Monday, January 26, 2015

The Conversion of St. Paul Sermon

Jesu Juva

“The Blessing of the Ordinary”
Text: Acts 9:1-22; Matthew 19:27-30 (Galatians 1:11-24)

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

Don’t underestimate the ordinary.

That probably sounds like a strange thing to say we commemorate the Conversion of St. Paul, which is by all measures spectacular. The great persecutor of the church is changed into that very church’s greatest missionary. He is struck down on his way to Damascus to arrest and imprison Christians when he himself is imprisoned in blindness for three days. The Christians he has come to hurt take care him as he stays with them and regains his sight and strength and is baptized. Everything about this story is amazing and spectacular.

And we like that. We want stuff like that. We like the fireworks, the awards, the recognition, the dazzle and awe. And always bigger and better. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, there is a danger with that. Because it’s easy to get caught up in the spectacular and miss - or devalue - the ordinary. But it is the ordinary that is more a part of our lives, and maybe the more important part.

For example: weddings. We like our weddings to be special and large, with lots of friends and tradition. And in comparison, the married life that comes after that can seem quite ordinary. Or graduations. There are caps and gowns and awards, pictures and gifts and congratulations. But then you have to go to work and use that education, and that can seem quite mundane. Or this week there was the March for Life - all those people, marching together, singing, joyful to speak for the sanctity of life and for those who cannot speak for themselves. But then there are the other 364 days of the year to defend life and help mothers and the effort to change hearts and minds. And that’s hard work.

But not only is the ordinary longer and more usual than the momentary and spectacular times in our lives, the ordinary is where the greater blessing is found. For, it seems to me, the spectacular is more for me; but the ordinary is more for others.

So think of the three examples I just mentioned. The one, spectacular day of your wedding is not the greatest blessing - it is you and your spouse loving and serving and laying down your lives for one another and for your children, blessing and being blessed in countless ways. And when you graduate, the greatest blessing is not in the conferring of a diploma or a degree, but in your serving your neighbor in your work, helping them and providing for others what they need. And as great as hundreds of thousands of people marching through the streets of DC is, the even greater blessing is when a mother sees her unborn child for the very first time on an ultrasound picture and decides against aborting that life, or when you visit someone in a nursing home and lend a hand and they know they haven’t been forgotten.

But if the spectacular is what we’re all about, what we want, what we expect, then we not only lose all that, but that’s why so many marriages fail, our work turns into drudgery, and so many give up and lose hope. The ordinary can’t live up to the spectacular. And it’s the blindness to the blessing in the ordinary that is one of satan’s most effective tools these days.

So we hear about the Conversion of St. Paul, and we want that. We want God to do that for everyone. If He would just come and appear as the spectacular God He is, then everyone would believe. Our friends and family who don’t believe, those ISIS guys who are beheading and blowing up everyone . . . maybe it would even be easier for you to believe. 

Well we’re not the first to think that way. Lots of folks in the Bible wanted Jesus to do the spectacular. King Herod wanted to see Jesus do some miracles, the disciples asked Jesus if they should call down lightning from heaven on their opponents, and they wanted Jesus to make them the greatest. But you know what they got instead? The cross. A whipped and bloody and then lifeless Jesus tossed in a grave. Great.

But as you know, it really was great. Not because of the cross itself - that was quite ordinary at the time. The Romans were crucifying lots of folks. But because of who that was on it. Not just Jesus of Nazareth, but the almighty God in human flesh, dying. Dying to pay the price for our sins. Dying to give us the hope of living. Dying so that when we’re dying, we know we’re not alone and we have a God greater than death - a God who raises the dead. 

Which is pretty spectacular! But not now - in the end, on the Last Day it will be. But now all we see are graves covered over with dirt after our loved ones are tossed in there. All we see now are people growing old and wearing out. All we see now is telling us that death has won and we have lost.  . . .  If we’ve been blinded to the blessing in the ordinary. 

Because there is our hope. For the water of baptism looks ordinary and powerless to those who have been so blinded and are looking for something spectacular. But there in that ordinary place and in that ordinary way is where you and I have met Jesus and where we were raised from the dead with Him. A resurrection and life that will come to its fulfillment and completion on the Last Day, when our bodies are raised and glorified, but a new life that is yours already now. Though it still looks quite ordinary. But you’re not. You’re now a child of God. Like Paul. After all the spectacular happened to him, remember what happened next? He was baptized and he started to live a new life.

And was that new life spectacular? We usually think it was or assume it was. It certainly got off to a spectacular start. But the rest of Paul’s life was pretty unspectacular. In fact, it was pretty bleak. Yes, he was the church’s greatest missionary, but I wonder if you lived back then if you would really have known that. He was followed and hounded by those who disagreed with him, he was persecuted and whipped and stoned, he was arrested and spent a lot of years in jail. Which is what Jesus told Ananias: I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.

Suffer, not spectacular. The cross. Jesus. Paul. What about you?

We heard words about you today. The first two readings were all about Paul and his conversion - that’s what we’re commemorating today, after all. But the Holy Gospel had some words for you. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.

What do you think of those words? On the one hand, I’ve heard folks talk of them in some spectacular ways, saying they’re going to leave their family and all they have behind and go to Africa and be a missionary! But on the other hand, doesn’t the Fourth Commandment tell us to do the ordinary, to honor our father and mother? And aren’t we supposed to take care of our families? So which is it? 

Well, certainly some are called to be missionaries. Two families from our church, former members, recently have and we’ll be supporting them. Paul was such a missionary. But if you’re doing it to be spectacular, to receive a hundredfold and get eternal life, then (it seems to me) you’re doing it for your own name’s sake, not for His name’s sake. But missionaries are not just those who go overseas. Our own neighborhoods and houses are filled with people who need to be taught and cared for. 

The key is the word that is used here for leaving. It’s a word that is often used for what your heart does. It means to let go of, and although you don’t realize it, is a word most of you pray everyday . . . in the Lord’s Prayer. It is the word forgive. Because to forgive is to let go of someone’s sin and not hold it against them. It is what Jesus has done for you - you are forgiven because Jesus would not let go of your sin, so that His Father would hold your sin against Him and not against you. And so Jesus was the first who became last, so that we who are last might be first.

If you put that understanding in this verse, it brings quite a new perspective. It’s about what your heart is clinging to. Is your heart is clinging to others’ sins, or letting them go in forgiveness? Is your heart clinging to houses and lands and the things of the world, or to Christ?  . . .  We want these verses to be about us, but the truth? It’s hard to let go. Sometimes very hard.

But what you cannot do, Jesus has done for you. He is the One who did leave everything for you, and gave everything for you, who became dead last for you. That you may have what you do not deserve - blessings in this life and the next. More than a hundredfold more than you deserve here, and even more in eternal life. That’s for you. Jesus for you.

And when you know that, you let go of one more thing: yourself. That’s what happened to Paul. What he was didn’t matter anymore. Dying or living, suffering or preaching, in jail or out of jail, didn’t matter anymore. He didn’t have to hang on to who He was because Jesus was hanging on to Him. And so he was free to live a new life leaving houses and brothers and sisters and father and mother and children and lands and at the same time serving them. Where God put Him and used Him.

And so too you. Your life may look by all measures quite ordinary - but don’t underestimate the ordinary. Like Paul, God has called you and put you where you are and is using you where you are to do quite spectacular things. Forgiving, serving, helping, loving, leaving and serving, letting go of yourself because Jesus will never let go of you. And He is providing for you more than you could ever grab for yourself. For what you grab for here will not last; but what He gives you will last forever. 

And if that can be true for someone like Saul, then who among us is beyond the reach of Christ Jesus? Who among us is not worth serving and loving and forgiving? 

Sometimes the most spectacular things come in the most ordinary ways.

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

Monday, January 19, 2015

Epiphany 2 / Sanctity of Life Sunday Sermon

Jesu Juva

“When Life Becomes an Issue”
Text: John 1:43-51 (1 Samuel 3:1-10; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 )

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

The stories we hear in the Bible sometimes give us a lot of details about what is happening and why it is happening, and sometimes we get very few details. 

For example, we heard God’s call to Samuel in the Old Testament reading today. Lots of details there. How God called to Samuel four times. How Samuel at first didn’t understand but thought Eli was calling him. And then how Eli realized that God was calling the young man. 

But then we also heard the story of Jesus calling Philip in the Holy Gospel, and we get no details there. We’re just told that Jesus found Philip and said follow me. And he did . . . but was it really that easy? We do know that first he went to get his friend Nathanael. And about him we have some more details again, about his skepticism about Nazareth and whether anything good could come from there, and then his confession when he finds out that this fella Jesus of Nazareth is more than just your typical Nazareth hillbilly. Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel! That’s quite a quick and substantial about face for Nathanael, to say the least.

Sometimes we know the details, and sometimes we don’t. And sometimes the details surprise us. God has a way of doing things that doesn’t always fit with how we think. 

Which I think is a good message for us to hear as we commemorate Sanctity of Life Sunday today. Because like Samuel, Philip, and Nathanael, Jesus has called you and I to follow Him. In fact, He wants all people to follow Him. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. Sometimes we may not understand how He is calling us or where He is leading us. Sometimes details will be lacking, or the way will be surprising, or maybe even it will be us asking: That way? Can anything good come out of that way?

I think that especially true of life issues, which can affect us so deeply and profoundly, and is the question we often ask about them. When an unexpected or unintended pregnancy happens, or the flip side of that, when a couple wants children but finds out they cannot have them. Or when a couple, excited about having a child, finds out part way through the pregnancy that the child is severely disabled. Or what about when disease strikes or an accident happens in the prime of life, and suddenly what you used to be able to do you can do no longer. A man loses his job and can’t find another; he can’t support his family anymore and feels his life is now useless. And then there are all the issues that come at the end of life, for the elderly, the infirm, the sick. It is easy, when these things come upon you or a loved one, to cry out like Nathanael, can anything good come out of this? And since the implied answer to such a question is no, because it’s not what you want or expect or think could be good in any way . . . you look not just for an answer, but often times for a way out; an end to that life that is now an issue

But that’s not the way the story of Nathanael turned out. Though the implied answer to his question was no - nothing good comes out of Nazareth - Jesus surprised him. Jesus saw him before he ever saw Jesus. Jesus had come to do something that Nathanael believed and hoped for, but had no idea was happening now, and had no idea was - or even could - be happening in this way. Through a man from Nazareth. And this was just the start. Nathanael would see a lot over the next three years that would surprise him mightily, especially the cross - the life issue so horrible that it didn’t even require the question, can anything good come out of this? 

But as you know, good did come from that cross, when the grave was forced to open and let go of its dead. That surprise Nathanael received later that night when he was with nine of his fellow disciples behind locked doors because they had a life issue - fearing for their lives because they thought the Jews would be coming for them next. And yet they didn’t get death, they got an even greater life, when an alive, flesh and blood Jesus of Nazareth came right through those locked doors (which were no barrier to Him!) and said peace be with you (John 20:19)

And so Jesus was right. Nathanael did see greater things than the man he met that day at the invitation of Philip.

God has a way of doing things that doesn’t always fit with how we think. And so if there is a life we have an issue with, it’s usually not that life that needs to die, but us. We who have the issue. For really that life isn’t the issue, our sin is the issue. Our sin which thinks it knows that nothing good can come out of this situation, or this life, especially since it doesn’t go along with my plans, my thinking, my wants, my desires, and what I think God should do and give to me. Our sin which doesn’t want to be inconvenienced or have to go out of my way. Our sin which fears the unknown, mistrusts God and His goodness, and loves myself more than others and more than God. 

And of all that we need to repent. Because it’s easy, too easy, especially on a day like Life Sunday, to simply criticize those who have or support abortion, and who advocate for assisted suicide or mercy killing, and not acknowledge the truth that we have life issues too - lives that we have issues with and we would rather be without. And so people that we murder in our hearts because we think, like Nathanael, nothing good can come out of them

But like Nathanael, God has a surprise for us. For you. The empty tomb. The empty tomb that preaches to us that the God who can work good even through the horror of the cross, can work good through the crosses He places on you as well. Because that’s what they’re for - your good. God’s not against you, ever. He’s for you, more than you know. He’s for you, even in ways that are surprising and unexpected and maybe turn your life upside down. Because just like Nathanael, God saw you before you saw Him. And has plans for you, too, to see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. For you to be with Him in Paradise.

And so the Father sent His Son to be the life of the world and the light of the world (John 8:12), to pay the price for our sin, and strip death of its power. And so when we look to death as the answer to those lives we have issues with, that’s like trying to light a dark room with a burned out light bulb. And silly as that sounds, our world keeps on doing that, and sometimes we keep on doing that, and then wonder why it’s still so dark in here. 

There’s a better answer. Paul said it in the Epistle we heard: you were bought with a price. Bought from sin, bought from death, bought with the life and blood of the Son of God Himself. That’s how valuable you are and every life is. And while it’s easy to hear that as Law: you were bought with a price so now live up to it! Hear it even more as Gospel: you were bought with a price so high, even before you were born, before you could do anything to be worth anything, the Father considered you - you! - worth the life of His Son. And then, Paul continues, glorify God in your body. Glorify God by believing that, confessing that, and then living that - living the life you have been given . . . even under the life-crosses He gives you.

And once you learn to see yourself in that way, you will begin to see others in that way as well. For as important as the Law is - in showing us our sin, and teaching us what we should do, and curbing the sin that would burst out of us upon others - the Law is not the answer. Our government could outlaw abortion and mercy killing and assisted suicide and all kinds and forms of killing tomorrow and you know what? It would still happen. And so many think and say that it’s at least better for it to happen safely and legally than secretly and dangerously. But it’s not better. It’s different, but not better. And I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to elect leaders who will defend life in all it’s forms - we should. 

But the answer, the better, the light that’s going to enlighten our dark world is the Gospel of life. The truth of a God who had an issue with us and our sin, and so gave His life to save us - to atone for our sin and raise us to life again. That He is the God who comes into your life in sometimes surprising and unexpected ways, to give you that life. And when the details are few and there is a lot of mystery, says trust me. Look at the cross. Can anything good come out of that? You bet! Can anything good come out of what you’re now going through? You bet! And can anything good come out of that life that you now have an issue with? You know the answer. Or as the angel Gabriel told Mary when she was about to have a life issue: nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:37)

January 18th - today - is the day on the church calendar to commemorate the Confession of St. Peter. I chose not to utilize that option today, though Peter is a lot of people’s favorite disciple, the one many can most relate to. But I think maybe Nathanael and his question can give Peter a little competition, as I’ve been going through all the ways we really are a lot like him. And as he learned the value of that life that came from Nazareth, that life from Nazareth that teaches us the value of all life. Including yours. 

And so that life from Nazareth has come here today for you and your life, and says Take and eat, take and drink, this is My Body, this is My Blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins, to defeat death, and give you life. And while some will mock and ask: Bread and wine? Can anything good come out of bread and wine? We confess like Nathanael: it may not look like much, but it’s not just bread and wine! Here is the Son of God, here is the King of Israel, for you. To feed your Body with His Body, the strengthen your life with His life, and to deal with your sin with his forgiveness. So if there be any life you have an issue with, give Him the issue in confession and receive the life you need from Him in His forgiveness. 

And with that life then comes love. The love that we need for others. The unborn baby and the unwed mother. The one who is dying and the one who wants to die. Those who want life but can’t have it and those who have life but don’t want it, at least not in the way they have it. Life issues often make us feel helpless and trapped and like there’s no good answer. But there is. Because you know the One who has made your life His issue, and bought you with a price, for life now and life forever. Life that is surprising? Maybe. Unexpected? Often. But good? Always

Really? Can anything good come from . . . ? Come and see!

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

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Epiphany 1 Midweek Sermon

Jesu Juva

“Favor With God or Men?”
Text: Luke 2:40-52; 1 Kings 3:4-15

And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.

We don’t know a lot about Jesus’ childhood. There are some non-biblical writings that claim to give us some stories of when Jesus was young - how He created birds out of mud and how He misused His divine power until He learned how to control it and use it rightly - but such stories do not agree with what the Bible says and come from those who want Jesus to be something He is not.

From Scripture, all we have is the story we heard tonight - of twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple. Our curiosity would like to know more, what the child Jesus was like, but more we are not told. More important is what Jesus did for us and for our salvation. And so the Scriptures concentrate on that, beginning from His baptism and to His death and resurrection.

But what we have here does tell us something of Jesus. He is eager to learn. A mind untainted and unhindered by sin learns quickly and well. He knows that the Temple is His Father’s house, and He wants to be there. And after His parents find Him and tell Him its time to go home, He does not resist them or protest, but is submissive to them. He obeys them, perfectly fulfilling the Fourth Commandment, just as He perfectly keeps all the Law for us, in our place.

But there’s one more thing - that last line, which should not be overlooked. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man. Jesus continued to grow, He continued to learn, and He found favor not just with God but with men. For He was wise but not proud, obedient but not condescending, good but not arrogant.

We get a picture of this kind of man with King Solomon. He was a young man when he rose to the throne of Israel, and God gave him great wisdom, such that Solomon became known far and wide as the wisest man in the world. People came from all over the world to see and hear such a king, and he found favor with both God and men. Just like Jesus.

But for both Solomon and Jesus, this favor would not last. Solomon lost favor with God, for he allowed the people and things of this world to lure him into idolatry. Though wise, he became foolish, and while still admired by men he fell away from God. Jesus lost favor with men, for he would not allow the things of this world to lure Him away from His mission - to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And because He proclaimed this fact, who He was and what He had come to do, though some believed in Him, many opposed Him and finally, put Him on the cross for it. 

How about you? How is it with you? Are you more like Solomon, or more like Jesus? What is more important to you - the favor and admiration of men, or the favor of God? Truth is, we are not always wise, are we? We too foolishly seek the favor of the world instead of the favor of God. And so maybe we remain silent when we should speak up; we hide our religion under the excuse of not wanting to offend others; we go along with the crowd instead of standing up for the truth; we love the things of this world too much and God too little. It’s true. And if it happened to someone as wise as Solomon, we should not be surprised that is happens to us, too.

But do not despair. Recognize this fact and repent of it, and then rely not on your wisdom, your faithfulness, and your steadfastness, but on the fact that Jesus is what you could never be. That though He found favor with God, He took our place under the wrath of God against our sinfulness and foolishness on the cross, and gave us His place of favor. He became the sinner and made us the perfect sons. And after three days - not in the Temple, but in the grave -He rose and went to His Father’s house, to His Father’s right hand, where He will never leave, but rules all things for you. To provide for you the forgiveness, life, and wisdom you need. To keep you in the narrow way.

So for us who so often act foolishly, here is true wisdom: to repent of your sins and receive your Lord’s forgiveness. And to pray, as Solomon did, for wisdom. The wisdom of God and His Word, and to live according to it. For the favor of men comes and goes, but the favor of God lasts forever. The favor of God in His Son Jesus Christ, who was born for you, grew for you, learned for you, lived for you, and then died and rose for you. So that you could be children of God. Dearly beloved. And that is what you are.

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

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Baptism of Our Lord Sermon

Jesu Juva

“The Word of God In the Water”
Text: Mark 1:4-11; Genesis 1:1-5; Romans 6:1-11

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

Jesus is baptized. That fact surprises and confuses many Christians. Which is okay, because it surprised and confused John the Baptist, too. So if that’s you, you’re in good company.

For John was blasting away at sinners and proclaiming fearful judgment on them. He called them to repent and receive this baptism for the forgiveness of sins. And a great many did. So when Jesus shows up with the sinners, that just doesn’t seem right. Because He’s not a sinner. He doesn’t need forgiveness. John, in fact, should be baptized by Him, not the other way around. He is the one so much mightier than John that John is not even worthy to stoop down and untie his sandal. So baptize Him? Out of the question. John should do like the Wise Men did - fall down and worship Him, not baptize Him.

And yet, Mark tells us, He did. Because Jesus did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). And so He comes with the sinners to be baptized. And He’s not just play acting, pretending to be a sinner. He really wants to be the sinner. But not with His own sins, but with yours. He wants all your sin on Him that it be no longer on you. And so He steps into the Jordan River to do that. To give baptism the power to forgive your sin and make you children of God.

For as it is asked in the Small Catechism: How can water do such great things? The answer tells us: Certainly not just water, but the Word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this Word of God in the water. So today we look and see with John - there is the Word of God in the water. The Word of God made flesh steps into the water - not for Himself, but for you. He, the Son of God, is baptized for you, a sinner, that you, a sinner, be baptized a son of God. He is where you are so that you may be where He is. And so your baptism is not play acting either, or what marks your effort to be a son of God. No. Baptism is Jesus for you. Your baptism not imitating what Jesus did, but receiving what Jesus did for you. Or as the catechism put it: trusting the Word of God in the water. That all He did He did for you, and all His promises are true for you.

But not just that Jesus was baptized but what happened when He was is important too, and helps us understand what is going on here. For, Mark tells us, along with the water is the Spirit and the voice of the Father from heaven: You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased. 

Notice: Water, Spirit, and voice. Just as it was in the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth. It is how God creates life. And what God creates is good. For although we did not read the entire creation account, you know how much of it goes, and the repeated refrain we hear there: and God saw that it was good. And isn’t that what the Father is saying when Jesus is baptized? He sees what is happening, that His Son is standing with sinners, being baptized for you, in the water, and He says: this is good. I am well pleased. This is exactly what Jesus is sent to do. This is the new beginning that God promised after Adam and Eve plunged themselves and the world into sin. This is the beginning of the new creation - how God is going to make everything good again. Including you.

I always think it helpful that we hear this account of Jesus’ baptism shortly after the new year has begun but long enough into it that most people have already broken their New Year’s resolutions! Because it helps us remember that our new beginning doesn’t come from our own resolutions or our own efforts. Good thing, right? Because how often do we fail? How often do we fall back into the same old habits? How often do we make the same resolutions year after year after year? We want to make ourselves new, but find out how powerful the old is. And eventually the old always wins, doesn’t it? Oh, maybe we manage to improve a thing or two and keep some resolutions - but the old always wins. Because, someday, no matter what we do, we’re all going to die. 

Who will it be this year? Some we expect, perhaps; but many that we don’t. Some will die after long lives, some after long battles with illness, but some will be taken tragically and quickly and in the prime of their lives. And we know: this is not good. With this God is not well pleased. This is not how it was meant to be. In the beginning, God created life and man chose death. For that’s what sin is - going it on our own, separation from the source of our life.

And yet we’re still surprised, aren’t we? When we sin and things don’t work out. When we still try to go it on our own - whether that is apart from God or apart from the people He’s given us to take care of us; when we rebel and think we know better . . . but just make things worse. And things die. Friendships die, relationships die, goodness dies. We want to make ourselves new, but find out how powerful the old is.

But when Jesus steps into the Jordan that day, it is a real new beginning. Because it’s not the one we’re doing, but the one God is doing. And it’s Paul that bring it all together for us and ties it to baptism. For, Paul says, Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

Now first of all, realize what an utterly strange and amazing phrase you just heard there, but which is so easy to overlook: his death. Jesus’ death. God’s death. And it’s His because He took it; because He stepped into the Jordan that day to take it. The God who is life and created life, not death, and who never intended for any to die, makes death His own. And for one reason only: to conquer it. The enemy that we could never conquer, He does. For you. He didn’t need to conquer it - God wasn’t going to die; He cannot die. He dies to raise you. He conquers death to give you the victory. That just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 

And there it is - Paul said it: newness of life. New creation. Jesus takes your sin and death and all your old and takes it to the cross with Him, and rises from death to raise you, with Him, to a new life. His life. And that, Paul says, happens for you in baptism. There you die; you get the awfulness of death over with. There you are raised with Christ; enemy defeated. There you are re-created, made new; the voice of the Father saying of you too: with you I am well pleased.

And that’s the second utterly amazing thing here: that with you God is well pleased. We work so hard to be pleasing to others: to teachers, to bosses, to friends, to parents, to the boy or girl, the man or woman we want to like us, to coaches, to strangers, even to ourselves - yet how often does that end in disappointment, how often we fall short, no matter how hard we try. 

But here’s the good news: with you God is well pleased! Not because of what you do or accomplish, but because of Jesus. Baptized into Him, you are now good and new creations, sons and daughters of God living a new life. A life re-connected to the source of your life, continually receiving the forgiveness and life you need, putting down the old and raising up the new. That’s what happens when you confess your sins and hear those words: I forgive you all your sins. That’s what happens when you come and receive the Body and Blood of your Saviour. The new life begun in baptism continues and is strengthened and fed. And you leave here new. You may not see it or feel it, but it is true nonetheless.

For when Jesus stepped into the Jordan that day, everything changed. John sensed it - He knew this wasn’t right. But it was, in this sense: by this “not right” Jesus was making everthing right and good again. A new beginning, a new start, and a new end for you. 

For How can water do such great things? Certainly not just water, but the Word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this Word of God in the water. And Jesus is still in the water, here, for you. Epiphanied, manifested, revealed to you as the Son of God, your sin-bearer, your death-taker, your life-giver, your re-creator, your Saviour. Trust this Word of God in the water and all that He has done for you. For all that He has done for you He here gives to you. And it is very good.

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

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Epiphany of Our Lord Sermon

Jesu Juva

“Wise Men Fall Down and Worship Him”
Text: Matthew 2:1-12 (Ephesians 3:1-12)

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

The visit of the wise men to the infant Jesus is a cherished part of the Christmas story. It is sometimes called the “Christmas of the Gentiles.” It has been included and memorialized in many of the well-known and best-loved hymns and carols. Our manger scenes would seem empty without the three well-dressed men and their camels. And the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh can be named by many, even if they don’t really know what those latter two are.

But as well-known and treasured as this story is, there is a lot of mystery to it as well, perhaps adding to its mystique. For who were these guys? Wise men is the title most often used. Magi is the biblical word - but what does that mean? Astrologer? Magician? King? Something else? All have been suggested. And where did they come from? Babylon? The Orient? From the east is all we’re told. And how many were there? Three is the typical answer, assuming each brought one of the three gifts mentioned. But again, we’re not told. We just know they are plural - more than one.

But maybe the mystery is there because they are not really who this story is all about. Just as the other part of the Christmas story is not really about the shepherds and the angels. It’s about Jesus. And as Paul wrote to the Ephesians, that Jesus came not just for the Jews only, but for all people. That all people be heirs of the kingdom and partakers of the Gospel by grace through faith in Jesus. So God brings Jews and Gentiles - shepherds and wise men - to see and worship Him in His Son. To see in Him the King and Saviour of the world.

And so really, the Christmas story of the shepherds and the wise men has continued down through the ages, as God has led a countless number of people through the centuries to fall down and worship Him. Including you. For you it wasn’t an angel or a star that led you, but it was God’s doing nonetheless. Through other means - His Word, or preaching. But you are here just as they were. And you see Him by faith just as they did. For they didn’t see a baby that was spectacular - who was glowing or had a halo around His head or that miraculously didn’t cry or soil a diaper - they saw a baby boy just like every other baby boy. But a baby boy that by faith they believed was different than every other baby boy. For this baby boy was not just Mary’s son, but God’s Son. The King and Saviour of the world. And they fell down and worshipped Him.

And that’s why I’m going to call them wise men and run with that title for them today. Not because of who they were or because I think that’s the best translation of “Magi” (it’s probably not) - but because of what they did; because they fell down and worshipped Him. Because the Scriptures tell us the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 9:10). That’s what wisdom is. That’s what wisdom does.

Now, were those Magi smart guys? Well-educated? Have a high IQ? Probably. But knowledge is not the same as wisdom. There are a lot of smart, well-educated people today who aren’t very wise. And the opposite is true as well - there are a lot of people who never finished high school who are very wise. Knowledge and wisdom are not the same thing. In fact, maybe you can say wisdom is knowing how to use knowledge. And when not to use it. For just because you know how to do something doesn’t mean you should. In fact, that’s led to a lot of troubles, hasn’t it? In the world and in our lives. A lot of evil has come from knowledge not rightly used.

And so wisdom is something quite different than knowledge, and, the Scriptures teach us, comes from the Lord. And so, for example, science has learned how to clone; it has that knowledge. But should we? Doctors know how to do in vitro fertilization - but should we? Industry knows how to make weapons of mass destruction - but should we? Or let’s keep it simpler and a bit closer to home: people know how to post embarrassing photos of themselves on the internet - but should they? Teenagers know how to get around the rules their parents make - but should they? And I’m sure you can think up myriad more examples . . . but you get the point. 

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. How we use our knowledge and determine what should or should not be done comes from Him. And when we use our knowledge apart from God’s wisdom and His Word - that is what the Bible calls foolishness. And there have been some very smart people who have been very, very foolish.

So what made the wise men wise was that when they entered the house of Mary and Joseph that day and saw the child Jesus, they fell down and worshipped Him. They didn’t say: this is just a house and not a palace; these are just common folk and not royalty, and so this child must not be a king. No. Not their knowledge and not what the world teaches is so drove what they did - they listened to the Word of God, even though it may not have made a lot of earthly, worldly, sense. This child? This child? And they fell down and worshipped Him. Wise men.

And so you too. You’ve probably heard the line “Wise men still seek Him.” But real wise men know that the most important thing in the Christmas story is that God has come to seek us. It was God who came to Adam and Eve after they hid from Him and from each other after they sinned. It was God who sent His prophets to call His people to repentance. It was God who sent the star to lead the wise men to Jesus. And it’s God who comes to you - not just with the story of His Son, but with His Gospel and His Spirit and His love and the promise of His forgiveness. That you not just know the story, but that you too fall down and worship Him, and receive from Him the gifts He comes to bring you. The gifts that are here for you. This Church your Bethlehem, and this altar your manger.

So what you’ve brought here today with you are not gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but your sins of thought, word, and deed. Not very good gifts! the world would say. But, oh, they are! They are exactly what your Saviour wants. For He has come to bear them for you and take them away from you. He wants you to cling to Him and not to them, and receive from Him His forgiveness, life, and salvation. For really, everything else you have is His anyway. He’s the one who gave it to you. And He doesn’t really need anything else you can give Him. Not even the offering you give each week. You give it not because He needs it, but because you need to give it. You need to let go of it and everything on this earth, and fall down and worship Him. Worship - which means to receive from Him His gifts; what He has come to give to you. And that is more precious to Him than any gold, frankincense, or myrrh could ever be.

The world calls all that foolishness. And sometimes we think it too, thinking that we have to come up with new ways to worship Him; ways to look good and wise in the eyes of the world. Nope. That would be like the wise men leaving Mary and Joseph’s house, thinking that couldn’t possibly be the One. 

So instead, it is the Word of God that determines what we do, how we think, and that teaches us true wisdom. The Word of God that says all that believe and are baptized shall be saved (Mark 16:16). The Word of God that says I forgive you all your sins (John 20:22). The Word of God that says This is My Body and This is My Blood (Luke 22:19-20). And to this the foolish say: Nah! But wise men say: Amen! And fall down and worship Him, opening ears and hearts and mouths to confess our sins and receive these gifts. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

And then this wisdom flows out from here in your lives as well. For you live by the Word of God and this wisdom not only here, but in all your life and in all your decisions. It shapes how you live and how you use the knowledge of the world. Such knowledge is a wonderful gift of God that comes from believers and non-believers alike. Science, math, history, art, music, and much more. Learn it! Appreciate it! But be wise men, too. Know how to use such knowledge; what are it’s boundaries and limits. What it can tell us and what it can’t. And so don’t fall down and worship it - fall down and worship your Saviour, born for you, crucified for you, risen for you, and now here for you with all the fruits and gifts that He won for you. 

That doesn’t mean you’re going to look wise now; in fact, many will think you quite foolish. Rubes. Weak-minded. Easily duped. But as the angel kept saying through the Christmas story: Do not be afraid. For when Jesus comes again in glory, all will be revealed - who were the wise and who were the foolish ones (Matthew 25). And on that day, Daniel says: those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever (Daniel 12:3).

So next time you see a nativity scene - with Mary and Joseph and Jesus, angels and shepherd and wise men - know where you are: with the wise men. For the Christmas of the Gentiles - that’s your Christmas too.

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

Friday, January 2, 2015

New Year's Eve / Circumcision of Jesus Meditation

Tonight, while many people are making resolutions about how to improve their life next year, based on the memories of our failures this past year, the church remembers something very different - the circumcision of our Lord. We do so because January 1st is eight days after Christmas, and Jesus was circumcised eight days after His birth. 

It seems strange to some, not just to remember but to celebrate such a small thing, and a thing not talked about in polite company. But commemorating our Lord’s circumcision is more than just remembering an historical fact - it is commemorating our Lord’s resolve to save us. For unlike so many of our resolutions, the Lord’s resolve has never wavered, and never will. The reason He is circumcised is for the same reason He was born, lived a life of flawless and complete obedience, died, and rose - for you. To do everything necessary for your salvation. 

And it is especially significant that this overlaps New Year’s Eve. For as we look back over the past year, we do so relying on the Lord’s forgiveness for our sins. And as we look forward to the new year, we do so relying on the Lord’s grace. Without Him, the past is a graveyard of regrets and the future an uncertain and fearful unknown. But with Him, we can be confident. For He who holds all of time in His hands, works all things for your good. And so 2015 will be another year of His grace, just as 2014 was.

So tonight, we remember and celebrate not our promises but His. Not our work but His. And not what we will accomplish next year, but what He will. It started with His circumcision on the eighth day, and is leading us to that day that will never end. And so in Him, it may not be a “happy” New Year, but it will be a blessed one. In Him. That’s His resolve for you.