First Sunday after Christmas

Text: Luke 2:33-40

Joseph and Mary marveled about what was spoken about Jesus by Simeon.  Just before the reading appointed for today, Simeon was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32)

This canticle, which we know as the Nunc Dimittis, summed up the longing of the people of God since the very entrance of sin into the world.  About this child whom Mary bore in her arms, the prophet exclaimed that now, at long last, the Lord was releasing Him in peace.  His Word—encompassing all the promises from of old—had now been fulfilled in the coming of this holy Infant, now in the Temple.  It was a promise which Simeon could see fulfilled, hold in his arms.  And while holding this Infant, bless God for accomplishing the long-promised mercy to a stiff-necked people.

Mary treasured up all these things in her heart.  But, not everyone shared Simeon’s rapture at seeing Jesus.  There were many more things that would also be spoken about Him as the child grew.  Simeon also told Mary, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed 35 (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”  That’s because this child Jesus, as He accomplished His saving work, would bring out the specter of unbelief in human hearts.  They would speak their hearts in words like:

Is not this Joseph’s son? – Luke 4:22

Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone? – Luke 5:21

“A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!” – Luke 7:16

Who then is this, that he commands even winds and water, and they obey him? – Luke 8:25

He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee even to this place. – Luke 23:5

Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas – Luke 23:18

But this man has done nothing wrong. – Luke 23:41

Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures? – Luke 24:32

All of these things were spoken by Israelites—the very recipients of God’s promised mercy.  Some of them are true; others are false.  But what is true about all of them is that coming of Israel’s Savior brought out what was in the hearts of all—whether faith or unbelief.

            The coming of Christ is a fulfillment of what is spoken by Isaiah: 14 And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. 15 And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken.”[1]  Again, it is written in Psalm 118: 22The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”  There is no greater stumbling block for sinful men than Jesus.

            In Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata 152, titled “Step Forward on the Way of Faith,” Lutheran poet, Salomo Franck, expresses this mystery of stumbling over the Rock, Jesus.

Step forward on the way of faith,

God has laid the stone

that bears and supports Zion.

Man, do not stumble against it!

Step forward on the way of faith![2]

In the post-modern, post-Christian world that we live in, absolutes are rejected.  The Christian faith is expected to “coexist” with other beliefs.  Every person has his or her own opinion about God, and that’s just great to the world.  Even Christian communities on earth are riddled with differing opinions, splintering into a multitude of denominations.

            Yet God’s perspective is quite different.  “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in Him will not be put to shame”[3]  God is the one who defines who He is and what is to be believed about Him.  Ironically, no person would stand to have lies told about him or herself, but we humans freely spout off whatever we want about God, even if it isn’t true.

But all that is put to rest by this Rock of Stumbling.  God establishes His Son as the Truth: The Creator says man is corrupt, unclean, uncircumcised in heart [Gen. 8:21; Lev. 16:16; Acts 7:51].  God is man’s Savior and Jesus Christ is the blood-guilt offering for our sins and the sins of the whole world.[4]  This is most certainly true, and everything else is false and dangerous.

            This Rock is the only hope for the sons of Adam.  He is the refuge of all who are convicted and dying.  In the Cantata, Franck continues:

            The Savior is appointed

            in Israel for its fall and resurrection

            The precious stone is without blame

if the evil world injures itself on it

even falls over it to hell,

since the world runs against it so maliciously

and God’s favor and grace does not recognize!

But blessed is a Christian who has been chosen

who places the foundation of his faith on this cornerstone

since by this he finds salvation and redemption.

This Stone went out from Israel to all the people of the earth, to a world filled with evil men—including you and me.  “And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”[5]  He breaks to pieces our attempts to repair or cover up our sins and escape the grave.  He crushes our pride which waves our own apparent success in God’s face.  Anyone who trusts in these vanities will be cast into hell with prideful Satan.

But blessed is everyone who is called by God to salvation.  Blessed are those who are crushed by this Stone, “not having a righteousness of [their] own,”[6] as St. Paul says in Philippians 3, “but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”  Blessed are you who have been crucified with Christ along with all your sin and evil desires, for you are raised to a new and eternal life through faith in Him.

As for who will believe in or stumble on this Rock, that is entirely the business of God the Holy Spirit.  We often trip on this question about the Rock, and wonder if there were another way that we could help fewer people to stumble.  Should we change our worship?  Should we change the Word we preach?  Maybe if we just advertised more!  But these are not the faithful solutions we should seek.  The Holy Spirit is the Lord.  He calls to faith, as the Son said in St. John, “The Spirit moves where He wills.  You hear His voice, but you cannot tell where He is coming from or where He is going to.”[7]  The Holy Spirit brings Jesus to us and us to Jesus.

The Word of God proclaims this Rock and has the power not only to reveal hearts, but to convert them.  An evil world will writhe against it, trying to destroy the God who speaks and the people who proclaim His Word.  But it is God Himself who calls people out of this world—you and me—to believe and stand upon this Rock, to see our sins on Him, to see our life in Him, and to have refuge in Him for eternity.  May God preserve faith in our hearts in this evil world, till our Savior comes again in glory!

Let us pray in the words of the Aria from the 4th movement of Cantata 152:

Stone, which surpasses all treasures,

help me, so that I at all times

through faith on you may place

the foundation of my salvation

and so that I may not injure myself on you,

Stone, which surpasses all treasures.  Amen.

[1] Isaiah 8:14-15

[2] Translated by Francis Browne. Cited from

[3] Romans 9:33

[4] 1 John 2:2

[5] Matthew 21:44

[6] Philippians 3:9

[7] John 3:8

The Nativity of Our Lord

Readings: Exodus 40:17–21, 34–38 | Titus 3:4–7 | John 1:1-18

Text: John 1:1-14

In dialog, God always goes back to the beginning, the foundation upon which He built.  Consider these examples from Jacob, Moses, and the prophet Isaiah:

“And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring.” (Genesis 28:13)

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exodus 20:2)

“But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, “You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off”; fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:8-10)

The beginning of the Gospel according to St. John is no exception.  The Holy Spirit directs our attention all the way back to the beginning of creation and man in it, to our rebellion, and to God’s steadfast pursuit of His creature, fallen man.

But this is far more than the voice of a disciplinarian who wants his wayward servants to get in line.  Your God wants ever so much more; He wants to dwell in your midst as He once did in the Garden before sin. 

We heard of this in the Old Testament lesson and the building of the tabernacle.  The story of Israel is that of God working to dwell in the midst of His people.  It runs through the promise of the land, to the ornate engravings in the Tabernacle and Temple which hint at Eden restored, and through the substitutionary sacrifices which restore peace with their God.  The apex of it all is that God dwells (or tabernacles) in the midst of His people.

Yet tabernacling in a building was not God’s final goal.  For how close can He be when His holy presence must be mediated by blood of sacrifices and smoke of incense?

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

He desires to tabernacle among us creatures, becoming a creature Himself. 

This is to deal with sin once for all, no longer answering for human sin with animal blood.  He puts Himself under the curse, “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezek. 18:4), so that He would gain reprieve for us.  The Word became flesh to suffer the agony of this body and life and to weep bitter tears in His mortal weakness.  He became flesh so that He could close His eyes and breath His last as we do, and to triumph over it. 

The Word became flesh in order to speak His Word not through an intermediary of a prophet or a dream.  Upon human lips, the very voice of God is heard: “Amen, amen, I say to you…” [Matt. 5:18; John 3:3; et al]  

The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us to share with us in our mortal weakness—”to be finite and circumscribed, to suffer and die, to ascend and descend, to move from one place to another, to suffer hunger, thirst, frost, heat”[1]  All so that, as St. Paul writes, “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. 2:7-8)  Yet being sinless as He is, He now in glory, intercedes for us and knows our pains, temptations, and enemies personally.

Far more than in a building, God tabernacles in our flesh.

There is still more that He seeks.  Yes, He tabernacles in the flesh of mankind, but still more, He has come to tabernacle with you:

12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

He is working to restore that fellowship with man and woman He had so long ago (for us) now.  He has come to be received by you as your Immanuel, God with us.  Your Jesus, your Lord and your God [John 20:28].  Saying it that way doesn’t diminish His majesty, or the magnitude of His saving work.  Rather, it expresses the truth that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who led Israel out of Egypt, who calls a people for Himself from the ends of the earth, has also come for you.  “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you remember him, and the son of man that you visit him?” (Psalm 8:3-4, alternate translations of underlined words, זכר and פקד)

And what this means is that you are more than what your flesh and the world tell you.  In times of anguish and uncertainty, we feel that God is far off and uncaring.  If He really cared, He wouldn’t have let this happen!  When we have been belligerent and neglectful of His Word, our shame tells us that God hates us.  There’s no way the things I’ve done or thought or said could ever be atoned for!

Do not be unbelieving, but believe that God is constantly working for you to dwell with Him and He to dwell with you!  You, who lament your folly, do not think God has forsaken you, because as a man Christ has taken that for you too.  The extent He has gone to in order to bring you back, taking you from death to life, shows just how serious your God is to deliver and preserve you.

By the strength of His might, He has brought you to Himself.  In the trustworthy sign of Baptism, “He saved you in the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,” (Titus 3:4-7, Epistle reading) whom He has poured out richly on you.  He will assuredly not forsake you now, no matter how much hurt you bear, how much the Devil is pressing you, or how you have wandered in the past.

At the Last, you will enjoy an even closer dwelling than we have known so far. For He promises in that day to remove sin, death, and the devil far from us.  And of this, the Holy Spirit gave this vision to St. John:

22 And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, 25 and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26 They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. 27 But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

22:1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

Thanks and praise to the Word made flesh, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

[1] Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration VIII para. 10

The Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord

Readings: Genesis 3:8–15 | Genesis 22:15–18 | Isaiah 7:10-14 | Luke 1:26-38 | Matthew 1:18-25 | Luke 2:1-7 | Luke 2:8-14 | Luke 2:15-20

Text: Luke 1:26–38

In the first reading we heard tonight, this was what happened immediately after sin came into the world.  Sin and death are not the natural state the world should be in.  They may be so common that it’s all we’ve ever known, but they are not what God created this world for.  Sin came into this good world which God had made through the devil’s lies and the first man and woman’s disobedience.  It is God’s intention to make us aware of how the human race and the world have fallen, so that we wouldn’t just be left grasping in the dark, aware that something is wrong but never being able to put our finger on it.

Now, of all the failures that men or women have done, this is the greatest. Looking back at our own failings can bring regret, but even our worst mistakes pale in comparison to this tragic day: sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12)  Yet despite this great error, God was not hindered.

In the second reading from Genesis 22, we heard the aftermath of a very curious request that God made of Abraham: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” (Gen. 22:5)  God called in the greatest price.  It’s the price we most fear—perhaps even more than our own lives—that sin would cost the life of our own child.  Sin costs us our lives and that of our children, for all eternity.

But God did not exact that price.  He spared Isaac and provided a substitute: “Behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.” (Gen. 22:13)  God, instead, would provide the sacrifice, the blessing through the seed of Abraham.

In the third lesson from Isaiah 7, we heard the sign from God that revealed how God would do this.  Yes, the Lord promised that it would be the “woman’s offspring” who would crush and destroy the work of the Serpent (that is, the devil).  He would do it by the son of a Virgin, but not by reordering the course of nature.  Who is that Son of the Virgin?  It is no ordinary man, but “Immanuel” – “God with us.” God saves from sin and death apart from our work.  Not even the greatest work of man or our tragic loss could lift the curse.  God saves in a way which nobody would think, and in a way no man could do.

And then we heard of that Virgin, who was visited by the Angel Gabriel.  The maiden’s name was Mary, and to this daughter of Eve the promised Seed was born, Isaac’s substitute, the Lord’s sign of grace toward man in spite of his wretched and hard-hearted state.  His name is Jesus, who truly is Immanuel, God with us.

“How will this be?” is an appropriate question.  How will our Creator rescue us from our calamity?  How will He justly answer for the inherited and all the actual sin of the world? How will He save us from the dark shadow of death that is cast like a covering over all people? [Isa. 25:7]

“Nothing will be impossible with God,” Gabriel told Mary.  Yet the way He saves is not by dramatically reordering the creation.  Within the world He has already made, even with the foul blot of sin, God works salvation for the world.  He uses the most ordinary to redeem and save the children of Adam.

The first way He does it is through the womb.  Pregnancy and childbirth are largely despised in our day.  It’s despised by those who worry about the population—whether the number of mouths to feed or the worthiness of those lives because of physical or mental ability.  It’s bemoaned for the length and hardships of parenting.  It is despised by those who grieve for their lost youthful body and think stretch marks make them look hideous.  It’s despised by those who idolize their freedom and value their own use of money and time more than concerns about next generation.  Myriad are the ways to fight against the grim fate of bearing children.  Because people would rather use each other in the pursuit of euphoria, there is very little people haven’t done to avoid pregnancy and childbirth.  We would rather be in the place of God and prevent life from being conceived and born.  Even Christians are swept away by these flesh-centered values, and this greedy love of comfort and plenty.

But God for His part takes what is disgraceful in man’s sight, and He exalts pregnancy and the bearing of children to begin His mighty saving work: “You will conceive in your womb and bear a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus” (v. 31)  God hallows the womb, in which Jesus received his prenatal nourishment.  God blesses the breasts where the Son of God—the One through whom the world was made—suckles.  He makes sacred a mother’s embrace, the rearing and long-suffering of parenthood, and the sleepless nights.  The Son of God hallows this path by journeying on it Himself, God with us. 

God also uses wood to save us.  Here in timber country, we think of wood as business, and crucial to life.  Some see profits or increased building costs.  Some see urban sprawl and fear destruction of natural habitats.

But God uses wood to save when He nails His Son to the tree of a Roman crucifix, by the authority of Governor Pontius Pilate acting for Tiberius Caesar.  By the wood of this tree, formed into a cross, the world’s salvation is accomplished.  In this He sanctified and repurposed the instrument of execution and made it into a symbol of God’s love, forgiveness, and refuge for the broken.

And yet one more thing God uses to save us: Water.  Water in this part of the earth we often take for granted.  After all, it falls from the sky in great abundance, flows in the waterways, comes out the tap.  Sometimes it’s obnoxious as too much of it pours over the road.  In our day, however, we don’t think of water that critically.

But God thinks very highly of water, because He uses it to deliver this salvation to you.  At the beginning of His ministry, Jesus was baptized in the waters of the Jordan, where He began His work to take away the sins of the world.  By the wood of the cross, He suffered and died, and then was buried.  On the Third Day, He rose again from the dead, and announces to all, “Peace to you!” (Luke 24:36)  Then, God takes the water and says, “Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matt. 28:19)

The gifts of Mary’s Son, nailed to the tree for your sins and raised from the dead, are delivered to you in the waters of Holy Baptism.  That’s how St. Paul is able to put it so clearly in Romans 6, Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore 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.” (Romans 6:3-5)

God has seen our miserable state, and He has had mercy on us.  We rejoice that He has delivered us with His mighty hand.  Even though many will overlook these common things, by faith in what He has done, we see our salvation.  A blessed Nativity to you all!  Amen.

Fourth Sunday in Advent (Rorate Coeli)

Readings: Deuteronomy 18:15–19 | Philippians 4:4–7 | John 1:19-28

Text: John 1:19-28

There is something diabolical in us that fears that John the Baptist will ruin Christmas. He disrupts things. John is not here to help you have fun. Rather, he is trying to help you prepare for the Last Day and the Lord’s return.

(c) Penrhyn Castle; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

In that office, he is prone to notice inconvenient things, such as when people are living together outside of marriage. In fact, this is what Herod Antipas would behead him for. He tried to warn Herod, but Herod didn’t want to be warned. He wanted to live with his brother’s wife as though she were his wife. It would have been fine if John had secretly disapproved but not spoken against it out loud.  He could have remained silent, saying to others that even though he personally disapproved of Herod’s lifestyle, it was sadly what people do these days, and the main thing was to keep up appearances, to not make waves because he loved Herod no matter what. It would have been fine if John disliked what they were doing deep in his heart, secretly, because he preferred the old ways, but at the same time if he would do everything he could to pretend as though Herodias, the wife of Herod’s brother, was a legitimate wife to Herod. If he would have just avoided making them uncomfortable. Then he could have lived and probably even been rewarded.

But not John. John wouldn’t do that. He was more concerned with Herod and Herodias’ eternal fate, with the damage and pain that their infidelity was causing, than he was with being liked by him or even living.

Now, if your goal this Christmas is to create warm, life-long memories for your family, then don’t be like John. The secret to a Christmas without controversy or pain is to avoid all topics of any weight or seriousness and certainly don’t warn sinners of the danger of their sins. Don’t talk about anything that matters. Stick to clichés about how much you love your family and how special they are. Make sure that no one feels judged. Encourage people in their defilements and they will like you. And then you’ll never be accused of the most unforgivable of all sins: taking yourself too seriously. Agree with their blasphemy, their perverse and uninformed opinions, and they might even call you wise.

To create life-long, warm family memories, focus on the food and gifts and sentimentality. You can say it is Jesus’ birthday if you want, but keep Him in the manger and on the greeting card; off the cross and off the altar. Hide Him under a Christmas tree. Make sure the real focus is presents, fun, and family. By all means, don’t let Jesus speak. Don’t contemplate His sorrows and self-giving on the cross. For warm family memories, keep Jesus and the Prophets silent and nothing like John.  Go the church, but do it for the candles, the nostalgia, and the “time together.”  Then drown your conflicted conscience with an extra helping of egg nog.

The problem with those sorts of memories is they don’t bring any comfort in Hell. The good memories of having the good opinion of your loved ones and friends is nice while it lasts. It is not fun to be thought a bigot or arrogant by your family at Christmas time, and certainly to lose access to your grandchildren. But those things, at worst or best, only lasts as long as this life.

Can you imagine knowing the truth about our children and not warning them because we feared they would withdraw from us and then have them curse us from Hell because we cared more about a moment’s pleasure or a conflict-free Christmas than we did for their eternal fate? May God protect us from such cowardice!  And may God preserve us from losing the opportunity to speak to them!

Despite the discomfort it might bring, invite John the Baptist to your Christmas dinner. Let him speak the truth in love—to say what hurts, what is inconvenient, but necessary. Let him say it with compassion and kindness. Not just because it is right but also because in the long run it is worth it.

This is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”

But, of course, John himself is not coming back from the dead.  As we heard him, say, he is not Elijah the Tishbite come back.  So, you’re going to have to do this yourself. You are going to have to “confess, and not deny, but confess.”  Maybe your kids will be outraged and go crazy if you warn them about the dangers of fornication or homosexuality or the necessity to be in Church more regularly than they change the batteries in their smoke detector. But will they really be surprised by these ideas?

Is this a change from what you used to think? Is it different from how you raised them? If so, then repent to them and tell them you were wrong and you’re sorry for that, and want to do better from here on out. I know there is risk, but will they not love you even if they disagree with you? I certainly hope they will. I hope they are not so petty and manipulative, or that you are not so desperate, that you must bribe them with your silence and pretend approval or that you must placate them with lies for the sake of a pretend peace even if it is harmful to them.

I think we can do better – by grace, in humility, for the sake of love. Every family is different. We all have baggage and dysfunction. But it is possible to speak civility and to actually talk about things that matter because they matter. This isn’t to cast stones for unfaithfulness. There is risk in speaking the truth to anyone who is caught up in his or her sin.

But sometimes Dad needs to be told to put down his phone and pay attention to his children, or Mom needs to be told that no one needs a third glass of wine, or your friend needs to be told that he is not being fair to his parents. If you love people, the risk is worth it. If we were talking about how to please customers because we want their money, how to win friends and influence people this would be a different conversation, but we are talking about how to live together in love according to God’s Word. This is about actually looking out for one another, not trying to manipulate one another.

Who hasn’t been afraid of the outburst a drunk friend will make if you suggest that he not drive or that you will look judgmental? But at the same time, who wants to go to that friend’s funeral and face his widow having made no attempt at all to stop him? None of us. We speak the truth because we think we are better than others. We do it because we love others.

So also John the Baptist is unfairly characterized as all Law. But his fiery calls to repentance are matched by a Baptism of forgiveness. His stern words to the priests and Levites and Pharisees are balanced by his welcoming of Gentiles. He not only warns of the day of wrath, he also points to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Speak the whole truth of the God’s Word to your loved ones, Law and Gospel, ethical admonition and rebuke along with encouragement and confidence in God’s love and goodness in Christ.

22 So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”

John is a voice crying in the desert: “Make straight the way of the Lord.” Making the way straight isn’t John’s job; it is theirs. He is crying out to them. He is telling them, the priests, in light of the coming day of wrath, that they are to comfort the repentant, to embrace the Messiah, to recognize Him in their midst because He has come to save them and He fulfills the Law and the prophets. He cries to the priests and to us: “You there, make straight the way of the Lord. I can’t do it for you. You need to repent and believe.” John is there not only to kill with his Baptism but also to make alive through faith by the fire of the Holy Spirit. The Messiah comes to us and join us to Himself. He comes to make atonement, to spare us the punishment of our sins, to be our God.

That sort of preaching and witness doesn’t ruin Christmas. It is Nativity of Our Lord. It will not be ruined either by angry people or ignorant, self-righteous people, or by broken families and a lifetime of regret. Christmas is not defined by our failures or our imperfect families. Despite what we are told, the traditions are not the substance of Christmas.  Christmas is not defined by us, nor is it defined by food and tradition and the making of memories. Christmas is defined by Christ who came to us and for us as the gift of the Father to be our righteousness and redemption.

The world is evil. Our flesh is weak. Our families are a mess. But in His Nativity, the Lord Jesus has joined us. He is with us as one of us. He has lived the sinless life we ought to.  It was a not a life free of conflict and betrayal. That life is a lie of the devil.  Our Savior has gone before you and I in confessing the truth.  It is His truth that He puts on our lips.  He has died and He is risen. He takes away the sins of the world. He is Christmas.

So, you who mourn beneath sorrow’s load, whose children and loved ones have not lived up their promises, whose parents have failed them, you who are fearful or lonely or ridden with guilt: The Messiah comes for you. He comes with healing in His wings [Malachi 4:2]. His Father is well-pleased, and that is what brings you peace, comfort, and joy [Romans 5:1].

Make straight the way of your heart for Him. Lift it up to Him. Ponder nothing earthly-minded. Rest in His grace in His Holy Sacrament: “Take; eat. This is My Body given for you…Take; drink. This is My Blood shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.”  The Lord has prepared His way into your heart and mind.  Christ speaks in His Word and you hear His voice. He hides Himself in bread and wine, in water, and in your neighbor. You know Him and see Him by faith. These hard times and heartache won’t last. These embarrassments and worries won’t last. These jealousies and hurts won’t last. Jesus will. He lasts. He endures. He does not fade. His communion with you will last because it is everlasting. “O Come, Thou Dayspring from on high, And cheer us by Thy drawing night; Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, And death’s dark shadows put to flight.” (LSB 357:6)  Amen.

Original sermon by Rev. David Petersen, Fort Wayne, Ind. with edits

Third Sunday in Advent (Gaudete)

Readings: Isaiah 40:1–11 | 1 Corinthians 4:1–5 | Matthew 11:2–11

Text: Matthew 11:2-11

John the Baptist (whose birth we have been hearing of during our midweek services) winds up in prison some time after Jesus began His ministry at the Jordan River.  Yet, even while in prison, John still has his loyal disciples.  No doubt they were part of the throng from “Jerusalem and all Judea” [Matt. 3:5] who came out to hear John’s preaching of repentance and received his baptism.  Now that he was in prison, they were going to remain loyal to him and care for his needs, in spite of wicked King Herod.  These loyal disciples were willing to suffer scorn and shame for John’s sake because they believed God was working through him and doing something mighty in their midst!

“2 Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”  Some have wondered if this hints at some doubts that John is having, but John’s wrestlings aren’t really the point.  John sends his disciples to Christ with a loaded question.  It’s a question that John knows the answer to (as we will hear next Sunday from his testimony in John 1:19-28).  “Are you the Coming One, or shall we look for another?”  It’s the kind of question you ask when you want to want someone to really ponder the answer.

You see, John is not to meant to have disciples of his own once Christ comes.  And for that matter, neither are Moses or Elijah [John 5:46-47].  John the Baptizer is doing what he has done for all of his ministry: pointing sinners to Christ.

But there is some rivalry at first, as we hear in John 3:26-30:

26 And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” 27 John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. 28 You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ 29 The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”

So Jesus responds, not by saying, “I sure am!” but by pointing them to the signs: “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.”  He lets the Scriptures and the evidence of their fulfillment speak for him.  Isaiah 25:6-9; 29:18, 35:3-6, 40:9, 52:7, 61:1-3 proclaim in spades that Jesus is that promised Messiah, the Coming One who brings good news and comfort to sinners.

Here, there’s an important lesson: Do not judge God’s work merely by your own reasoning.  John the Baptizer pointed to Jesus to be the Greater One, even the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  But when people considered Jesus’ credentials, it didn’t add up.  He wasn’t a Levite; He was a carpenter’s son.  He lived in the nowhere town of Nazareth which isn’t even mentioned in the Old Testament.  Despite the pious artwork we know, He had no halo or glowing eyes.  Isaiah also had said, “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” (Isa. 53:2)  Perhaps most offensive of all, He was followed by tax collectors, former prostitutes, demoniacs, and sinners of all stripes—and even ate with them!

Jesus then asks the crowds about John,

“What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’”

Why did people go out to see and hear John?  Were they there for the spectacle, for the shared experience, to find an alternative to the corrupt temple worship?  But John was none of these things.  He was the Lord’s prophet, and the prophets from Adam to Malachi have all pointed to the fulfillment of God’s coming Savior.  It’s not about John; it’s about Christ.  So, no longer be disciples of the past, but of God incarnate.

In the same way, the purpose of the Church is not to make a name for ourselves, a particular congregation, group of people, but to glorify Christ who alone has the power, the signs, the eternal life.  This is cause for each of us to reflect also: What have we come to this place to see?  Often it is peripheral things: family connections, music, beautiful vestments, or love of tradition.

These are all fine and good, but let them not be the main thing.  Let them be witnesses to Jesus—your family, the music, the reverence, the traditions—let them be instruments by which Christ is magnified as your Savior.  None of these can save; only Christ Himself.  As Luther wisely said, “Only Christians are saved. Whoever is not a Christian even John the Baptist cannot help.” (Lenker, vol. 1, 91) 

John the Baptizer was no more than a witness to Christ.  Even as an ascetic, and despite his fervent calls to repentance, he was also a sinner. “I need to be baptized by you,” he said to Christ [Matt. 3:14]  And John was in prison, and the time came when John was no more.  The same is true of all the other witnesses to Christ.  Pastors will come and go, they will die.  The family who are your reason for coming will die.  And music, ritual, and tradition are all empty without faith.  But do we cling to the One who came?

In Him there is life, hope, and joy.  The Scriptures have proclaimed Him to be the Christ, and we need not look for another.  What He has done is enough; it is complete.  And it’s His work which has the power to uphold us no matter what comes.

Hear the words of St. Paul in Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.”  We sung these words at the beginning of the service in the Introit.  But hear how he continues, as he writes to the Christians in Philippi from prison:

Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus… I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Phil. 4:5-7)

This faith we have in Christ is tested by affliction.  It’s one thing to give lip service to these truths by speaking the Creed, but it’s another to live by them.  Rejoice in the Lord always, because it’s the Lord who has redeemed you and made you a child of God.  When everything else falls apart, it is He who will care for you, restore you, and save you from every evil in this world.

No other person, no life discipline, no music, no place on this earth can do this.  Only Jesus can.  His birth among us makes Him our Brother, but He is also our Savior from every pain and distress, every sin that haunts us, and even the grave that swallows us up.  He has overcome the world for you and for me.  So, rejoice in Him.  Seek Him where He has promised to be: In His Holy Word read and preached, in the Absolution, in the waters of Holy Baptism, and in His Body and Blood at His table.  Here, your Savior, your Jesus will be with you today, and unto eternal life.  Amen.

Second Sunday in Advent (Populus Zion)

Readings: Malachi 4:1–6 | Romans 15:4–13 | Luke 21:25–36

Text: Luke 21:25-36

“Encouragement and Instruction for the Last Days”

Talk of the end of the world again?  Didn’t we just have that less than a month ago?  This topic can leave us weary (possibly) disappointed that the end has not yet come.  Isn’t this what the Church has been preaching for nearly 2,000 years?  This is what our natural thinking tells us.

But for His part, our Lord cannot stop teaching these lessons to us.  He knows our weakness and He knows how great the task to which He has called us.  That’s actually why this Gospel lesson is very appropriate for us to hear in the season of Advent.  The children of God are waiting for something better than this fleeting life.  St. Paul describes us by saying, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” (Phil. 3:20-21)

Since our citizenship is in heaven, and our hope is coming on the clouds, the Lord admonishes us,

33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 34 “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. 35 For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. 36 But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

If we look to ourselves, there would be reason to despair about remaining faithful to the end.  That’s often what we do when we fear that the Church will pass like so many other things have fallen into disuse.  But rather than basing our strategy on our weakness, the Lord teaches us to find the truth, the power, and the perseverance in Him.

Yes, it’s true that Satan is a vigorous enemy, and he holds ample sway on earth.  As the country moves away from its Christian tradition, ungodliness is on the rise with militant fervor.  The Bible is held in contempt, and could easily be deemed as hate speech in the current political climate.   Satan and his demonic host have their sights on the children of God.  He will offer us an easy way out, a way to avoid suffering and scorn.

What’s our recourse against these attacks?  It’s not by our planning or cleverness.  “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”   Flee to the Word of God and prayer!  Despite how powerful the enemies are, and how many swell their ranks, the Lord and His Word endure forever.  They may appear to have the victory at this moment, but it too is fleeting, “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, ‘As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.’” (Psalm 2:4-6)

Remember that when the Lord came, the powers of the Evil One did try to destroy Him and thwart his purpose.  Herod tried to destroy Him; numerous times his opponents tried to seize Him before it was time; and even in the tomb they sealed it with government authority and a regiment of soldiers.  But none of those things threw off the plans of the God of heaven and earth.

When we wield and proclaim His Word, Satan must submit.  This ought to encourage and remind us, as St. John tells us, “You are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” (1 John 4:4)  The Lord will hold back the flood of Satanic attacks, and He will neither leave nor forsake His beloved Bride, the Church.

Part of our battle as the Church Militant, sheltered by our Lord of Hosts, is that we are distinct from among the people of the world:

29 And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. 30 As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place.

There’s a temptation to feel privileged having knowledge of the end of the world.  Yet, what your Lord Jesus calls you to is to live in anticipation of the world to come.  How then, should we live?  We heard it last Sunday from Romans 15: “the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. 12 The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” (Rom. 13:11-12) and today we heard this encouragement: “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Rom. 15:4)  The Word of God is not just our defense against the forces of evil, but it’s also our hope as people who have been touched by the lies of the world and our own mistakes.  You and I have been living in the world so long, it’s easy to take the judgments of the world for truth.  What do you mean marriage isn’t just about my personal happiness?  How dare you say that people can’t achieve whatever they put their collective minds to!  How could it hurt to watch questionable movies or listen to music about immorality when we clearly know it’s wrong?  The Lord needs to purge corrupt these ideals and hopes from us with His Word.  We must not imagine ourselves strong or smart enough to keep ourselves unstained.

It is the Lord who is standing with us, as we watch the proverbial fig trees.  He is the one who teaches us what to look for, and who protects us against being swept away with the ungodly in their ignorance and making unfaithful demands of God.  Our lives may seem like a long run—especially if we are young—yet your Lord promises not only that He will uphold you through this trial, but He promises, “You will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Rev. 2:10)

And before our release—whether in death or when the Lord appears in glory—we live as those who know the end:

25 “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, 26 people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

This end hasn’t come yet, but we know that it most definitely will.  In light of that, the Lord wants us to do His will: to tell others His good news so that people may be delivered out of darkness and be saved from this grim end.

He will save us . . .

It’s hard to maintain a fervent pace in witnessing to those around us.  It’s hard because of our doubt.  We assume that there will always be more time, another better time.  So, we hold of telling others of our hope in Christ.  This is the worst kind of procrastination, because a world without Christ is dead in their trespasses and sins.

The Lord does not call us to the task of preaching to the whole world, but He does put us in where we are to be His witnesses.  All around us there is a delusion that we can we have a better life by our own efforts.  Optimism is good, but this hope is vain, because it doesn’t acknowledge sin for what it is, or need Christ as the only Savior.  We tell one another “Have a good day,” or “ take care,” but how empty that wish is!  By our living in hope in God our Savior, the Lord shows others the true way which leads to eternal life. 

Our Lord Jesus will use our lives of patience endurance, of trust in Him, in suffering on account of His Word, to witness to the souls around us.  The Word He puts on our lips has the power to do this!  Even as the world embraces carnal passions more, we who follow the Lord and Redeemer will stand out in greater relief.

And at the time He appoints, He will deliver us from the evil of this world.  This is the hope to which we press, in His strength, and which we want for all around us.  Amen.