The Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord (Hebrews 1:1-11)

If you don’t want to offend people’s religious tastes, talk about angels.  Everybody loves angels—from your new age chiropractor to your spiritual-but-not-religious cousin.  It’s nice to think about guardian angels, even if you have no other duty to God, to hope you have allies in the spiritual realm.  It’s a nice idea to think that people become angels when they die. Angels are not offensive.

The hymn “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” was originally written by a unitarian, Edmund Sears.  Unitarians reject the doctrine of one God in three persons. So, the message that Sears took from the announcement of Christ’s birth is the angels announcing a heavenly desire for world peace.  The angels were sent to give a message that God wants us all to get along.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, too, don’t accept the Trinity, so they say that Jesus is really the Archangel Michael.  The “firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15), meaning he is ever so slightly less than Jehovah God.

But angels could talk forever and it would not save one soul.  Certainly they are powerful, and people cower when the meet an angel in its glory.  But power alone can’t save. Angels deliver messages, but we needed more than information to be saved.

“His Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.”

People have a problem that is too big for us to fix.  You know the symptoms of that problem—they’re broadcast on the news, they are the awkward silences at your holiday gatherings, they’re even in the rock in your chest you feel when your parents or spouse are passed away.  Our problem is sin, and it’s a problem that only God’s Son can address. It had to be “God of God, light of light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father” (Nicene Creed).  None other could make purification for sins.

Oh, but it’s been tried.  When we’re betrayed, we long to see justice carried out.  But at what point will “an eye for an eye” really be finished?  When we agonize over our choices that can’t be taken back, what kind of atonement can make up for them or undo the damage?  Shame and fear lay heavy on our shoulders, and we try to compensate with bravado or anger, but it will never heal the root pain.

Only the One who is the “exact imprint of God’s nature” can restore this Creation to what it truly is supposed to be.  Not our ideals, but back to the Creator’s designs. What we think the world ought to be is also clouded by sin.  Our hopes are aimed too low—like hoping an angel could save us.

Long ago, the prophets pointed toward this, on Christmas night, the angels announced and sang it.  When He was raised from the dead, the angel comforted with the words, “He is not here; He has risen.” (Luke 24:6)

God has joined our human race, He has brought our nature into Himself.  Christmas is not a celebration of the appearance of angels, it’s the revealing of the Creator becoming Creature so that He can raise us up.  “He who is fleshless becomes flesh” The Immortal has put on mortality, so that at the last our “mortal bodies must put on immortality.” (1 Cor. 15:53)

Only the true Son of God has the authority to do what He does: “To all who did receive Him, He gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13)  The Son raises us up so that we receive the status of sons of God and heirs of God’s renewed creation.  

This is what God the Father is doing in Baptism: He is adopting you as His son, through His only-begotten Son.  When you were baptized, God put His Name on you: The Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  It is the Name of the Lord, and it becomes your family name through faith. You still have a name from a human family, but that name is mortal; it will pass away.  But the Name you receive from God will abide forever, and you abide in Him.

As sons of God through faith, we are given the privilege to eat the family table.  At this Holy Supper, the Son who became flesh, gives us His flesh and blood to eat and drink, so that our flesh and blood may have life (John 6:51-58)

This December 25, a day in time, we rejoice in the eternal.  Begotten of His Father from eternity, and born of the Virgin Mary, this is Jesus Christ, your Lord.  Who, “having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”  So also, in Him, you receive a status and a hope and a future that far surpasses all earthly expectation.  Thanks be to God! Amen.

Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord (Titus 2:11-14)

Christmas Eve

There are a lot of things that are funny, and there are a lot of things to criticize in the world.  Lord knows we’re experts at it in our day. But suddenly something that used to be funny or despised takes on a whole new light when it touches our life.  For example, the bumper sticker “Keep honking; I’m reloading” is funny until you know a victim of road rage or gun violence. Conservative Christians can rant and rave against the evils of abortion, until they find out their close friend or spouse had one in the past.  It’s easy to rail against the LGBTQ movement until you have a family member who struggles with those questions.

The point is, it’s easy to make light of a problem when you hold it at arms’ length.  But as soon as you put flesh and blood on it, it becomes personal.

From Titus 3, we hear, “When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy.” (Titus 3:4-5)

Tonight, we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Savior of the world.  But here’s what the birth of God’s Son means: He does not judge us from on high; He makes our sin His own cause.  The goodness and lovingkindness has appeared, “wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”  The loving kindness of God is His philanthropia, His love for mankind—you and me.  And it is a genuine love. Not the kind of ‘love’ that you’re obliged to sign your Christmas cards with, to family you never see and don’t really matter to your life.  In God’s loving kindness, He makes your life His business.

Often, our first reaction to other people is to say, “Get out of my business!”  Why? Because they judge and criticize. They tell you how you ought to live your life.  But what about when that advice is motivated by love for you? What if they’re right? Even if people’s love can be flawed, God’s fatherly love for you is not. In the birth of Jesus Christ, we see the heart of a loving Father whose desire for us is nothing but pure and good.

He is our Creator, who formed us in our mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13).  He is the One who, in spite of our shoving Him out of our life, still laid out plans from eternity how He was going to save us (Ephesians 1:3-5).  And it is He who has the power to call us out of our rebellion to become recipients of His grace. (Eph. 2:1-9)

Earlier tonight, in the Epistle reading, we heard in Titus 2: 11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age”  He has brought salvation that is for all people, no exceptions.  This is the God who “shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)  And it’s this love that changes its recipients.  In it, He renews us as His creation, a new creation.

In love, God sent His Son to save us from ungodly and worldly passions.  The tragic thing is when we want to cling to those things more than the God who loves us.  They just have such a strong pull on us—they resonate with the flesh in each of us and they feel so right; it feels like this is love.  But God’s love for you is true, and His Son was born to save you from all that threatens your life.

You see, it’s not that God excuses the evil or overlooks something that He had previously condemned.  Just as an example that’s current—not because it’s a sin worse than others—false teachers try to write off God’s previous condemnations of homosexuality and say the authors were biased.  Now that the Gospel has come, we’re free to live in the forgiveness of sins and embrace new lifestyles. But they overlook the fact that the Creator hasn’t changed His intention for human life—to the peril of their hearers.  If anything, He has sharpened the clarity that we are to live holy lives that don’t pander to our passions.

In the Old Testament, Polygamy was tolerated—“passed over” but now it is forbidden not just by the 6th Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery” but by a closer restoration to God’s original design—“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.” 

He is not a God who callously shouts down orders from heaven. In the birth of Christ, He comes to make Himself one flesh with us so that He can suffer the just judgement you deserve.

We rejoice at Christmas because God reveals His heart for humanity.  If we only look at the world around us, we’ll never find that love. What we’ll find is closer to the idea of karma—you get out what you put in.  But you’ll never find a God who is merciful and gracious to fallen and foolish men. Here in the manger, you find that God who came down at a time when and where you would least expect.  Born in the former Kingdom of Israel, in a tiny town, to parents of no reputation, in the Roman empire that had no knowledge of God. Then, when it had happened, He announced it by angels to shepherds of all people.

And yet God, who rules over all, orchestrated all these things for His purpose: To show His loving kindness, to deliver His grace and peace, that you and I would know Him in our hearts.   No matter what your sins, whether manifest or hidden, He has come to you tonight in His Word, and the angel’s announcement is for you, too:

“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10)

Peace from heaven in Jesus Christ, the Lord and Savior from your sins!  Amen.

Fourth Sunday in Advent (Matthew 1:18-25)

Anton Raphael Mengs Angel Appears to Joseph in a Dream (1773-1774)

Our Gospel reading falls nearly at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel.  What comes very first is the introduction: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” (Matt. 1:1)

Recall the promise given to Abraham: “In you and in your Offspring, all the families of the earth will be blessed.” (Gen. 12:3) What is that blessing?

Prosperity preachers like Joel Osteen describe blessing as good things happening to you—good gifts abound in health, wealth, good government, good friends, and the like.  If there’s bad, it’s just a momentary setback. As long as you stay positive and hopeful you’ll make it through and then God will bless you again. This makes God no more than a vending machine for good things and a coach to encourage you to live you “best life now.”  What a bunch of malarkey!

If you want to know what blessing is, this portion of the Gospel explains what that blessing through Abraham’s son is.  There’s a reason the Holy Spirit inspired the Evangelist Matthew to write in the way he did. But it’s not a straight line to see the blessing:

“When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”

Joseph found himself in a position not too unexpected in the world: his fiancée was pregnant and he wasn’t the father.  The most likely explanations were 1) that she had been unfaithful or 2) she was the victim of a wretched crime. Joseph, being a righteous man, didn’t want to sin to ripple into the community and bring God’s judgment and the damage from this to spread like a crack on a windshield.  So, he set his mind to do the least damage: end the betrothal quietly. This amounted to a divorce, breaking the marriage contract between the two families, and it was a shameful thing but it was the least of all the evil possibilities.

This is the world with which we’re all too familiar—broken promises, abuse, people taken advantage of, theft, and on and on.  This is all too often what our lives, our friendships, and our family’s lives look like.  

Yet, God intervenes to show that this is not business as usual: “Behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’”

This is God stepping into this world of sin—our sins and the sins of others—to save us from them.  The Name Jesus says what the blessing of Abraham is. The Name Jesus, or Joshua/Yeshua means “God saves.”  He will save the families of the earth from their sins.

He saves our families—our broken family ties, divorces, betrayals, what we’ve done and what we’ve failed to do.  Certainly our lives are pockmarked with betrayals which have cut us to the heart, left us in misery, robbed both of peace and property.  But notice how the angel puts it: “Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Of first important is that He saves each of us from our own sins.  When you’re a pastor, the topic of sins comes up a lot in your company, but one of the most common ways is to talk about other people’s sins.  You can’t trust anybody, the government has failed us, the doctor was a quack.  What about you?  What are your sins?  You can’t have healing or peace until you start confessing your sins, and not another’s.  Jesus can’t save you from other people’s sins. But He most certainly can bring God’s blessing to you—you who have profaned God’s Name by how you’ve lived and talked, you who have defamed others by your words, you who have been unfaithful and lazy.  

He is not God far off, telling you to deal with it yourselves.  He is Immanuel, God with us; God-Who-Saves with us.  God with us to come into the midst of our chaotic and broken lives with His mercy and grace, and give us peace in heaven.

He is God with us so that we have the peace to forgive and do good to those who have sinned against us.  Think back to Joseph, who faced what was an agonizing decision. He is called a “just man” who was unwilling to put Mary to public shame.  Even though the best guess he could make was that she had betrayed him, he didn’t want to smear her reputation and see her stoned. He was ready to forgive and do good, even to the one who—in his estimation—had ruined his future by sleeping with another man.  That was all before the angel announced God’s work.

This is an example to us of God at work in the lives of His people.  Hopefully you have your own stories of God working in you, turning you from selfish desire, from spitefulness, from greed in hording your wealth, and other evils.  He is God with us, and we are blessed forever by His coming. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Advent III Midweek (Numbers 24:1-3-9, 15-19 )

“Israel will overcome all hostility and in the latter days,

God will raise up a Ruler who will let His kingdom come”

We’ve heard from God’s unlikely mouthpiece two times now, and today a third and fourth time.  From the beginning, Balaam has been an eccentric figure who is more of a soothsayer for hire than a called and ordained prophet of the Lord.  These two times, God has put His word in Balaam’s mouth in spite of Balak or Balaam’s unfaithful intentions.

But there’s something different about these last two prophecies, because there’s a change in Balaam.  He is changed from being a mere mouthpiece to being a prophet of the Lord. But it’s not a result of his efforts; it is the Lord’s decision and the Lord’s work.  Listen to how his 3rd discourse begins:

And the Spirit of God came upon him, and he took up his discourse and said,

“The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor, 

the oracle of the man whose eye is opened, 

the oracle of him who hears the words of God, 

who sees the vision of the Almighty, 

falling down with his eyes uncovered: 

It begins not with Balaam, but with God’s Spirit.  The result is that his eyes are opened to see what cannot be seen by human reason and strength.  His ears too are opened because he hears the words of God. His eyes behold what only the faithful are allowed to see—a vision of the Almighty (Gen. 15:1)

Overwhelmed by the surpassing greatness of this, he falls down with eyes uncovered, recalling the words of the Psalmist David, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” (Ps. 119:18)  Now with this Spirit-enabled vision, what does Balaam see?

First, he sees God’s people as God sees them (vv. 5-7).  If you read the rest of Numbers, it doesn’t seem like he’s describing the same people who ten times put the Lord to the test (Num. 14:22).  But this is how God sees them: holy and blameless, redeemed of the Lord with hands freed from the basket of slavery.

This is the same kind of description Paul gives in Ephesians 5, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present 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)  It’s not that He erases their sins out of existence; He purposely erases them from His sight and memory.

So what could have this power that the Lord could look at foolish, beaten, and guilty people, and see nothing but a pleasant garden?  It’s because of the Lamb of God, who preceded their departure from Egypt, the blood which covered their doorposts saved them from death.  It’s on account of the blood of the Lamb that God looks upon each of us today and does not count our sins against us. “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18)  He has not swept your sins under the rug; He has forgiven them, released them, disavowing Himself of the right of visiting their guilt upon you. They have been borne by another: the Lamb of God.

What comes next is a description of kingdoms at war.  One of the things which turns people off from reading the Old Testament is all the war and bloodshed.  They’re offended to think that God could sanction such violence. Yet He did, and how are we to understand that?  God was executing judgement on those nations because of their man-made religion and vile practices. They had taken His creation and turned nearly every aspect of humanity and religion upside down.  They said it was good to devote themselves to heavenly bodies like the Sun, Moon, and stars; and that by carving statues you were brining a deities’ help into your home. They were told if you want to appease the anger of God, you need to sacrifice your children in a fire to Molech.  If you want fertility for your family and your field, you should go to a temple prostitute. This creation belongs to GOd, and He would not tolerate such things for long (Gen. 6:3-7).

The warfare is also a manifestation of an unseen conflict which is the background to the history of fallen man.  It is a battle between God and the fallen angel Satan. Standing behind every description of the human enemies of God’s human people is the work of the devil.  Since the beginning, he has been a liar and a murderer, bent on the destruction of God’s creation and our damnation along with him.

So, the warfare is twofold: that God has judged Satan and will throw him and all his host into hell forever, and it’s a warning that God will judge the ungodly and those who are allied with Satan will forever suffer hell, the “outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt. 22:13)  As for God, His Kingdom is greater than any of men.  Even if one should dare to call himself ‘Agag,’ the High One, God’s King is higher than the highest.  His Kingdom will come, and neither man nor devil will be able to overthrow it.  And He brings us into this Kingdom not by our own decision, but according to His mercy and Him calling us by His Spirit.

In His final oracle, Balaam is given a vision from afar of God’s King out of Jacob: 

17  I see him, but not now; 

I behold him, but not near: 

a star shall come out of Jacob, 

and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; 

[he] shall crush the forehead of Moab 

and break down all the sons of Sheth. 

18  Edom shall be dispossessed; 

Seir also, his enemies, shall be dispossessed. 

Israel is doing valiantly. 

19  And one from Jacob shall exercise dominion 

and destroy the survivors of cities!” 

From afar off, some 1,500 years, God gives a vision of the coming King.  This is the prophecy which brought the Magi to the infant Jesus, as they followed the star back to Jacob (Matt. 2:1-2).  This is the promise made to Judah by Jacob before he died (Gen. 49:10). The King will triumph over God’s enemies. He will crush the forehead of Moab—representing the ancient serpent (Gen. 3:15).  He will, as a Stronger Man, come and plunder Satan’s claim over us (Mark 3:23-27). He will rule over His people, and on the Last Day over all creation, and be honored as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Our King fights for and defends us against all enemies and evil.  He reigns supreme to bring His gracious salvation to all. For all this, because His Spirit has come upon us, we thank and praise and gladly call Him Lord—even the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.  Amen.

Third Sunday in Advent (Isaiah 35:1-10)

Joachim Patinir - Baptism of Christ

In the spring of 2016, Death Valley in California saw an unusual sight: a “super bloom.”  Conditions came together which brought out a huge number of flowers besides the standby desert gold.  Photographers descended on the valley and captured beautiful hills of mariposa lilies and sunbonnets. It was truly a rare event.

The description given in Isaiah 35 is also rare:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; 

the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; 

it shall blossom abundantly 

and rejoice with joy and singing. 

The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, 

the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. 

They shall see the glory of the Lord

the majesty of our God. 

Even more than rare, it has never been seen before  Some might call it inconceivable, others impossible.  The autumn crocus described here is the same kind we have in the rose garden by the playground.  Imagine those bulbs sprouting out in the wilderness and dry land. The desert rejoicing because of the flowers blooming in it!  How can this be?

The rest of the text invites us to picture ever increasingly improbable circumstances:

  Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, 

and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 

then shall the lame man leap like a deer, 

and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. 

For waters break forth in the wilderness, 

and streams in the desert; 

the burning sand shall become a pool, 

and the thirsty ground springs of water; 

in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down, 

the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 

What a miracle!  Praise the Lord for when He does such miraculous things, because that will vindicate our faith in Him.  Then we’ll know that we have trusted in the Mighty One who changes the desert into a paradise, and restores the ear of the deaf and the tongue of the mute!

Oh, but what comes next?  Isaiah 36 begins an account of Sennacherib besieging Jerusalem.  Isaiah has delivered all these promises of God to “strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees.”  And in our thinking, bringing disaster is no way to “Say to the anxious heart, Be strong, fear not!  Behold your God will come with vengeance”  It sounds like we’ll have to push our hope down the road and try to keep waiting patiently for the Lord to act.  Until then, we’ll just hang in there and quietly remind each other that the Lord will act…one day.

There are Christians, who are so eager for this visible reward to come, that they seek out the miraculous, the completely inexplicable, as signs of God’s working.  This past week, I taught the confirmation class about the Assembly of God’s belief in Divine Healing. Based on James 5, where the Apostle says, “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him…And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick.” (James 5:14-15)  Based on the fact that Jesus healed many with diseases, they believe that God will still do that in sudden and miraculous ways if you follow this formula.  So, they exchange stories about how God miraculously removed tumors and made lame extremities whole. Now, don’t misunderstand, God is capable of doing whatever He wills, including sudden healing. But, as I warned the class, don’t just put your faith in the healing.  Also, beware of tying healings directly to “the prayer of faith” because if you aren’t healed, it’s all too easy to think your faith is somehow faulty. Sometimes God’s will is to leave us in our weakness, just like he left Isaiah and King Hezekiah to suffer warfare with Sennacherib (Isaiah 36).

So how does God fulfill this promise?  First, we turn to the Gospel reading, because it’s in the earthly ministry of Jesus that we get our first preview of God doing this on earth.  When John sits in prison, wondering if Jesus is truly the one to come, Jesus assures Him with the signs which He’s doing: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”  And it’s true that Jesus did actually open blind eyes, heal lame limbs, cleanse the unclean, give hearing to the deaf, raise those who had died, and preach good news to the poor.

But what about us who follow Jesus in 2019?  What tangible hope is for us? Well, our Lord asked the crowds that day, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?”  So we might ask, “What did you come to church today?”  Did you come to see overt signs of God’s kingdom—signs so obvious even an unbeliever would be compelled to explain them away?  Shall we wait for signs of the spirit in people speaking in tongues and those who are sick having sudden healings? As nice as that sounds, that isn’t what the Lord promises here.

If you came here to hear Jesus’ work for you proclaimed, then you’ve come to the right place.  The signs of the Kingdom of Heaven visibly manifest God’s work among us. But they aren’t bodily healings (because those aren’t given to all) or people speaking in so-called “tongues of angels” (because that doesn’t help others).  They are signs of God’s gracious presence and His steadfast love which endures forever: They’re called signs in the Old Testament and mysteries in the New: They are Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  Our Lord gives them to us to “strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees.”  In our times of waiting, suffering, longing, they are what God gives to encourage us that we are not laboring in vain and that He has not left us in our suffering.

These signs of the Kingdom are received by faith, by the one holy, Christian and apostolic Church.  Isaiah descries this holy, Christian Church as the highway upon which “the unclean shall not pass over it.  It shall belong to those who walk on the way…[who] shall not go astray.”  Just like the signs of the Kingdom are only accepted by faith, so is this Communion of Saints only comprised of the faithful.  This is the company of believers scattered throughout the world who hear the Word of God and hold to it with faith. You can’t always pick them out, but the Lord knows who are His own. The Lord knows you.

God has done an amazing work in us, bringing together people from all walks of life to walk upon this highway.  This and more God is able to do with you—hope in Him who is able to heal your body and uphold you through any and every trial, who heals you of your blindness, who opens your lips to sing His praise, who changes your heart so that it reflects Him more and more and loves others as He does.  Truly these things are impossible with man, but with God, your God, all things are possible through Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Advent II Midweek (Numbers 23:13-26)

“Israel has the assurance of God’s unfailing promises”

In the Name + of Jesus. Amen. In a world of sin, failings, decay, and death, God reveals Himself through His promises.  This was true from the moment our first parents brought sin and death into the world. The Lord was right there, promising a Seed who would crush the Serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15 NKJV).

He made a promise to Abram, that in him and the seed which would come from his own body, that God would bring blessing to all the families of the earth (see Gen. 12:1-3, Gen. 15:1-6).  He had also promised that Abraham’s offspring would inherit the land of Canaan, that “I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.” (Exodus 33:2)

And these things God was going to do.  He does not make a promise only to change His mind later.  As He later says, “I the Lord do not change, therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” (Mal. 3:6)

And they sure put that to the test.  Time and time again, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob doubted that God’s promise would come to pass.  Abram had a child with Hagar to speed things along; Isaac favored the wrong son; Jacob swindled his brother Esau out of his birthright and blessing; and the sons of Jacob were too busy being jealous of their younger brother Joseph that were plotting murder rather than wonder through which of them God’s promised Seed would come.

Even here, while the sons of Israel wander in the desert—easy pickings for for-hire prophets and wicked kings—they were so busy complaining about how things were better in Egypt.  When God started to give them rules to live by, they quickly turned away from them and built a graven calf. When Moses sent twelve spies to get a look at the Promised Land, ten of them came back with the news that they could never dispossess the people because they were too big (Numbers 13).

But did Jacob’s unfaithfulness change the Lord’s purpose?  No. Even after the golden calf and the wicked spies, and the fiery serpents (Num. 21) (on and on), God was unmoved in what He had proposed to do.  He is not called the Sovereign for no purpose. He would use Israel to bring the Savior promised to Abraham and Adam and Eve, to all the families of the earth.

Balak, who doesn’t know God, refused to acknowledge this.  He sets up another sacrifice, asks Balaam to speak to God again—like a child begging her mother for candy after mom’s already said ‘no.’  God will not be thwarted by the unfaithfulness of men, nor will he be brow-beaten into submitting to our will.

But just saying that God’s promises are forever done, and that “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” (Rom. 11:29)  How is it possible that we see so much of the opposite of what God promises?

Often what our eyes see can discourage and cause us to doubt.  Sadly, the one we often doubt in these times is God.

He makes promises to us in His Word—“Go and make disciples…baptizing and teaching them…and lo! I am with you always.” (Matt. 28:19-20)  So, we parents bring our children to the saving waters of baptism, we raise them in the faith, we take them to church, they confess their faith in the excitement and nervousness of Confirmation Day.  And then what? Sometimes parents become burned out and don’t see a reason to maintain such rigorous attendance. Maybe the child gets their drivers’ license and sees that staying out late with their unchurched friends leaves them too exhausted (or ashamed) to come to church very often—if at all.

Parents cry to God and say, “Didn’t you promise in Provers 22, ‘Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.’?”  That’s where we’re wrong. Proverbs does not contain things God swears to do; it’s an instruction book for the faithful to learn how God orders and directs our lives.

Take another example: Think of how many people take marriage vows.  Men and women make life-long promises to be with each other in sickness and health, for richer and poorer, and to forsake all others till death do they part.  Then consider the horrendous divorce rates. Who has failed there? Should we blame God for instituting a union that people can’t live up to? That’s absurd. Should we shun the whole estate and just shack up and call each other husband and wife without the formalities?  God forbid! It’s human unfaithfulness, human hardness of heart that overturns those lifelong vows.

Along the same lines, it’s human unfaithfulness that appears to overturn the promises of God.  Unbelief considers the promise and power of God to be void, and that’s exactly what it receives. 

But for the humble, trembling heart that trusts in God and longs for Him to act, He will vindicate you.  The gift of faith clings to what God has spoken—however different from today’s reality or our own experience it might be.  God promises in Psalm 91: “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’ When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him. With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.” (1-2, 15-16)  He promises, “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” (Ps. 50:15).  He promises, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 18:18)  He promises, “that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:38-39)

Beloved in the Lord, God is faithful and He will not fail you if your trust is in Him.  By the power of His Holy Spirit, may He keep us always in this faith unto life everlasting!

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

Second Sunday in Advent (Text: Matthew 3:1-12)

John the Baptist

John the Baptist’s appearance is jarring.  There’s no getting comfortable around a man who wears camel fur and eats nothing but bugs and honey.  But why? I’m sure there’s someone weirder in Portland.

John is uncomfortable because of what his image brings up.  He eats locusts, and yet he preaches a plague far greater than the one which devoured Egyptian crops.  It is a plague which even the sons of Abraham may suffer.  This is unthinkable who have status in the church—the Pharisees and Sadducees—who have labored so long and hard to preserve the church, would be cut down and thrown into the fire.  How could God be so callous and not recognize their many contributions? Doesn’t he see how many hours they’ve labored, they’ve studied, they’ve prayed, how many things they have dedicated (and have little brass plaques next to them).  All of it may be gone like the empire of hard-hearted, idolatrous Pharaoh, if they only fear the wrath to come and have no godly remorse (contrition for their sins) and a plea to God’s mercy which endures forever (Ps. 107:1). God will not show favorites, but will honor and bless the faith which He has created.

John eats wild honey like Samson who found it in the carcass of a lion he slayed with his bare hands. Samson was able to slay the Philistines for solving his riddle, but it is with John’s bare words that he slays his hearers–not just the uncircumcised, but all who are uncircumcised in their heart—that is they do not rightly fear God.  John announces the coming of the One who “will open [His] mouth in a parable; [who] will utter dark sayings from of old.” (Ps. 78:2) The One mightier than Samson, whose words will bring about “the fall and rising of many in Israel.” (Luke 2:34)

John also wears a leather belt, reminiscent of the garments of skin with which God clothed our first parents after they sinned. They were unable to be conscientious objectors and adopt a vegan outlook.  Rather the leather belt taught them that peace with God came at the cost of another’s life. Too often have we, their children, put God to the test, doing what is wicked and then when the lightning bolt didn’t come or we didn’t get swallowed by the earth, we presumed on His kindness and assumed His inaction we could get away with it.  That leather belt, like the garments for Adam and Eve, along with the tens of thousands of animals slaughtered on Israel’s altars, and ultimately God’s son sacrificed on the cross, ought to teach us to rightly appreciate what it cost to have “peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2:14)

And finally, he wears a hairy cloak, to remind us of Jacob.  Jacob gained the blessing from his father, Isaac, by works not his own.  He got the blessing which rightly belonged to his brother, beloved of his father.  And yet in this wondrous and mysterious exchange, the one John pointed to covers us with His own robes of righteousness and the Father Himself sees not our treachery, evil works, and lukewarm hearts, but the perfect work of the only-begotten Son.

Nevertheless, John is not someone you would want at your holiday party. There’s also no getting comfortable with John’s message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” There’s no sugar-coating this preaching.  It’s offensive, but not for the sake of shock value.  It’s invasive because it exposes our hearts. It shows us that God actually is watching our life—“I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.” (Ps. 32:8)  This is necessary, too.

God’s Law comes into our heart and demolished any sense that we’re good enough for God.  It exposes our hearts and shows none of us to be righteous. It shows us how comfortable we’ve been in ourselves and our sins, brushing them under the rug and making excuses for them.  All the while, the Master of the house is near—at the very gates!

This is the way God prepares the way for the Christ, and how we ought to prepare ourselves for Christmas.  While the world is hanging “holiday balls” and droning on about the “spirit of the season,” Christians are watchful, hearing the Word of God and taking an honest look in the mirror of God’s Word, embodied in John the Baptist.  What we find is not good, and that’s why we are glad that God sent a Savior.

There’s been a push by Christians to “put Christ back in Christmas” and while that’s admirable, there’s a better way to do that than just saying, “Merry Christmas.”  Christmas is about salvation, and Jesus only comes for sinners. “He will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)  If you say you have not sinned, you don’t need to look forward to Christmas.

John was a spectacle.  People from all around had come to see and hear him.  Still today, the celebration of Christ’s birth brings out many who ordinarily wouldn’t.  While many will be looking for nostalgic feelings and familiar carols, I hope you find what God sent John the Baptist for.  Be a real sinner, be someone who knows why Jesus came. Knowing that, repent and be saved!

Christ’s coming is a warning that the axe is laid at the root of the tree.  Every tree that thinks its fruit is lovely will be cut down and burned. Everyone who says they have not sinned deceives themselves.  But the one who truly bears the fruit of repentance and faith is the one who has heard the spiritual message of Christ’s arrival, and look forward to His coming again.  Amen.

Advent Midweek I (Text: Numbers 23:5-12 )

In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

The story of Balaam is certainly a colorful one.  Balak, king of Moab is looking out for his kingdom, and he sees from the Amorites that, militarily, he’s up a creek.  So, he wisely chooses another method—an appeal straight to the top. So, Balak gets ahold of someone whom he knows has connections with the “man upstairs.”  For good measure, he even flatters Balaam by saying, “I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.”

It’s worthwhile to point out just two (out of many errors) of Balak.  First of all, he is under the impression that his way is best. He literally goes across hill and dale to achieve his goal: Israel must be gone.  He can’t be convinced otherwise. He is the very model of an unbeliever. My life, my way. If I’m going to appeal to God, it’s going to be on my terms.  I’ll decide when I ask for his help, and I’ll set the agenda for how the meeting is going to go.

If some of that sounds familiar, it’s because even believers sometimes approach God this way.  Not wanting (or trusting) God to have full control of our lives and future, we also make plans for how things should or must be.

Second (and an outgrowth of his unbelief), Balak sees the effectiveness in human actions.  He tries to buy the prophet’s favor with gifts, because he thinks it’s just a matter of buttering up Balaam to get him to speak powerful, divine words in his favor.  He’s under the impression that the spiritual world works like the rest of the earth—throw enough money at a problem, and you’ll eventually get your way. It goes completely over his head when Balaam says that he can only do what God tells Him.

It’s part of the sinful flesh to put trust in people.  We also tend to put our confidence in the man of God over the God whom that man serves.  He just preaches such fabulous sermons that surely he can get through to my hard-hearted relatives.  If I get in buddy-buddy and give him everything he wants, maybe he’ll give me special treatment and not call out my favorite sins.  Even though he has human failings and occasionally shows favoritism, when he’s doing his job rightly, what Balaam said is right: “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the Lord my God to do less or more.” (Num. 22:18)

So it’s pretty clear that Balak is not someone God wants us to be like.  What about Balaam? After all, he’s spiritually astute and has the gift of speaking God’s word.  Normally Scripture gives us the examples of prophets and apostles to emulate. Is that true with Balaam?  He had faith enough to call the Lord “my God,” and he understood obedience and duty to God.  But is that enough? (By ‘enough’ I mean, is that a complete, pleasing life before God?)  

God has shown His will to Balaam: “You shall not go with them. You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed” (Num. 22:12).  But then God tests Balaam to see how deep his faith runs.  So far, Balaam has been boasting about how he can’t do anything beyond the word God gives him.  But then God appears to let off and change his mind: “If the men have come to call you, rise, go with them; but only do what I tell you.” (v. 20)  So Balaam turns around and goes with them.

Here’s where God’s gracious dealing with Balaam is a lesson and warning to us.  God is angered by Balaam going with them because He had already made His intentions known: Don’t go with the people who want Israel cursed. Israel is blessed and I’m not changing My mind.  So God teaches Balaam a lesson using his donkey.

Balaam’s donkey is able to see that God is not pleased with his course of action.  Yet, Balaam, thinks the animal should not use reason, and be more like cars that go and stop at the driver’s command.  Finally, the Lord talks out of Balaam’s ass and rebukes him. He opens Balaam’s eyes to see the Angel of the Lord with his sword drawn.  He says, “Your way is perverse before me” (literally, slippery), and He makes the point that Balaam’s bare-word obedience will earn him nothing less than being slain while his donkey rides off into the sunset.

The point is God does not want to deal with us the way a rider treats a stupid animal.  In Psalm 32, the Lord says, “Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you.” (Ps. 32:9)

There are moments in our lives where our obedience as children of God is tested.  Is God toying with us to do that? No, His will is for us to be obedient from the heart, not just outward compulsion.  When He disciplines us in this way, He is treating us as children. He wants His children to grow into their own faith and keep His Word in their hearts.

God’s desire for His creatures is to restore us to fellowship with Him, a fellowship that comes from within and unites our will with His will.  The Lord was not done with Balaam, because despite his madness and his “slippery” ways, He turned a desire to curse into a reason to proclaim His mighty works on the horizon.

God’s salvation will not be thwarted by princes, human stumbling, or anything else.  God uses Balaam’s mouth to prophecy of His Christ: “Speak only the word which I tell you”

Balaam speaks of a people. No, wait, of one (v. 9a): “From the tops of the crags I see him, from the hills I behold him”  But, then again, “a people dwelling alone.” It is One, and yet of many. A people set apart. What Balaam sees is the promise of Offspring spoken to Abraham: In that Offspring, shall descendants be like the stars of heaven (Gen. 15:5-6).

The sons of Israel thought they were set apart by their Laws, their covenant with God, their Temple and sacrifices.  And it’s true in the fact that they were not like the other nations around them, and they were commanded not to intermarry with them. (See Deuteronomy 4:1-14)  Yet God was not done with His people after having established holy boundaries and rules to regulate every aspect of life. This is no better than Balaam beating his donkey, thinking it’s stubborn.

No, God’s people are set apart through Jesus, the Christ.  He came to make a people holy to the Lord—Washed and set apart in the waters of Holy Baptism, joined to the sacrifice offered on the altar of the cross, recipients of the righteousness bestowed through faith, where God is worshipped not by outward obedience but through the “washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5-6).

Why was Balaam not able to curse the people God had blessed?  Because it was God’s will that all the disobedient, wandering, and foolish of the earth would die to sin and live to Him through the Offspring of Jacob.   And when our pilgrimage has come to a close, it is our confident hope that we will receive the “death of the upright” and be gathered into God’s house forever.  Thanks be to God through Jesus, our King! Amen.

First Sunday in Advent (Text: Matthew 21:1-11)

Triumphal Entry

Happy New Year!  No, really! What? You think I’m crazy and I better check my calendar.  I have. The Church has a calendar she follows. It’s not one that competes with January-December.  It’s like the fiscal calendar or the school calendar, but more. The Church Year centers around the events in the Life of Jesus, God in the Flesh, and of His Church.

It runs regardless of the months, and is patterned Sunday-to-Sunday, as we recognize where our true life is: in the resurrection of our Lord.  The seasons of the Church year are: The Times of Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost/Trinity. It begins here with Advent, preparing us to celebrate the birth of our Savior and looking forward to His coming again.

In case you were wondering, this isn’t a new idea.  In Israel, God actually instituted a yearly schedule of feasts for His people to celebrate His acts of salvation and on-going provision (see Leviticus 23)—the weekly Sabbath, the Passover, Pentecost, the Day of Atonement, and so on.  By remembering these events, they remembered who their God was and who they were in relation to Him. “I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

That’s also what we mean to do—remember who our God is, glorify Him for what He has done, be filled with joy at His salvation, and grow in who we are in relation to our great God.  So, here we are at the start of the Church year, but what are we doing in Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives? It’s to remind us Who we celebrate at Christmas.

We start the Church Year in Jerusalem because there, Jesus accomplished His mighty saving work—the act of God which fills the rest of our life with hope, which gives shape to our lives in this passing world, which we weekly and daily remember every time we call upon His Name.  It’s a fine way of kicking off this new year, focused on the blessings which we daily live in, and continuing to walk on our pilgrim way until time gives way to eternity.

It’s common to hear conservative voices campaign to put Christ back in Christmas, yet it’s equally important to know Who that Christ is.  He’s not just special because of His birth. In fact by the time Jesus was born, there were many allegedly special births:

  • Egyptian kings were considered descendants of Osiris and Isis, and called “god incarnate”
  • Alexander the Great was said to have been “virgin born”
  • Augustus Caesar dubbed himself “son of the deified one” (Julius) and was called “savior of the world.”

So, His birth by itself doesn’t set Him apart from these, except that we believe He is “begotten of His Father before all worlds…and He was made man.” (Nicene Creed)

This virgin-born Son of God is the true Savior of the world.  He is able to do for us what no other could—neither angel or man. He comes as King to do what no other ruler could, and to make us citizens of a Kingdom which cannot be shaken or overthrown.  Certainly, other kings had come—even in the humble manner of riding on a work animal, a servant of the people (Solomon, for instance 1 Kings 1:33-34). But none of them was the King of Kings, Who set aside His glory, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:6-8)  By His all-atoning death and resurrection, He won for Himself a Kingdom beyond anything the rulers of the earth squabble over.  He gained a Kingdom whose citizens come from all the nation-states of this world and yet are united under this one, eternal Lord.

This is the Jesus we have come here to meet, no mere prophet who points to a salvation on the horizon.  He’s right there, sitting on a donkey with men’s garments underneath Him. But where is He now?

Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna in the Highest. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. He is here today.  We join that crowd, now knowing to whom we cry: This is none other than the Christ, the Savior of the world.  It is quite right for us to cry hosanna, Save us, Save us, Save in the utmost.  That what Jesus came to do. That’s why He entered Jerusalem. Because we needed Him. And He made our need His own.

Today, that once-for-all sacrifice is brought to us. We are given that body and blood to eat and drink. We are given the forgiveness of our sins. The same forgiveness proclaimed to the people long ago. The same forgiveness proclaimed from the cross. That’s your forgiveness as well.

And by that forgiveness, we are taught. We learn what love is. What love does. And by that love, we know the Law of God. We learn what mercy is, because Christ has had mercy on us first. We are among the crowds who come to Jesus. We are among the many who are glad to come to the house of the Lord. Now that house is no longer confined to a room in a building. But the temple in which Jesus resides is now you. His presence is right there beside you with His gifts. With the water of Baptism, with the word of Absolution, with the Bread and Wine of which He says, “This is My body, this is My blood”—this is where we go to find Him, for He hasn’t promised to be anywhere else with His saving grace. 

He needs to give these gifts to you, solely because we need them. We need life. We need forgiveness. We need salvation. And there’s Jesus, giving them right here for you. They weren’t free to purchase. They cost our Lord everything. But they are free to you. No work from you required. Because it is finished. There’s nothing left that needs to be done for those things to be yours. They are, because Jesus has given them to you.

A blessed new year in Christ to you.  We worship today and for as many days as the Lord gives us until our pleas are answered in eternity. Amen.