Sunday, December 28, 2014

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Christmas Day Sermon

Jesu Juva

“The Light Shines in the Darkness”
Text: John 1:1-14; Titus 3:4-7

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

We heard these words from St. John: The light shines in the darkness  . . .  He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 

The darkness does not understand it. How could it? What God has done this day is unfathomable, incomprehensible, and quite frankly, against all human reason. 

For today, the Lord God, the almighty, all-powerful, all-knowing God, creator and sustainer of all, the only infinite One, the alpha and the omega, without beginning or end, is born a man. The Word became flesh; that’s how John put it. The glorious God lies humbly in a manger. The eternal Son of God, at the Father’s right hand, now Mary’s son, nestled in her arms. 

The true light, the light of the world, the light which gives light to everyone, John said, now lies in the darkness of this sin-darknened world. To enlighten it. To save it.

The darkness does not understand this. What darkness? The darkness of evil? Yes. The darkness of the evil one? Yes. The darkness of our evil world? Yes. The darkness of sin? Yes. But also our darkness - the darkness of our hearts and minds. Our sin-darkened minds focused only of the things of this world. Our sin-darkened hearts desiring only the things of this world. 

We do not understand. What is God doing? Why am I here? Why is there so much evil and sadness in the world? Why are things not better for me? And what we do not understand we fear and sometimes turn away from. He came to his own, John said, and his own people did not receive him.

It’s true, isn’t it? We turn to the darkness for answers, for comfort, for relief. We hurt those who hurt us, or better, before they can hurt us. We keep chasing joys that do not last and feelings which are even more fleeting. We question God and believe what makes sense to and pleases me.  

And so there was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him.

John pointed to Jesus. God sent him because he knew the darkness would not understand what he was doing and how He was doing it. And so John proclaimed Jesus. Proclaimed that He is the light of the world. He is the Lamb of God, your Saviour. He is your God in human flesh.

And the darkness said: him? The just Mary’s son. Just the carpenter’s son. Nobody special. The darkness did not understand. Even worse, the darkness killed Him. Snuffed out the light of the world. Brought to an end the one without end. Crucified the very one who gave all things life. And by all rights, His death should have been our death. And I don’t mean just that we deserved to die, although that’s true. But in this sense: that when you kill what gives you life, your life should cease too. It’s like turning off the pacemaker that keeps your heart beating, or stopping the oxygen that keeps you breathing. Kill the source of your life, and you’re cutting off your future too.

But that did not happen. Because here’s something else the darkness did not understand: the darkness could not overcome it

I’m not a scientist, but there something in the universe that science calls a black hole. And it’s called that - black - because it’s a place where the gravity is so intense that nothing can escape from it - not even light. And that’s what the dark one, the evil one, thought: he could put out the light of the world.

And for a day or so it looked that way. A cold, lifeless body laid in a tomb. The Jewish leaders going home to prepare to worship the God they just killed, satisfied with their job well done. Was there ever a darkness so deep as that Good Friday?

But because it was, there was also never a light as bright as on that morning when the light came out of the darkness; when Jesus came out of His tomb alive. Triumphant. Glorious. As so John’s Gospel ends just as it begins: the darkness could not overcome the light.

And that is true not only of the world, in a general sense, but also of the darkness in you and your heart. And Titus, too, bore witness to us today, saying: when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us. When He appeared - does that mean Jesus’ birth or His resurrection? 

Yes. The light that broke the darkness on that Christmas morn Is the light that broke the darkness on that Easter morn and is the light that broke the darkness of your heart when you were baptized. When, according to His mercy . . . you were saved by the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on you richly through Jesus Christ our Savior. The washing for the forgiveness of your sins, your darkness, your doubt; and the renewal for a new life, a Spirit-filled life, a life of light. In Christ. When you were born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And so what John said is now also true for you: and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth

You now see. And so while you still may not know what God is doing, why you are here, why there is so much evil and sadness in the world, or why things are not better for you - you know the goodness and loving kindness of God, for you know the One lying in the manger. And so you know the love of God who would give His Son for you. So that no matter how deep the darkness gets - in the world or in your life - you always have this light, to give you hope and peace and life.

And now, like John, you are sent out into a world of darkness, and you too get to proclaim this unfathomable, incomprehensible mystery: that on this day not just a child was born, but the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And He still is. Still baptizing, still forgiving, still giving us His Body and Blood to nourish and strengthen us in Him. The Christmas gift that keeps on giving, and will never stop.

So Joy to the World (LSB #387), for the One of the Father’s Love Begotten (LSB #384) has come, and is the child Gentle Mary Laid in a manger (LSB #374), the rest for our souls (LSB #372), and the song of the Angels we have Heard on High (LSB #368). All these you sing today, for the light has shone upon you and you are in darkness no more. Merry Christmas!

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

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Eve Sermon

Jesu Juva

“Pondering These Things”
Text: Luke 2:1-20; Isaiah 9:2-7; 1 John 4:7-16

In the Name of Jesus. Amen.

Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.

That is what All Ye Faithful have Come (LSB #379) here this night to do as well. Ponder all these things. You know the story - Mary and Joseph, travelling to the Little Town of Bethlehem (LSB #361), Royal David’s City (LSB #376), to register for the tax. Arriving too late to stay with family or even in guest quarters, and so having to spend the night where the animals were kept. And then the birth. Placing Jesus in the manger, the feed trough. The angels announcing this birth to the shepherds, and then their visit. 

You know the story, and we sang it again this night in all those beloved hymns and carols. So you have not come tonight for information, but to treasure up all these things and ponder them in your heart. After all the busyness of shopping and wrapping, baking and card writing, travelling and shipping - it is time to ponder. Tonight there are lots of treasures under trees, but this is your true treasure: this child, wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.

But that night so long ago, what did Mary ponder? What are all the things that she treasured in her heart? The birth - of course. The visit of the shepherds - certainly. The arduous journey while great with child - probably. But even more. The visit of the angel nine months before this, telling her that she would be the mother of God’s Son. The amazing kindness of Joseph in not divorcing her - quietly or publicly - but caring for her and the child. 

But more too. For as Mary spoke while visiting her relative Elizabeth while they were both pregnant, she marveled at the plan of God that was now happening. All the promises of old now being fulfilled. The Saviour, the One those great men of old believed in and the great women of old hoped would be born from them, was now being born from her. A most unlikely maiden chosen by God to bring about His plan of salvation. From Heaven Above to Earth He Comes (LSB #358).

There was so much to treasure up and ponder.

And for us as well. For even as we treasure up and ponder this story, we remember also the reason for it: sin. The sin that makes our world such a dark and evil place. But not just the world, our own hearts too. Just think back over the past eleven and a half months - the hurtful words you spoke and the kind words left unspoken. The lies and half-truths told to get what you wanted, or to get away with what you already did. The people you hurt and those you failed to help. Prayers left unsaid and God’s Word neglected. Negative assumptions about those you looked down on, those less fortunate than you, and ugly desires that would make you blush bright red if anyone else knew about them. Good intentions never carried out, yet always finding the time to criticize, take revenge, and complain. And what else, what other darkness, for you? 

But tonight, there is good news. Not just of a birth, but of a Saviour. That Isaiah words are true for you: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a landof deep darkness, on them has light shone. Not just then, but to us as well, walking in the darkness of our hearts and in a world of deep darkness, a comforting and marvelous light. For the Light of the world is born. The Light of God to show us God’s love and give us the forgiveness of our dark and ugly sins. 

For how else to explain this birth we ponder tonight than God’s love for you? That’s in fact how John described it: In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. For truly, God wants no one to perish in sin, but to have life - both now and forever. That’s why He takes the human nature He is born with and that was laid in the wood of the manger, to the wood of the cross, nails, spear to pierce Him through (LSB #370 v. 2), to be swallowed up by our darkness, sin, and death, and then rise from death and the grave. That you rise too. Rise on the Last Day to a life that is eternal, but rise also now, this day, to a life that is new. No longer stuck in darkness and sin, but lived in the light and love of your Saviour.

That’s why The Herald Angels (LSB #380) came to the shepherds that night and praised God, saying: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. This newborn child was God’s good will toward all people, and would bring God’s peace to all. God’s peace, which is not to be confused with earthly peace - it is greater than that. For as long as there is sin in this world there will not be peace on earth. But there is God’s peace - a peace that is ours even amid the unrest and strife of life. The peace of sins forgiven. The peace of life beyond death and the grave. The peace of knowing that nothing can snatch us from our Saviour who has come and joined Himself to us.

We ponder that too. And Sing We, Now Rejoicing (LSB #386) with the angels and the shepherds . . . even if your heart doesn’t feel so joyous tonight. That’s okay. This night’s not about pondering happiness, but about pondering What Child This Is (LSB #370) born for us. A child who came into a world of sin, a world of sadness, a world of death, a world of trouble, a world of darkness, a world of strife, a world that often wants nothing to do with Him - but as messed up as it is, a world of His creating and love, and upon which He would not turn away. And so for us a child is born, unto us a son is given. God’s Son, for you.

Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.

You too. God has kept His promise and fulfilled His Word. There is Joy to the World, for the Lord is come (LSB #387)! O Come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord (LSB #379)

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

Monday, December 22, 2014

Advent 4 Sermon

(Don't think this one worked as well as I had hoped - I think I tried to do too much and should have stayed simpler. In any case, here it is . . .)

Jesu Juva

“Gabriel and Mary, Paul and You”
Text: Romans 16:26-27; Luke 1:26-38

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
The verses we heard in the Epistle this morning are the very last words of Paul’s letter to the Romans. And frankly, they don’t seem to have much to do with either Advent or Christmas, which we will celebrate now in just a few days. But here’s the thing: if you take these verses and superimpose them or overlay them onto the Gospel we heard today - the story of the angel Gabriel coming to Mary and announcing that the time had come for the Saviour to be born - it almost sounds like Paul is talking about that very story. And so that’s what we’ll do today - put these two readings together - and maybe that will help us understand a little better not only the story of Mary, but that her story is our story too. So let’s go through Paul’s words and see what they can teach us.

He begins: Now to him who is able to strengthen you . . .

Do you think Mary needed strengthening? She was young, probably just a year or two a teenager, engaged, and now face-to-face with an angel who says to her: Rejoice, O favored one, the Lord is with you! She is greatly troubled at these words, we are told. She cannot figure them out, and why in the world they are spoken to her. She is just Mary, little Mary, insignificant Mary. Maybe it was a little like when you’re in school and the teacher needs someone to come up to the board and solve a problem, and before you can hide or look busy with something else she points at you and says: You! You’re the one. And your knees suddenly get weak, you get this giant knot in your stomach, and it feels like all the blood has rushed out of your head. Uh . . . me?

Yeah, Mary needed to be strengthened. How often do you need to be strengthened? When God has brought something into your life that you don’t think you’re ready for? Or when fears are getting the best of you and troubles seem overwhelming? When despair seems to be your daily bread and you don’t know how you’re going to face the day? When you wonder why you’re here and if you even matter at all - to God or the world? Greatly troubled. Perplexed. Terrified. Yeah, that’s us sometimes too, isn’t it?

Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ . . .

The answer to being greatly troubled is the gospel - the preaching of Jesus Christ. Paul called it my gospel, the gospel that he preached; but it was Gabriel’s gospel too. And he preached it. This Word given to him by God to speak to Mary. The gospel that God had graced her. He is giving to her a son. But not just any son, His Son. The Son of the Most High.

Now, this brings to mind several thoughts: first, that there are times when perhaps God’s grace and favor don’t really feel like grace and favor at all! I’m sure Mary could have thought of about a thousand other things she’d rather have from God at that moment than a son! This wouldn’t be easy and would certainly cause problems, not the least of which was with her future husband, Joseph! And maybe for you too - everything from God is good and for good, all grace and favor for you, His child. But it doesn’t always seem so, does it? The thing seems bad, the timing seems bad. Really God? This? Now?

And then second, there’s the question: How will this be? Mary was a virgin and everyone knows . . . well, you know. And maybe so for you: How can this (whatever it is for you) be good? How can this work out? How will this be, God, for me?  . . .  But the preaching of Jesus Christ tells us that you have found favor with God and He has graced you as well. Graced you with adoption as His child in Holy Baptism. Graced you with His Spirit in those same waters. Graced you with faith and His Word. To you these miracles have been given, and if these, then more too. For nothing is impossible with God. Not even virgin births.  . . .  Your “impossible” more impossible than that? What He has promised, He will do. For you.

Which is, in fact, what Paul says next: Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations . . .

Or in other words, God’s not making this up on the fly! He knows what He’s doing, and what He has promised He will do. And so Gabriel tells Mary that these prophecies and promises of old are now happening: this Son being given to you - the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. Yes Mary, your son, Jesus, is that promised Son of David. David’s son according to the flesh, and David’s Lord according to His divinity. And His kingdom will be a forever kingdom, and life in it forever, too. Eternal. A kingdom greater than this world and whatever it can throw at you.

And how often do we need to be reminded of that? When things in this world - and maybe in your life - seem to be going from bad to worse? Well this isn’t the first time things looked that way. Think back to all the Scriptures - the prophetic writings, Paul calls them - and what they tell us from of old, and how through it all God was faithful, kept His Word, and accomplished His promises. It took a long time, humanly speaking, from the promise in the Garden to its fulfillment in Mary, but it happened. And all God’s promises will be fulfilled for you too. For the King on the throne of the Kingdom is your Saviour, who came for you and died and rose for you and is now ruling all things for you. He will do it.

. . . according to the command of the eternal God . . .

The command of the eternal God whose word does what it says. According to the command of God Gabriel came and spoke to Mary. According to the Gospel God commanded him to speak, through which Mary would conceive. Just as in the beginning God commanded there be light and there was light. Just as Jesus commanded Lazarus to come out of the tomb and He did. Just as Jesus speaks to bread and wine and it becomes his Body and Blood. Just as Jesus will call us from our graves on the Last Day, and we will be raised. The command of the eternal God is not like our commands - sometimes followed and sometimes not. God’s Word does what it says. For Mary. For you.

And why? . . . to bring about the obedience of faith . . . Paul says. And that’s what happens.

And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” How could Mary do it? How could she agree? How could she go through with it all? Only by the strengthening of the Gospel and the power of God’s Word working in her and providing what she needed. These words that Mary spoke are not so much a testimony to her as they are to the wonderful working of God in her. 

And you as well. That you are here, that you believe, that you confess your sins, that you speak the creed, that you humbly receive the Body and Blood of Jesus - all testimony to the work of God and His Spirit in you. The Spirit that conceived faith in you and has worked in you the obedience of faith. 

That we sometimes disobey is testimony to the sin still living in us. That we live not as the servant of the Lord but at my own service; that we want it to be according to my word. But even at such times - especially at such times - we see the grace and favor of the Lord, who does not cast us off and reject us, but calls us back to Him and His forgiveness. And especially into such a world was our Saviour born. A world of sin, a world of rebellion, a world of ME. But as Paul said earlier in the same Epistle (5:8): God showed His love for us in that while we were still sinners - still in our rebellion; still self-centered - Christ came, Christ lived, and Christ died for us. Or in other words, not because we were good, but because we weren’t. 

That’s what Christmas is all about. I think that’s why it’s a mistake to think Mary was holier or purer than anyone else and that’s why she got to be the mother of God. No. Jesus came from sinners, to sinners, for sinners - Mary too - to bear our sin, that in Him we might be the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21). That we be forgiven. That just as Jesus, the Son of God, came and lived as a son of man, so we sons and daughters of men might live as children of God, both now and forever. 

And so Paul then concludes:  . . . to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.

For this is the wisdom of God: our Saviour, our salvation, this way, at this time.

And the angel departed from her. But the separation is only temporary. For they - Gabriel and Mary - will meet again, as will we, when we together bow before this child born of Mary, and worship Him in glory. And yet even before that, we gather together with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven around this altar to receive the Body and Blood of Mary’s son, God’s Son, the Son of David, our Saviour. As we gather here around what we cannot see but by faith, until we then see with our eyes. Just as what Mary saw with her eyes was an ordinary baby, but by faith she knew was so much more.

And so Gabriel departed from her, his message delivered, his job complete. But now with us is Immanuel - God Himself with us, conceived and growing in Mary. And as He has promised: Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matt 28:20), so He has come, never to depart. To be with you through thick and thin, until the end of the ages, when we will be with Him, forever.

That’s the Gospel of Paul, of Gabriel, of Christmas. The Gospel that makes every Christmas - no matter where you are or how you are - a Merry Christmas.

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

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Advent 3 Midweek Sermon

Jesu Juva

“We Three Kings of Israel Are: King Solomon”
Text: 1 Kings 8:12-21; John 2:13-22

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. 10 Downing Street. Buckingham Palace. Mount Vernon. Monticello. You know those names and addresses. Important people live in such well-known places, important places, grand places. Places that show that the one who lives there matters and is a person of power or wealth or both. The opposite is true as well. Live under a bridge, in a cardboard box, or in a shelter, and you’re not one of those people. 

So what about a tent? What would that say about you? Well, based upon how we look at things in this world, compared to palaces and mansions and famous addresses, it would say you’re not very important, not very wealthy, and not very powerful. For no matter how nice that tent might be, it’s still a tent after all.

And that’s what King David thought. He had just built himself a palace and it was awesome. A palace, as they say, fit for a king. But on the other hand, the One who gave them their nation, their land, and the peace from their enemies that allowed David the opportunity to build such a grand palace - His throne, the Ark of the Covenant, stayed in a tent. And that didn’t seem right to David. And so he decided to build a house for the Lord God. A Temple. A proper place for God to graciously dwell among His people. A place fitting for such a great and powerful God.

That’s what David thought and decided to do. But what did God Himself think? He did not ask for such a house. In fact, He was satisfied with the tent. Because this tent wasn’t just a dwelling place, it taught something about God as well. It was mobile, for God would be wherever His people would be. And it wasn’t permanent, which witnessed to the fact that we are on a pilgrimage through this world and life. So a tent was perfect for God. He was great and powerful, even if the earthly dwelling place of his throne was not.

But at the same time, God was also pleased with David’s desire to honor and glorify Him in such a way. But thinking ahead - because God always thinks ahead - He says no to David. David could desire the house and plan the house, but he could not build it. His Son would. And so we heard from Solomon in the first reading tonight that he built such a house. A magnificent Temple, greater than any other on earth, for a God greater than any other on earth.

Except, just as we heard last week, the Son of David God had in mind was not the one we first think of. And in this case, it was not Solomon - it was the Son of David named Jesus. And the earthly house that God would dwell in forever was not a Temple of wood and stone, but of the flesh and bone of Jesus. That’s what we heard in the second reading. Jesus said: Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. And the people objected because they were thinking as we do, of the building. But that was not the Temple Jesus was referring to. And so what Jesus said, happened, when His Temple of flesh was destroyed and put to death on the cross, but raised three days later on that first Easter morning.

The Christmas Gospel attests to this fact as well, saying that the Word became flesh and tented among us. That caused many people to mock and scoff, for who was Jesus? A carpenter’s son. Born in Bethlehem and laid in a manger. A Nazarene. A nobody. Surely, if God were to come down and become enfleshed, it wouldn’t be in such a humble man and humble flesh - it would be an important person in an important place. 

But while that is how we think, that is not how God thinks. The God of both the Old Testament and the New is not only happy to, but wants to dwell in a tent. Humbly for the humble, lowly for the low, to be the God of all people. Accessible to all, inaccessible to none. Great and glorious not because His dwelling is, but because He is in Himself. And awesome in His mercy and love.

That is the kind of King Israel had and we have. The We Three Kings of Israel Are - Saul, David, and Solomon - all fell far short in their kingships, being sinners all. But we have a King who does not fall short, but reigns to give the blessings of forgiveness and life to all people. A King who serves His people in truth and holiness, who gives, and who is with you wherever you are -when even two or three are gathered in His Name. For He is great and glorious, yes, but for you

And so when our King comes to us in a manger, when He comes humble and mounted on a donkey, that should come as no surprise. When He comes to us today in humble water, and words, and bread and wine, that should be no surprise either. That He comes in humble churches, to humble people, broken people, sinful people - yup, that’s our King. At home in the most magnificent places as well as the most humble - for compared to Him and His heavenly home, well, they’re all humble. Yet that’s exactly where He wants to be and how He wants to be, for you. To be with you. To be your Saviour.

So as we’ve been concluding every week, that’s your King - do you really want another? The question sounds sillier and sillier every week. And yet just like Israel, we do choose other kings and gods, don’t we? When we rebel against this One, when we choose to sin, when we want more and so think Him not so good, or not as powerful as we need, and so take matters into our own hands. But Saul and David and Solomon all show us that when we take matters into our own hands . . . that usually doesn’t work out so well.

So Advent calls us to repentance for all that, and then to rejoice that we have a King who does not reject us (as we learned with Saul), who does not come just for the high and beautiful (as we learned with David), and who do not live apart from us in an inaccessible palace (as we learned from Solomon) - but who has come in love to rescue us fallen sinners; to be with us here and now, that we might be with Him forever. 

That’s your King, O new Israel. And as we will very soon now sing: O come let us adore Him.

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

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Advent 3 Sermon

Jesu Juva

“Lighting the Darkness of Our Hearts”
Text: John 1:6-8, 18-28;
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
We heard from St. Paul today these words: Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely. To sanctify means to make holy. And may the God of peace do it, says St. Paul, because we cannot. We poor sinners cannot be or make ourselves holy. Period.

Oh, you can do good deeds. All of you have, in fact. You’ve helped and cared for and gone out of your way for others. You are generous with those who need help, both friends and strangers alike. But you are not thereby holy. The good you do cannot make up for the sin you have. If so, a criminal in court could plead all the good things he has done as a defense for the crime he has committed. But he cannot, for he is guilty, and so are you.

That’s why we prayed in the collect this morning: Lord Jesus Christ, we implore You to hear our prayers and to lighten the darkness of our hearts by Your gracious visitation

The darkness of our hearts. We prayed not that Jesus would lighten the darkness of the world, though the world is pretty dark with sin. The news is filled with such darkness, and every time another new and heinous sin is reported, we’re shocked . . . but not really surprised. That’s our world. A sin-dark world. 

This time of year seems to express that more than any other. Next Sunday, December 21, has the least amount of daylight of any day of the year. And so many Christmas lights adorn our neighborhoods and transform them into colorful and bright visions - but when they all go out soon after Christmas, the darkness seems even deeper, doesn’t it?

But we didn’t pray for Jesus to lighten the darkness of our world. He will do that when He comes again in the brightness of His glory, when He will finally put an end to all sin and sinfulness and darkness. That day is coming, and we’ve been praying our Advent prayer for it: Come, Lord Jesus! But until that day, start with me. And that we be ready for that day, lighten the darkness of my heart

Cuz’ our hearts are pretty dark too, aren’t they? Isaiah described us as those who are poor, captive, bound . . . and brokenhearted. In English we usually use that word to mean sad, but in Hebrew it’s those who hearts have been broken by sin, whose hearts have been smashed and shattered by sin, so they don’t work right anymore. That’s us. That’s the darkness. And so we don’t love as we should, nor do or speak or desire as we should. Raise your hand if you haven’t made the darkness of this world even darker for someone else because of what you said or did. And just slapping a Christmas card or present or light on it doesn’t really fix the problem, does it? The problems are still there when the lights go out, the cards recycled, and the presents put away.

Truth is, it’s a miracle that we’re even here at all. That we haven’t sinned ourselves into extinction.

It is a miracle indeed, for it is the work of our loving God. His work to love and care for and preserve us, that He may bring all to faith; that He make us all His children; that He lighten the darkness of all - one person, one heart at a time.

So to do that, to - again as Paul said - sanctify us, the Father not only sent His Son, first He sent John the Baptist. John, who basically had two jobs: (1) to point out our sin, and then (2) point us to the One who could save us from it. Who he was, who John was, wasn’t important. That’s why (as we heard) when some priests and Levites came to him to find out who he was, he wouldn’t tell them - he only told them who he wasn’t. That he wasn’t the One. All he was was a voice and a finger. The voice of repentance, and the finger pointing to the One. Pointing to and confessing Jesus as the One, the Christ, the promised prophet greater than Moses.

Now there are lots of voices and fingers in our world today. Most of the voices aren’t worth listening to, and most of the fingers aren’t pointing to Jesus, but communicating quite a different message to us! And so lots of people will celebrate Christmas and the baby Jesus, and yet sadly have no idea why. And so John has come to climb into the witness stand and tell us. To speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help him God, for he was sent from God to do so. To witness to the truth about us, and to the truth about our Saviour . . . and how these two truths converge in the One laid in the manger. That Jesus is the Son of God become a son of man. That the baby in the manger is the God of peace [come] to sanctify you.

That’s why (to quote a popular Christmas hymn) that Silent Night was a Holy Night - because the Holy One had come to make us holy. Born of a virgin and so born without sin, the Holy One is thus born holy. But to become unholy - not through His own sin, but by taking upon Himself ours. By making our sin His, our darkness His, burdening Himself with a burden no ordinary man could bear, and receiving the judgment in our place. And so the innocent one is given our sin, declared guilty, and sentenced to death on a cross. 

When He was born, He was given the name Jesus; when He was crucified, the title placed over His head was “King of the Jews;” but the blood poured out upon the ground that day was the blood not just of a man or a king, but the blood of God. The blood of God shed to sanctify you completely - your whole spirit and soul and body. Which means to do the job not only part of the way, for part of you; but all of the way, for all of you. No part of you unaffected or untouched. To forgive all of you, that you be holy as He is holy.

The problem is, we don’t feel holy. We still sin. We still struggle with temptation. And we still fall. We see and feel these things and so think the work of God is not complete - and so there must be something wrong with me, or something I have to do, or . . . or it’s just not true. 

And so it is important to know that the holiness we are given is not of nature - not yet. As I said, that will come with the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, on the Last Day, with the resurrection, when our flesh is finally raised new and we are rid of the sinfulness that has adhered itself to us through and through. The sin that drags us down. The sin that seems to keep sprouting like weeds in our hearts and lives. 

But though we are not yet holy by nature, we are holy - for just as our sin was given to Jesus and He was declared guilty, so His holiness is given to us and we are declared not guilty; holy. Our sin no longer held against us, for it was held against Jesus in our place. And so you really have been forgiven and set free. Set free from the tyranny and dominion and condemnation of sin, to live as children of God like Paul described -“Rejoicing always, praying without ceasing, [and] giving thanks in all circumstances.” Doing good, speaking good, desiring good, and more and more. 

And so this kind of holiness is a matter of faith. Not in the sense that I’m holy because I believe I’m holy. That would be like me being a dog because I believe I’m a dog! No, we are holy not because we believe in ourselves, but because we believe the Word and promise of the One, the One who came to save us, and so by faith receive what He has promised: His forgiveness. For as St. Paul told us, “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” And so even if I don’t feel holy, I believe not what I think or feel (that’s what the evil one wants us to do); I believe instead what my Saviour has told me. That I am forgiven and therefore holy; that I have been given His Spirit; and that by His Word and Spirit, Jesus is now causing holiness to sprout and grow in our hearts and lives.

And so although you may look and feel the same when you leave church as when you came, you never leave this church the same. How could you? How could you be the same after your Saviour has told you “I forgive you all your sins”? How could you, after the body and blood of Jesus, the body and blood of God, has been placed into your mouths and poured over your lips? How could you after the living and active Word has flooded your ears and hearts? You are not the same. For you have been “holied” - sanctified - by the Holy One Himself. The Holy One who laid in a manger, who hung on a cross, and now comes by His Spirit to live and work in you.

To do this work is why the Son of God came and was born as the baby Jesus on that Silent Night, as we will soon remember. But when He comes again in glory, that day will be anything but silent, but filled with the rejoicing of the angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven. Rejoicing as the Bridegroom comes for His Bride, to take us home. 

Until He does, your Saviour will keep you safe. Safe in His holiness and forgiveness. He is faithful. He will do it.

That is the message for us in Advent; this Advent now half over. The Nativity of our Lord is not far away now. And so we lit the rose candle on the Advent Wreath today, for it is the candle of joy. And soon, soon our joy will be complete. For He is coming. The Light is coming. Come, Lord Jesus.

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

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Advent 2 Midweek Sermon

Jesu Juva

“We Three Kings of Israel Are: King David”
Text: 2 Samuel 11:1-5, 22-27; 12:1-7a, 13-14; John 8:1-11

She was beautiful. Stunning. Every man’s desire. Of that there was no question. But Bathsheba’s beauty brought out David’s ugliness. The ugliness lurking in his heart; the ugliness of sin. Once he saw her, the sin in his heart would let him think of nothing else . . . until his lust was satisfied. It didn’t matter to him that she was someone else’s wife. Sin thinks of nothing else than getting what it wants. Sin is completely selfish.

And that ugliness didn’t end once David satisfied his lust. It then had another problem to contend with - David’s reputation. Once Bathsheba was found to be with child, he couldn’t let anyone know it was his. For what would the people think of him? So after at first trying to cover up his sin, David had her husband, Uriah, killed - though he made it look like an accident. And then he took Bathsheba to be his - and if all the people thought even more highly of him, so generously taking care of this poor widow - that was just the cherry on top.

Now, there are many stories about King David we could have considered tonight in our series We Three Kings of Israel Are, but this one I think, really serves to highlight and point us to the work of Jesus, the true King of Israel, for us. For just as with Saul last week, what Jesus does is exactly the opposite of David. For whereas we see the real ugliness of David, the sin lurking just below the surface (as it does in all of us), this story helps us see the true beauty of Jesus shining forth.

For it was to no beauty that Jesus looked - who Jesus comes to take as His Bride is the most ugly, sinful, adulterous, beastly ones of all: us. Though our ugliness and sin might be lurking below the surface and we might be pretty good at hiding it from others, He sees it and knows it. He knows the sins that not only come out in our words and deeds but also the ones that are hidden, that fill our minds and hearts. He knows how adulterous we are to Him in having others gods - other people and things in this world that we fear, love, and trust more than Him. He knows how beastly we can be to others, and that in any spiritual beauty contest we’d be the first ones out. And laughed out for even being there and trying to think ourselves beautiful.

But upon us He looked - not with self-centered, self-satisfying lust, but in true self-giving love - He looked upon us and wanted us to be His Bride. And so He came and didn’t take life, but gave His up for us, to (as we read in Ephesians): sanctify us and cleanse us by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present - us - the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish (Ephesians 5:25-27). To make us who are ugly as sin beautiful in forgiveness and holiness.

And that He might make David beautiful, God sends Nathan to him to uncover and expose his sin. That’s always painful, and David pronounces a correct verdict when he says: the man who has done this deserves to die! That’s what we deserve, too. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). But notice these very important words that Nathan speaks from God next: The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child who is born to you shall die.

Now, there are two really important things there: first, the Lord forgives David. He will not die in his sin as he deserves. And second, there will be a death, just not David - but the son of David. He will die. And it happened that the son born to Bathsheba did in fact die. But that wasn’t really who God was talking about here. There was coming another son of David, the Son of David, who would die not just for David’s sin, but for the sin of the world. Upon this coming Son of David the Lord would put all sin, that He die instead of us. And, of course, that promised Son of David was born in the city of David, Bethlehem, and was given the name Jesus. As we’ll remember and celebrate in just a couple of weeks now.

And one day, that Jesus was in the Temple when they brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And again, how different is Jesus! All they could see was her sin. All they could see was her ugliness. But Jesus saw His Bride. A scared little lamb, just like we so often are, when our sin is uncovered and exposed and we are deserving of shame and yes, death. But they were all His lambs. The ones carrying stones just as ugly as she. And so Jesus plays the Nathan for them, to expose their sin. So, Jesus says, Let him who is without sin - who has not also been adulterous to the Lord in sin - be the first to throw a stone. No one can. And neither does Jesus. For He did not come to condemn, but to be condemned for her, in her place, on the cross. He came to be condemned for them, in their place, on the cross. He came to be condemned for us, in our place, on the cross. That we be washed and made holy from our ugly and deadly sin, and go and sin no more.

That is your King. A king not for the beautiful but for the ugly in sin. A king not in it for Himself but in it for us. A King who lays down His life for you, that you may have life in Him. So like David, repent, and then rejoice, that the Son of David has been slain for you, your sin has been put away, and you will not die but live. For your King has come to take you as His Bride, and He has. And when He comes again, the wedding feast will begin. A feast and a joy that will have no end. 

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

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Advent 2 Sermon

Jesu Juva

“John’s Advent Gift For You”
Text: Mark 1:1-8 (Isaiah 40:1-11; 2 Peter 3:8-14)

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

John the Baptist. We heard about him today, as we always do the Second Sunday of Advent. He is the advent prophet. He was born for advent. He was born for the coming of the Lord. To be the forerunner. To prepare the way for Him among us.

Now most of the time when we hear about John, the focus is either on his appearance, his diet, or his fiery preaching. For his appearance, as we heard, was quite unusual - being clothed with camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist. Not very luxurious or comfortable. And his diet was even more noteworthy - yummy, crunchy locusts and wild honey. And his preaching - he held nothing back, calling sinners sinners, those who thought they were pretty good a brood of vipers (Matthew 3:7), and even calling out the kings and princes of his day. John spared no one. And if he were here today, he’d go after you and your sins too. Unlike many people in our day and age who mince words, use vague language, and try to give themselves as much wiggle room as possible, not John. You knew who John was and what he stood for.

But having said all that, here’s what often gets overlooked or unsaid (it seems to me) about John, even though it is the most obvious fact about him: he baptized! Even though that’s in the name most people know him by - John the Baptist or John the baptizer - how often do we neglect to consider how much he loved to baptize. And that he wanted to baptize everyone. John, you see, had this incredible gift from God - a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins - and he wanted to give it to everyone.

That’s why he did what he did. That’s why he preached repentance. That’s why he called out those who would not repent or be baptized, yes, using some pretty strong language. Even when King Herod put him in prison, he wouldn’t stop preaching to Herod (Mark 6) - not just to convince Herod that he was wrong and that he, John, was right - but that Herod too might repent and receive this gift from God. Forgiveness. He wanted to give this gift to everyone, even though not all would have it.

And John was wildly popular because of it. For, Mark tells us, all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him. Not just a few people, but hordes. And how delighted John must have been! Most of the time he’s depicted as this mean angry guy (like on our bulletin cover!), but maybe he was actually happy and joyful as he was baptizing! Giving the gift of God’s forgiveness to so many. 

So hordes of people went out to him, to receive this gift. John preached it and how much the people needed it, and his preaching resonated with the people because they knew, from the Law that is written on all hearts (Romans 2:15) that they - that we - are sinners. I really don’t think that’s a news flash to most people. People know they do wrong things. Most people have regrets. It’s why so many keep making New Year’s resolutions every year. Preaching - John’s and the Church’s still today - teaches us the depth and breadth of our sin and how serious it is, far more than we know! But the real question is this: not whether or not you are a sinner, but what are you going to do about it?

There are a few options. Two of the most popular are: (1.) try to fix yourself - do better, try harder, and come up with more effective ways of doing so; or (2.) deny it - cover it up or make yourself feel better by comparing yourself to others and convincing yourself you’re not so bad. Even Christians do those things. You’ve done those things. But they don’t work. Fixing yourself is like the little boy trying to fix the leaks in the dam by putting his finger into the hole, but then another hole springs up, and another and another. That’s the way of sin with us - just when you think you’ve got one under control, more break out, and you don’t have enough fingers and toes for them all. Not even close! And denying it - that might make you feel better for a while, but that’s like filing an extension on your income tax. Sooner or later that bill’s going to come due.

But here’s what John said: let God deal with it. Now at first, that sounds a bit frightening, like pleading guilty in court and then comes the sentencing. But it’s different, John said. For here is a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Here God deals with your sins by taking them away, forgiving them. And that’s the solution that works no matter who you are, what you’ve done, or when you’ve lived. What you can’t do and could never do, God is coming to do for you. He promised. He promised this from the beginning, from the very first sin, and now the time has come for it to be accomplished! That’s what John also said: He’s coming - now! For after me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.

And so John came then and comes now, not just to convict you of your sin, but to point you to the One who deals with your sins. Reminding us in these days before Christmas that the baby in the manger whose birth we are about to celebrate came to be your sin-bearer. The mightier One made weak and the holy One made sinful, to join you who are weak and sinful and raise you to His life. To give you what you need. To give you His Spirit and join you to Himself, to be with you where you are, and that where He is you may be also - from the cross, to the grave, to the resurrection, to the ascension. That you die with Him and rise with Him and ascend with Him to live in His kingdom in righteousness, innocence, and blessedness forever. That’s what filled John with joy - that One and His gift. And so John points you to Him that you be filled with that same joy. 

But it wasn’t only John - he was just one in a long line of pointers to Christ. Like Isaiah. Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Isaiah says it twice to emphasize the comfort. This is what God wants to do for you and why He sent prophets like Isaiah and John. To comfort you. To proclaim to you that the warfare is over and your iniquity pardoned. To be this herald of good news. That though your life is like the grass of the field - here today and gone tomorrow - you know you have a God who is greater and mightier than anything in this world, even death. A God, a Saviour, who, Isaiah says, will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. So lift up your voice and rejoice! He is coming to you.

And then we also heard from Peter today. He addressed the fact that I mentioned last week - that we’ve been waiting for Jesus to come back for some 2,000 years now and so far, He hasn’t come. Which makes some scoff at us and think this belief stupid. If it hasn’t happened yet, it ain’t gonna happen. But Peter tells us what Isaiah and John told us - Jesus is waiting in order to give His gifts more! To give His forgiveness more, to give Himself more. He’s waiting so that all should reach repentance - which is to say not only repentance, but repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as John preached and did.

So, Peter says, you, while you too are waiting, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. How do we do that? John told us today: baptism. By remembering that you are baptized and by living in your baptism. For when you are baptized you have Jesus’ promise of forgiveness and life - the forgiveness that removes your spots and blemishes and gives you peace. That you not despair over your sin. That you acknowledge it, repent of it, but then rejoice in the One who has come and borne your sin for you and taken it all away from you. To set you free. That’s how you prepare to meet Him when He comes again in glory.

And that repentance includes not only the sin you know, but the sin you know not; not only the sin you’ve done, but the sin you’ve denied or tried to make up for on your own; the whoppers and the little white lies; the sins you think no one knows and the sin you thought you got away with. And so we prayed: Stir up our hearts, O Lord - stir up our hearts to repentance, O Lord, that we may serve you with pure minds, forgiven minds, spotless minds, now and when you come again in glory. That John’s joy be our joy. Gift given. Gift received.

And isn’t that what Christmas is all about, after all? Gift given. Gift received. And on this Second Sunday of Advent, John has a gift for you. And so does your Lord. Come now and receive His gift to you - His forgiveness and life, now, here, in His Body and Blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. That you live in Him and He in you. That you be ready when He comes. 

And maybe God will then use you to comfort someone. To be like John and share the joy you know with someone caught in sin and trouble. To speak that word of forgiveness no one else will; that word of peace so elusive; that word that points them not to themselves for the answer, but to the One who came, who is coming now, and has promised to come again. The One who comforts and saves. You don’t have to go out and knock on doors to do that - God will bring them to you, as He brought them to John. Wherever you are, it doesn’t matter. And a word of peace, a word of hope, a word of forgiveness - to a friend, a family member, a neighbor - just might make all the difference in the world. 

Because the wilderness . . . that’s a place we all know. The good news of Advent is that Jesus came into our wilderness of sin to comfort us with His forgiveness in it, to save us from it, and to provide for us a home after it. A home with Him, back in Paradise, forever. And so we pray the Advent prayer: Come Lord Jesus! Come quickly

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