings and use the words of the hymns that are sung with them, thus bringing together all into a cohesive whole to unite the message into the hearts of all who hear and sing. For truly, the hymns we sing are the church’s sung confession of the faith, and this service seeks to utilize that to proclaim the message of this night.

A reading from Second Samuel, chapter 7.

“Go and tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord: I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.’”

Meditation on 2 Samuel 7:5a, 11b-14, 16 and 
Hymns 379 (O Come, All Ye Faithful) and 376 (Once in Royal David’s City)

You have come to adore Him, Christ the Lord. Son of the Father, Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.

But even more than that, you have come tonight to receive from Him. For that is why He came down to earth from heaven, in royal David’s city. He came to live with the poor and mean and lowly, with folks like you and me, that we be poor and mean and lowly no more. To be the king we need, the promised son of David who will sit on his throne forever and rule in holiness, righteousness, and love. 

But before ascending to that throne in heaven, He must lie in a manger-throne and hang on a cross-throne. And in between He is our childhood’s pattern - a pattern we cannot follow or keep. For He lives perfectly, we do not. He keeps all the Law completely, we do not. He loves at all times, we do not. So even more than our pattern, our eyes see Him as our Saviour in His redeeming love. For that child, that man, so dear and gentle, that condemned criminal on the cross is our Lord in heaven above, who is establishing His kingdom and building His house, His Church, through the forgiveness of sins He won for us. 

And now He leads us on to the where He has gone, that He who came to be with us might take us to be with Him forever. When we, His children, crowned, like stars, all in white, His praise will sound. When we will adore Him not just for a night, but forever.

A reading from Micah, chapter 5.

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
    one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
    from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
    when she who is in labor has given birth;
then the rest of his brothers shall return
    to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord,
    in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great
    to the ends of the earth.
And he shall be their peace.

Meditation on Micah 5:2-5a and Hymn 361 (O Little Town of Bethlehem)

Bethlehem. No one would have guessed there. It was too little, too insignificant, too ordinary. The Wise Men went to Jerusalem, for that’s where a king should be born, right?

Well not if you’re the everlasting light. He chooses differently than we do. He comes not with fanfare, but how silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given. So many didn’t know. So many slept right through it. So many didn’t care. No ear may have heard his coming, but they would hear Him later, when He spoke God’s Word, God’s truth, to a world in need.

And God is speaking still, for ours is a world still in need. Of Him. And so the holy child of Bethlehem is still descending to us today in His Word, and His Word in Baptism, and His Word in the Supper, to cast out sin and enter in, that being born in us we be born in Him, born from above. A wondrous gift still given. The gift of peace. The gift of being in the flock of this Good Shepherd. 

So maybe Bethlehem was still that night, its streets dark, many in deep and dreamless sleep as the silent stars went by. But as the angels’ great glad tidings told, so we tonight will not keep silent. And we will not only sing out these same great glad tidings, we will repent of our sins. For truly in repenting and receiving the forgiveness of our Lord Immanuel, we praise Him for who He truly is, and who He came to be: our Saviour.

A reading from Isaiah, chapter 9.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
    on them has light shone.
You have multiplied the nation;
    you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest,
    as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder,
    the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
    and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire.
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.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
    there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
    to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness
    from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Meditation on Isaiah 9:2-7 and Hymn 412 (The People That in Darkness Sat)

The people who sat in darkness. Deep darkness, Isaiah said. That’s not only the people back then, it’s you and I tonight. For we sit not in the darkness of night, but the darkness of sin. If it doesn’t seem too dark to you, that’s just because your eyes - and hearts - have gotten used to it. But the darkness is no less now. Everyone doing was is right in his own eyes. Death descending on more and more every day. Death natural and unnatural. And God’s perfect plan and design for us seeming to grow dimmer and dimmer.

But in this darkness a great light shines. The light of truth. The light of life. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given. To break the darkness of sin with His forgiveness. To break the darkness of death with His resurrection. To break the darkness of a lost and wandering world with His Word - His Word which is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Ps 119:105). For tonight, the Word is made flesh.

So there is joy tonight. A joy higher and deeper and wider and broader than just the bountiful harvest of gifts we receive, the spoils of the season - but the joy of war over, the joy of oppression lifted, the joy of a promised future that can never be taken away from us. For the light of the Word reveals that the gift we receive tonight is the Wonderful, the Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. He gives Himself to us to make us His alone. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this, for He is zealous, in love, for you.

A reading from Luke, chapter 2.

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

Meditation on Luke 2:1-7 and Hymn 370 (What Child Is This)

What child is this on Mary’s lap, sleeping? Mary knew. It was the child the angel Gabriel had told her about. The child conceived in her by the Holy Spirit. The Christ. The King. The Saviour. Son of God now also son of Mary. Now and foerever God and man in one person.

Why lies He in such mean estate - wrapped in swaddling clothes - and where ox and ass are feeding - in a manger? Because He has come to be like us and to live with us. Our cashmere sweaters and designer clothes like dirty rags compared to the glorious dress of heaven. Our palaces and mansions like stables compared with the kingdom of heaven. So those things He leaves to be with us in ours. Higher than none, that He be for all. Peasant, king, or anywhere in between.

But even more than that: nails, spear, shall pierce Him through, the cross be borne for me, for you. This firstborn son will be given to redeem the world. The Father spared all the firstborn sons in Egypt, but He would not spare His own Son. The Father spared all the firstborn sons in Egypt covered by the blood of the passover Lamb, but He would give His Son to be that Lamb whose blood will cover us, so that death pass us over. The King of kings salvation brings - through His death and resurrection.

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And so it is, that, while HE was HERE, the days were accomplished that WE should be delivered. So joy to all the world, for Christ is born, the babe, the son of Mary!

A reading from Luke, chapter 2.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.

Meditation on Luke 2:8-15 and Hymn 380 (Hark! The Herald Angels Sing)

The Scriptures tell us that the angels of God surround Him always and never cease their song of praise. So it should be no surprise to us that when the Son of God comes down to earth and is born a man, there the angels are too. And they sing their song of praise to some shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. They sing to shepherds, quite naturally, because they are singing of the Lamb, the Lamb of God in the manger.

But though they sing to shepherds, their good tidings of great joy are for all people of all time, everywhere. For you and me. For mild He lays His glory by to be born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth. Yes, glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. For this child is born to bring peace between God and man in the forgiveness of our sins.

Up until this time, the angels have been at work, but quietly, announcing this good news to Mary, to Joseph. But now that He has come, these messengers of God cannot contain themselves, so great their rejoicing! They herald this good news of the newborn king. That light and life to all He brings, risen with healing in his wings. Here is God with us. Here is God for us. The incarnate Deity, the godhead veiled in flesh, come for you. 

So hear again the angels’ eternal song, for they sing for you.

A reading from Titus, chapter 3.

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

Meditation on Titus 3:4-7 and Hymn 362 (O Sing of Christ)

In the beginning, when God created all things, it was good. Very good. But it did not stay so long. The first Adam and his wife, Eve, lost this good God had created and given to them, choosing the lie over the truth, choosing sin instead of life. And they could not get it back. Now, Paradise was barred to them and they would live a life of hardship, labor, and strife. Such is the fruit of sin. 

But God was not done with His good. The goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared in the world again, this time in a manger. The eternal Word was made flesh and bone. Upon our frail humanity, the icon of God’s grace was traced. There was once again a perfect man on the earth, a second Adam, and they named Him Jesus.

He came to mend what sin had marred. He came to reclaim us as His own. He came to open Paradise again. And so as we heard, the angels are no longer barring the way with their flashing swords - they are singing of heaven open again. For soon, the grave would be opened by this one, and by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, Holy Baptism opens the grave for us too. Adam’s sin is overcome by Jesus’ forgiveness, Adam’s death is conquered by Jesus life, Adam’s defeat is reversed by Jesus’ victory, given to us with water and the Word. And so by His grace we became heirs of eternal life, sharing His wealth and His name for all eternity. 

Which makes Christmas more than just the birth of one son - it the birth of many. Because of His birth here below are we born from above, and so saved not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His mercy. 

A reading from Luke, chapter 2.

And [the shepherds] came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

Meditation on Luke 2:16-20 and Hymns 386 (O Sing We, Now Rejoice), 363 (Silent Night), and 387 (Joy to the World)

The angels had to sing, they couldn’t contain themselves. The shepherds, too, returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them. And so now do we, taking this joy of a Saviour out into a world filled with sadness and gloom and need. For even as many sing Joy to the World this night, what their hearts feel is quite different than their words say. For many, joy and peace seem only a dream. 

So we rejoice, not in a fleeting joy, but in joy anchored in the Word, in the one who came from on high to us, for we could not rise to Him. The one who has come to cheer our wearied spirits, wearied under the loads of sin, vanity, and death. And if that’s you tonight, if you are here but feel no joy, if you sing but wonder where is your hope, if you see the lights but find only darkness in your heart, there is good news for you. For in this world where sins and sorrows grow, and thorns infest the ground of your heart, He comes to make His blessings flow. He comes to bless you with His forgiveness. That you have hope in Him. That if your heart and mind are raging this silent night, He quiet them with His love for you. For yes, He loves you. The proof is in the manger and on the cross. The proof is in these words: I forgive you all your sins. All He does, He does for you, for this. That you may know the wonders of His love, even in the midst of a world of sin and hate.

That is where joy is found - in Him. The holy ground where He puts Himself for you. A manger, a font. A cross, an altar. A mountain, a pulpit. Until a cloud, when we will be there with Him. The misery and sadness and strife of this world make us only long that we were there. Now! United with all His saints in praise. But not yet. Now He is here, with us, to bring Joy to the World. To you. I pray this night that it may be so for you. That whatever is happening in you or around you or to you, this be a silent night, a holy night, for you. That the tumult of your heart be calmed by the light of His love and the dawn of His redeeming grace. 

For Christ, the Saviour - your Saviour - is born! 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Advent 3 Midweek Sermon

Jesu Juva

“The Lord Has Mercy”
Text: Luke 1:67-79; Zephaniah 3:14-20

Zechariah had a lot of reasons to rejoice. He now held in his arms the gift of a son, he now had received the gift of his voice back, and after nine months of silence and meditation on the Word of God, he now knew - better than ever - the merciful plan of God that was now being fulfilled. How do we know that? He said so. In the words he spoke that we heard tonight. 

For Luke told us that Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit. That happens through the Word. The Holy Spirit comes to us through the Word and works through the Word and Zechariah’s nine months in the Word of God had filled him with the Holy Spirit. And thus filled, he spoke. He prophesied, which is to say, he spoke the Word of God. By looking back in meditation, Zechariah could look forward in expectation.

And at the center of his words, and the center of their meaning, was this: the Lord was now showing the mercy promised to our fathers; He was remembering His holy covenant. Now was the appointed time. Now was the time of fulfillment. Now was the time when, as Zephaniah had said: The Lord would take away His judgments against His people, when He would clear away their enemies, when He would be in their midst, and they would fear no more.

It had been a long time coming. This was the promise first spoken to Adam and Eve in the Garden, and then repeated down through the years to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and Solomon. They only saw it from afar, but now it was coming to completion. God had now visited and redeemed His people. He had raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David. Yes, the promised son of David who would sit on his throne forever was now coming. Because in John, Zechariah’s son, the forerunner was here. The one to go before the Lord and prepare His way. To get the people ready. The sun was coming up on the darkness of sin, and that sin would soon be scattered in the light of His forgiveness.

And so old Zechariah cannot contain his joy. He too fulfills what Zephaniah said: Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! Yes, that was Zechariah. Filled with the Spirit. Filled with the joy of the Lord.

And it is you too. For this mercy, this joy, is for you too. Not just the passing joy of opening a few gifts on Christmas morning - however great they might be - but the joy, as Zechariah said, of being delivered from our enemies, that we might serve our Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness all our days. For in Jesus, God has visited and redeemed His people. In Jesus, our enemies of sin, death, and the devil have been defeated. In Jesus, we no longer serve the Lord in fear but in freedom. And in Jesus, we are holy and righteous. Zechariah had a lot of reasons to rejoice, but so do we!

For the Lord has not just visited His people, He has visited you. The angel Gabriel came to Zechariah, but God came to you in Holy Baptism and filled you there with His Spirit. And there you became an heir of the covenant, the next in the long line of salvation. Salvation from your enemy sin, now forgiven. Salvation from your enemy death, now not a dead end but the door to life everlasting. And salvation from your enemy the devil, who now has no claim on you. For you have been redeemed and belong to the One who bought you not with gold or silver but with His holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death

This is our anchor, that keeps us from drifting aimlessly through this world and life. Our anchor which enables us to look forward in faith and hope. Knowing that the Lord is merciful still, and that the light of His Word continues to rise upon us, scattering the darkness of sin and death, that we live in His light and life as He guides our feet in the way of peace.

So whatever is going on in your life, follow Zechariah’s example and look back. Look back on how God acted for His people. How He cared for them and provided for them. How He rescued them and led them. How He forgave them and was with them. Whatever is going on in your life, look back and you will see a God who is faithful and merciful and knows how to care for you. For as He has done in the past, so He will do in the future. And this is the knowledge that will bring you peace. The knowledge that you are not alone, but have a God who has visited and redeemed you, and is with you still, filling you with His Spirit and His life. Yes, the Lord is near.

And so as we draw closer to the end of this Advent season and to the joy of Christmas, leave tonight with this thought too: we are not the only ones for whom this season brings joy. As Zephaniah said: the Lord rejoices over you. That’s how much He loves you. That’s how much you matter to Him. That’s why He came for you, and comes for you still. You are His joy, and there is nothing your Lord wants more than to have you with Him. Think about that for a bit, like Zechariah did, and see if that does not fill you with wonder and joy, too.

Lord God, heavenly Father, we thank You for Your great mercy and love for us that while we were still sinners, You sent Your Son in mercy and love to die for us. Give us the joy of Zechariah this Christmas season, help us remember that You also delight and rejoice over us, Your dear children, and enable us to look forward to Your second advent with confidence. Grant us, Lord, to not be too busy to remember and meditate on the past, rejoice in the future, and give thanks for the present - and for Your presence with us always, in mercy, for our salvation; through Jesus Christ, You Son, we pray, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Advent 3 Sermon

Jesu Juva

“Great, Greater, and Greatest”
Text: Matthew 11:2-15

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Unless you have been living under a rock, you have heard the news that Nelson Mandela died. His funeral was earlier this morning and coverage of all the events remembering him has been all over the news. He is being remembered and celebrated for all that he did to advance the cause of human rights and equality. He had spent some 18 years as a political prisoner in an awful prison for speaking out. And when he was eventually released, he went on to do a number of significant things. He died at home after 95 years of life, surrounded by family. And this week, presidents and other dignitaries cancelled events, changed their schedules, and flew half-way around the world to be at his memorial. He is, we are being told, one of the greatest, if not the greatest man of our times.

But today we heard of someone even greater. Jesus said: among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. John the Baptist was a political prisoner too, having been thrown into King Herod’s dungeon for his message. John the Baptist was also all about equality, for he told all people - no matter who they were or what their place in life: Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand. No favoritism for John! All are sinners and in need of repentance and forgiveness. 

But unlike Nelson Mandela, John was never released; he was beheaded by Herod in prison. He didn’t get to die a peaceful death, surrounded by family; his life and career were cut short. And he didn’t have any dignitaries at his funeral - just a few of his disciples who came and took his headless body and buried it. Somewhere. We don’t even know where. No memorial. No honor. And this one, Jesus said, is the greatest.

Now, you’d get an argument about that from many people today, and I’ll bet it was not an uncontroversial statement when Jesus said it either. For think about that for a moment; think about all men who had been born up to that point. There were the men we know about from the Bible: men like Noah, Abraham, Joseph, David, and Solomon, just to name a few. There were also the great men of political fame, who had built great kingdoms and advanced science and culture. And John surpasses all these? John, who eats locusts and wild honey? John, who lives out in the desert? John, who wears a coat of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist? John, the eccentric prophet who makes you uncomfortable to be around, yet who you can’t help but go out to see? 

And then what about all the people, all the men and women who have been born and done great things in the two thousand years since John? Would Jesus say the same thing about John today, that he is the greatest? Well, if John surpassed all those others, then yes, he is greater than these too. Among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. 

So listen to him today, to this great one. He sends his disciples to Jesus with a question. Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another? It was not a question just for himself, but for them, and for you today, and for all people of all time. All are included in that “we.” Is Jesus the one? The one for you in the darkness of depression. The one for you in the sadness of death. The one for you in the pain of sickness and disease. The one for you in the isolation of loneliness. The one for you under the burdens of life. The one for you locked in struggles of worry and doubt. The one for you when life takes a turn you didn’t expect and your world come crumbling down. Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another? 

John asks so the world may know. The one who came to prepare the way for the Messiah and point to Him is pointing to Him still, even from prison, even still today from the grave. That we may know that Jesus is the coming one, the promised one, the one who will save us from our sins, our sinful world, and our sin-caused death.

And so Jesus answers that question by pointing to the signs of all that. Jesus is fulfilling what the prophet Isaiah had spoken, and that is important. Jesus is the subject and the fulfillment of all the Scriptures. But what these signs show is sin coming undone before the one who has come to cut the knot of sin. All who tried before Him just made the knot tighter and tighter. But with Jesus, what sin has caused is coming undone. The blind, the lame, the deaf, the lepers, the dead - all is cured, cleansed, and raised to life again. Signs of an even greater deliverance coming through Jesus’ death and resurrection. When Jesus would have our noose of sin tied around Him on the cross and snuff out His life, so that in His resurrection that knot be cut for us once and for all. 

But in that list of things Jesus has come to do something about, where are you? As I look around today, none of you is blind, lame, deaf, leperous, or dead, though many of you wear glasses, have hearing aides, and some have trouble walking. But here you are: the poor have good news preached to them. You may not be poor by worldly standards, but you were by the heavenly one. The only standard that really matters, in fact. For just as many today would argue about the greatness of John, so many today would argue about our spiritual poverty. Clearly, God measures things differently than we do. For born in sin, you are born poor, with no eternal inheritance, no eternal life, nothing that will last beyond the few years and few things you are given in this life. And when you add to that your sin, you not only have nothing, you increase a debt you cannot pay, with the only thing waiting for you the debtors prison of hell. 

But you, you have the good news preached to you! That this is not your inevitable destiny, but there is more, there is hope, there is life for you. And not just a life eternal, but a new life that starts even now. A new life just as real as if you had been blind and could now see, if you had been deaf and could now hear, if you had been lame and could now walk, if you had been a leper and were now cleansed, and if you had been dead and were now alive. For all that is what happens to you here, when the coming one comes to you in the water of His Baptism, in the words of His Gospel, and in His Body and Blood. He comes to you that you now see His glory that is hidden here in these gifts. He comes to you that you now hear His words of peace. He comes to you that you now be cleansed of your sins. He comes to you that you now be raised to a new life. A new life not limited by the events and changes of this world, but which surpasses them. That wherever you are and however you are, you have hope.

That is the new life John is pointing to and Jesus is providing. New life through the Word of God. For, Jesus goes on to ask the people, what did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? Or in other words, did you go out to see all the nice scenery and the soft wind blowing through the rushes on the banks of the Jordan? No! What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Or in other words, a successful man dressed in a designer suit, with the finest Italian leather shoes, and perfect hair? No! You don’t dress like that out in the wilderness. What then did you go out to see? A prophet. Yes. Someone who speaks the Word of God. To hear the Word of God. The Word of God that gives new life.

So too for you today: what did you come to church to see? An impressive building, beautiful music, a successful man? No! None of those things are here. You came still today to hear the Word of God. The Word that is truth. The Word that still points to Jesus as the coming one, as the answer to our questions, and the life for our death. You have come to receive what you did not have, and what you need. For you have been told what here you hear and see: the sinful are forgiven, the hungry are fed, and the poor have the good news preached to them. And blessed are you who are not offended by Him, by His Law, by His seeming weakness, but who repent and are blessed by Him, receiving from Him gifts that the world judges weak and useless, but which give a treasure that will never pass away. A treasure that gives life.

So while you may never be a Nelson Mandela, God will use you to do great things - things that are great in His sight, though things that are maybe despised by the world. But no worries: the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than all the great ones of this world. And that’s you. For in Christ, you are in the kingdom the heaven. The world strives for greatness by achievement, or even by force and violence, Jesus says - force and violence that may one day come upon you. If it does, do not worry. Christ took that force and violence on the cross and broke it, making it a means not to break you down but raise you up to life. To make you great.

So John’s question is a good one for us to hear, especially now, in these last days before Christmas, and in these last days period. That we rejoice in His first coming - His birth - rightly, that we look for His second coming - in glory - rightly, and that we know and receive His coming now - here! - rightly. For Jesus really is the coming one. For He is always coming, and working, for you.

In the Name of the Father and of the (+) Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Advent 2 Midweek Sermon

Jesu Juva

“The Lord Speaks”
Text: Psalm 62; Isaiah 62:1-7; Luke 1:57-64

We sang in the Psalm earlier: For God alone my soul waits in silence (Psalm 62:1, 5). That was Zechariah. Struck mute by the Lord because of his unbelief, for over nine months he waited in silence. Maybe it was kind of a “divine time out” for Zechariah, to give him time to think about what he had heard, what he had done, and what God was doing. 

For over nine months he had time to ponder the Word of the Lord - not just the Word spoken directly to him by the angel Gabriel, telling him the good news of the gift of a son to him and Elizabeth - but all the Word of God. The Word that came through Moses. The Word that came through all the prophets God had sent to His people. Telling of a Saviour. Telling of God’s plan. That plan that was now being fulfilled in both Zechariah’s son John and in the Son coming after him, the one who would be named Jesus.

That Word came through prophets like Isaiah, whose 66 chapters contain more about the Saviour and who He would be and what He would do than any other book in the Old Testament. Earning Isaiah the well-deserved title of the fifth evangelist. Isaiah tells us of the virgin birth (7:14); of Jesus’ descent from David (11:1-10). Isaiah penned the words: to us a child is born, to us a son is given (9:6). Isaiah told us of the suffering servant who would bear our sin and shame (52:13-53:12), and told us that though our sins be as scarlet, they will be as white as snow (1:18). Isaiah seems to be the living embodiment of God’s own words that we heard tonight: For Zion's sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not be quiet, until her righteousness goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a burning torch. Or in other words, until the one who is our righteousness and salvation, Jesus, comes. For all God’s Word is about Jesus.

And old Zechariah and Elizabeth were now part of that plan. Amazing. 

So for over nine months, Zechariah got to think about that. Once God has spoken; twice have I heard, the psalmist wrote. Once God had spoken to Zechariah, but those words wouldn’t leave his head. He kept hearing them over and over again, pondering them, meditating on them, and being blessed by them. Yes, for the Word of God is always living and active and Spirit-filled. So these nine months weren’t a punishment for Zechariah, but a blessing. God had to make him mute so that he could listen. Listen to God. Listen to the good news God was speaking to him. 

And at the end of those nine plus months, when their child was born and they named Him John, in accordance with the Word they had received from God, then Zechariah’s mouth was opened and he praised and blessed God. He had nine months of praise and blessing stored up! And we’ll look at those words next week.

But for tonight, we can learn a thing or two from Zechariah, for God would speak to you too. Not through a voice from heaven, or the voice of an angel, or even a voice in your heart - no, He has given us a Word more sure than all that: His Word, His Holy Scriptures. His Word once spoken but which still speaks. His Word which is still living and active and Spirit-filled. His Word through which the Holy Spirit is working in you, to give you faith and hope and love.

And what is the Holy Spirit speaking to you in this Word? Well, not that you are going to have a son, but that you are a son. His son! No matter how old or young, no matter how sinful or lost. As Zechariah found out, you’re never too old or too far gone for the miracle of God’s birth. You’re never too old for God’s gifts.

But maybe like Zechariah, you don’t always listen to or believe that Word. Because your head is too full of doubt, your heart too full of worry, your mind too full of fear, your life too full of the things of this world, and God’s Word is drowned out. Or maybe we are too busy telling God what He should be doing, or complaining about what He is or is not doing that we think He should be. And so maybe like Zechariah, we need to be made mute too, so that we can listen.

That’s one of the reasons for this Advent season. That we have a time out and stop and listen to the voice of our God and Saviour who wants to tell us of all that He has done for us. His voice in baptism which says you are my beloved son. His voice in the Gospel and in absolution which says your sins are forgiven. His voice in the Supper which says that by eating His Body and drinking His Blood you have His life and salvation. His voice which calls us to repentance and faith. Believe this! That God sent His Son not to be born from you, but born for you. That, as Isaiah said, you be not forsaken or desolate, for you are the delight of the Lord, the Bridegroom who is coming for His Bride. For you.

That is the Word God wants you to hear - a Word even more wondrous than that spoken to Zechariah so long ago. It truly is a “thrilling voice” that is sounding (LSB #345), telling us that Christ is near - as near as the pulpit, the font, and the altar; showing us the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world; and assuring us that soon, soon this Son will come again in glory, to take us sons of God to that glory, His glory, bestowed upon us.

Old Zechariah did finally hear that Word. He spoke it, too, when he said: His name is John. In Hebrew, John is Jochanan and means: the Lord has shown favor. And truly the Lord did - to Zechariah and Elizabeth, and to you and me. So may our tongues, too, be loosed to proclaim and bless the Lord, who has done such great things for us.

Lord God, heavenly Father, thank You for Your Word, Your voice to us still today. When our doubts and fears and busyness make us deaf to Your voice, make us mute that we may listen to You, hear Your love, and believe. Help us to treasure Your Word and drive all fear from us, that we may live in You alone, and rightly celebrate the birth of Your Son; through the same Jesus Christ we pray, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.