Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Text: Psalm 96

1    Oh sing to the Lord a new song;

         sing to the Lord, all the earth!

   Sing to the Lord, bless his name;

         tell of his salvation from day to day.

   Declare his glory among the nations,

         his marvelous works among all the peoples!

   For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;

         he is to be feared above all gods.

   For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols,

         but the Lord made the heavens.

   Splendor and majesty are before him;

         strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.

The new song described here is not new in the way we associate updated and better today.  It is new in that God is doing something new for us, surprising to us.  It’s the newness in the prophecy of Jeremiah 31: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” (Jer. 31:31)

And it is made known by the Lord on the night in which He was betrayed, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.” (Luke 22:20) It is the song of praise that spring from this new covenant.

It’s a song not just for a select few to know and sing, but all the people of the earth.  This new song is described several times in Scripture, as the song of those who know the Lord’s salvation, as in Psalm 40 by King David, “He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.” (Ps. 40:3, also Isa. 42:10)  It’s also mentioned in Revelation, “The voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, and they were singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth.” (Rev. 14:2-3)

It’s a new song, which is known and beloved by all who know the Lord’s saving work!  But it’s more than just a song we sing to ourselves and for our own enjoyment; it is a song to proclaim His salvation and marvelous works “before the face of all peoples”! (Nunc Dimittis)

This is what Jonah found out when he fled from the presence of the Lord after he was sent to Nineveh.  Though he was trying to hide, the Lord sought him out, even humiliating him publicly.  It was scary for Jonah because he knew that he was fleeing from the Lord’s command to preach judgment to that great city.  We could speculate as to the excuses he gave as to why he didn’t want to go.  But we also have our own excuses why we don’t want to speak of our God. 

Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples!  Yes, but what if they don’t believe His works?  If they remain blind and deceived about God’s works, then it makes us look foolish for actually believing in them.  We get discouraged by this social pressure, even if we don’t admit it.  As one professor commented about mask-wearing,[1] we all have a desire to be orthodox.  That is, to go along with the crowd and not stick out too much.

For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods.  Yes, we would say, “Amen” to this.  But the opponents of God publish books like, “god is not Great” like Christopher Hitchens did, and made a full-frontal attack on God-fearing people.  He lambasts religion based on religious abuses and a critique of manmade strictures.  With arguments like this, we fear the opinions of people who are without understanding of the true God.  It’s easy to mock and scoff while you proudly boast from the heights of your fleeting life.  But not so for the sailors who faced perishing at the hand of Jonah’s God (Jonah 1:4-7)

For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the Lord made the heavens. Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.

It’s only when the false religion and faith of man are deflated like the balloon they are, that it’s shown that even the most reasonable and wide-spread arguments are powerless to save.  Their hope is vain.  Yes, some will go down to the grave, insisting that their idols can save them.  They are willing to cut themselves as the prophets of Baal did before Elijah (1 Kings 18:20-40), and willing to publicly accuse us as the silversmiths of Artemis did to Paul (Acts 19:21-41).

Others, who are deeply deceived by the god of this world (2 Cor. 4:4), will reject the splendor and majesty of God.  Instead, they will think that strength and beauty are found on earth, in the ideals of this world and the beauty of human achievement.  It’s of these that St. John warns us: “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires” (1 John 2:16-17). 

In Jonah-like fashion, we let these rejections combined with the weakness of our faith deter us from saying anything.  The Devil loves it when this happens, because then, the Word of God is silenced, and the scoffers get to remain content that God is not great.  But God is undeterred in His work to proclaim to all people:

7         Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,

         ascribe to the Lord glory and strength!

8    Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;

         bring an offering, and come into his courts!

9    Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness;

         tremble before him, all the earth!

10   Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns!

         Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved;

         he will judge the peoples with equity.”

Jonah found out two things on his fleeing to Tarshish: First, he learned that you cannot run or hide from God.  “His will is done even without our prayer,” Luther aptly points out.  The Lord had chosen Jonah to be the one to witness to the Ninevites, and out of love for lost and condemned people, God found Jonah, humbled him, and brought him back to shine the light of the true God into the darkened hearts of the people in Nineveh.

The other lesson Jonah learned—also uncomfortable for us—is that the glory and strength of the Lord, the message, “The Lord reigns!” is a message which He delivers using our lips.  We have been chosen by God to represent Him in our age of darkness.  The way He will reach ‘those outsiders’ is by hearing it from God’s people—from us! 

11   Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;

         let the sea roar, and all that fills it;

12      let the field exult, and everything in it!

      Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy

13      before the Lord, for he comes,

         for he comes to judge the earth.

      He will judge the world in righteousness,

         and the peoples in his faithfulness.

Hear how the whole creation proclaims the glory of God (e.g. Psalm 19), but in order for people to know the saving glory of God, He sends out His Word.  It is the Word of the Almighty, a Word of judgement, a Word which delivers pardon and new life for the sinners and dead.  It is the Word which endures forever.

On the sea with the disciples, the Word of the Lord was revealed both in powerful might, and with a specific Word to the disciples:  “And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep.”  The sea roared, and the disciples knew they were in deep trouble.  They cried out to their Master to save them, because they were perishing.  But before dealing with the wind and waves, He dealt specifically with the disciples: “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?”  He was more concerned with their faith than He was with the tumult of the sea.

Yet both are under His authority.  The creation knows this, but we often doubt or deny it.  No matter how much a person may hold up a protest sign saying, “Not my God,” the Judgement Day still comes for them.  And how will they repent and turn away from this disaster unless we, who know the Judge, deliver that Word to them?

It brings up a question: Why does our congregation exist?  I’m afraid too often and for too long, church has been regarded as a social club.  “I go there” with little more impact than saying, “I drive a Toyota; she drives a Ford.”  But for what, in fact, does God call us together as a congregation?  1 Peter 2:9-10 says, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”  Christians are those who have been called out of this darkness to know the light of Christ, and to share that light with those who are still in darkness.

Yes, we are the Body of Christ, the Communion of Saints.  We encourage one another as we see the Day drawing near, we bear one another’s burdens, we study together at the feet of Jesus so that we may know our Lord better, and we build each other up with Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.  But is that all?  Do we simply belong to Bethlehem Lutheran Church, and keep a nice-looking building and pastor on retainer so that he can bury us when we die?  God, forbid it!

In love, God has called us to be His beloved children.  What are we?  A ragtag group of young and old, none of us prominent in the world.  But He has bestowed heavenly riches on us.  These riches and eternal life have been won by the precious blood of Christ, and are not just for us!  They are for every soul in Lebanon, Sweet Home, Albany and beyond.  You look around and see new apartments, new kids in school, more drivers on the road.  Don’t think, “Ugh! Can’t they just stay away and let me have my quiet town back.”  Rather, pray to the Lord who wants them to know Him, and ask how He might shine through you.  How might He shine through our congregation?  And praying for that, trust that, as He loves you and every soul you meet, that He will give you an answer. This is how, in God’s way, we will “Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples!”

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

[1] Dr. Adam Koontz on an early episode of Brief History of Power,

Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Readings: 2 Kings 5:1–15a | Romans 12:16–21 | Matthew 8:1–13

Text: Matthew 8:1-13

“Our Father, who art in heaven” – The Small Catechism tells us, “With these words, God tenderly invites us to believe that He is our true Father, and that we are His true children, so that with all boldness and confidence, we may ask Him as dear children as their dear father.” 

Well, that’s fine for children, but when the rubber hits the road, you need more.  It’s too simple, isn’t it?  Actually no, it isn’t.  Faith believes God’s Word.  “Abram believed the Lord, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” (Gen. 15:6)  “So it depends on faith, in order that the promise may be guaranteed” (Rom. 4:16).  Faith trusts in God and asks Him.  Faith believes what the Lord says, when He promises, “Call on Me in the day of trouble.  I will deliver you, and you will glorify Me.” (Ps. 50:15)  Our God tells us He is eager to hear and answer the prayers of His children!

But I don’t want to bother God with my problems.  Surely, He has more important things than my needs to tend to.  We equate God with the pastor’s busy schedule, and we downplay our need or downplay God’s willingness to help.  But God is not a man that He can only be in one place at a time.  He isn’t overwhelmed by how big or how many challenges we bring to Him.  “He who keeps you will not slumber” and “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” (Psalm 121:3 and Num. 23:19)

We ask because of Who God is, and because of Who His Son is.  Putting this in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, we’ve heard of His birth as the promised son of Abraham, the adoration of the Magi, His Baptism and identity as God’s beloved Son, His temptation and the beginning of His ministry.  But this is the first thing that happens after His great Sermon on the Mount.  He is met immediately with the needs of the poor in spirit, with those who mourn seeking comfort.   Hasn’t He just taught us, ? “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” (Matt. 7:7-8) for you are coming before the Father in heaven who has opened His heart wide by sending His Son.

These two encounters are presented to us as examples to emulate.  The first comes to Jesus and expresses his faith in a statement: “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.”  Perhaps he was inspired by Naaman, who was the only leper who was miraculously cleansed of his leprosy.  Leprosy was not just any other disease, but one which excluded a person from the Temple worship.  So, by being cleansed, this leper is also restored to worship the God who shows mercy to the unclean.

The second example of the Centurion comes to Jesus with an exhortation, or as the ESV says, an “appeal”: “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” But when Jesus offers to come to his servant, this man responds, “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word.”  Perhaps, he too, has heard of Naaman, how it was by a powerful word that this Gentile received healing.  Nonetheless, he confesses faith in Jesus as commander-in-chief of all creation, of life and death.  That makes us the subordinates.  Yet, unlike human authorities who may err or be prone to tyrrany, our Master is perfect and His way is perfect.  “If you will…say only the word [and it will be]” As some of us heard at the funeral sang this week, “What pleases God, that pleases me.” (LSB 716, refrain)

We too are children of God, and as children, we should follow their examples.  When we come before God in the Divine Service, when we are at home in our devotions—whether alone or with our family—we long for the Lord to hear what we ask and answer our pleading.  This leper and centurion came with urgent, heartfelt needs.  They were driven to prayer by their circumstance.  This isn’t a bad thing.  Things got desperate for them, which drove them to the Lord as the only One who could help!

But there are those times when we don’t feel that longing.  We doubt God’s promise to hear every prayer.  We doubt that He is able to help, like our request is too big, or not statistically likely.  In these times, we allow our flesh and the world around us to silence our prayers.  What about those many times we’ve told ourselves we’re too busy to pray?  Or found that we’ve given in to worry and our own remedies instead of asking God for His help?

Jesus’ words to St. Peter in Gethsemane are true: “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mark 14:38).  These are times for us to repent of lame excuses and our inattention to prayer.  He commands us to pray, and promises to hear us, and we should be ashamed by the example of this leper and this Gentile.

Enter the Devil with His accusation, and it only gets worse.  He wants us to buy into the failings, the distresses you and your family face.  His desire is for you, to sift you like wheat [Luke 22:31-32], so that you are swayed from asking for the Lord’s help, and falling back to your plan B, since obviously God won’t come through for you.  Any “reasonable” person knows that.

Satan is a liar and a murderer.  He wants to cut you off from God your Father, and Jesus, your Great High Priest.  The truth is that God has given Him as the Mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5). 

Incredibly, your Father in heaven cares about you more than you do.  He cares more about your needs than you do.  Not only did the Son of God come into our world to take on our flesh, suffer, and die for our redemption, but He came to be our mediator between God and men, He ascended to the right hand of God. He is our High Priest offering petitions on our behalf to the Father. And as if this weren’t enough, He sent the Holy Spirit, the comforter, to each of us, descending upon us in Holy Baptism, remaining in us, strengthening our faith through Word and the mysteries of Christ, so that the Holy Spirit may “fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” (Rom. 15:13).

Filled with the Holy Spirit, He prays for us in our stead. Listen to how St. Paul expresses it, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” (Rom. 8:26). This is how the Scripture is fulfilled that says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thess. 5:16-18). It is by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in all who believe that Jesus is Lord. So even in those times when you might feel that your faith is weak and your prayers falter, wherever there is faith, the Spirit is interceding for you.

In whatever circumstance you find yourself, whether mourning or rejoicing, your heavenly Father knows, cares, and is with you. You are a child of God through the sacrifice of Christ Jesus. He invites you to be bold in your prayer and confident in your faith. And the invitation comes with power to strengthen you for the task. The accounts of the Leper and the Centurion serve as an encouragement to you, showing you what your Father wants. He wants you to ask. He stands ready to hear and to give you the things that are good for this world and for the world to come. This manifestation of Jesus in miracles gives you hope that He cares about you in this world. He cares about your every need. For Jesus is the right hand of majesty that the Father has stretched out to help and defend you in all circumstances.

This is the invitation which your Father in heaven extends to you.  May His Holy Spirit daily keep you in this faith and kindle in you a trust and yearning for His help every moment of your passing life.  This is your God who cares for you day and night, and who is your keeper unto eternal life, which is yours in Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Second Sunday after the Epiphany

Readings: Amos 9:11–15 | Romans 12:6–16 | John 2:1–11

Text: John 2:1-11

Today, we’ll start with the end of the lesson: “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.”

The Wedding at Cana is not primarily about marriage, or whether drinking wine is right or wrong, or being saved from awkward social situations, any more than pop holiday music captures the true significance of Christmas.  Yes, there may be trees and holly, crackling fires and joyful reunions.  But these ancillary things do not teach you about the Incarnate Son of God, born to save us from our sins.  Neither will the union of a man and woman, nor the frivolity of a reception with an open bar will show you the glory of Jesus Christ.

To only view the Wedding at Cana as Jesus’ endorsement of alcohol at parties, or encouragement for marriage, is to miss an entire dimension of who Jesus is and what His work is.  Those are to view it from the vantage point of the earth, and lends itself to eisegesisEisegesis, literally reading into the text, is when someone starts with their life experience and shoehorns a biblical passage to fit their situation.  An example of that is reading the account of David and Goliath and allegorizing Goliath into obstacles in your life, and concluding that if you had enough faith in God, you could conquer in personal growth—your “Goliaths.”

So, this isn’t to say that the Lord doesn’t bless marriage or that He forbids the use of alcohol (see Psalm 104:14-15).  It’s just that those are not the main features of this text.  In this season of Epiphany, the Church concerns herself with how God reveals His glory in His Son.  His glory is for those living in darkness to see a great light, for men to believe and cling to God’s Son as the only One who can rescue them, sustain them in their pilgrimage, and bring them to eternal peace.

So, what is going on at Cana?  Why the wedding, and why the water into wine?  To answer those questions, we need what’s called exegesis, which is bringing the intended meaning out of text and the rest of Scripture.  One of those other passages was selected for the Old Testament Lesson today from Amos 9:

11    “In that day I will raise up

the booth of David that is fallen

   and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old,

   12  that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name,” declares the Lord who does this.

   13  “Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when the plowman shall overtake the reaper and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it.

   14  I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;

   they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.

   15  I will plant them on their land,

and they shall never again be uprooted

out of the land that I have given them,”

says the Lord your God.

Here, the Lord is speaking through the shepherd-prophet Amos to deliver a message of good news.  It’s a message of restoration after destruction, but better than before.  It is a promise from God of healing that is for all nations, as many as call upon God’s Name.  Using the imagery of walls, nations, and fields, the Lord is telling them of the age of the Messiah. “In that day, I will raise up…Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord” encouraged the first hearers to look ahead to what God would do, and what He did do in His beloved Son.

But especially note one of the signs of the Messianic age: Abundant wine, “When the treader of grapes [shall overtake] him who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it.”  Wine is one of those clues of the blessings of the age of Messiah, and to say that the mountains drip with it is to say blessing will far exceed whatever has come before.  How great could they be? Recall the words of Isaiah 25, “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples…He will swallow up death forever” (Isa. 25:6-8a)  How about death being swallowed up forever?!  Through God’s promised Savior, such blessings are yours, and they are never to pass away, for “they shall never again be uprooted out of the land that I have given them.”

The opposite of this is having no wine, as Jeremiah said, “Gladness and joy have been taken away from the fruitful land of Moab; I have made the wine cease from the winepresses; no one treads them with shouts of joy; the shouting is not the shout of joy.”  No wine signifies judgment, and the joy that is taken away from mourning our sins and the toll death has taken on us.  But to have the wine restored signifies that the Lord’s salvation has come.

This is not to give the sinful flesh license to abuse actual wine, as Noah did, and lay naked in his tent [Gen. 9:20-23], or for us give in to drunkenness and immorality.  We’re talking here about the joy of salvation, not the numbness and impairment of alcohol, which God repeatedly condemns (e.g. Isaiah 5:11-12; 1 Cor. 5:11; Eph. 5:18; and allegorically Rev. 18:3).

At the wedding, Jesus revealed His glory as the One who ushers in, and is the center of the Messianic age.  As the prophets said before, the Lord is husband to His people [Isa. 54:4], and that when He came to reclaim His bride, His people would joyfully be taken to be His forever [Hosea 2:16].  The master of the feast at Cana duly notes that the best wine has been reserved until the latter time, because it is in these last days that God has spoken to us by His Son [Heb. 1:2].

So, it is that we live in this age of the Messiah!  It is Jesus who comes to us when we are crushed under the weight of our sins and groan from the tribulation of this world.  Even though we live in the age of Messiah, the age of the New Testament, we are tempted and we fall to the weakness of our flesh.  God is the one who keeps our life, but we fear losing our health and hang our hopes on the abilities of doctors and science as if they themselves had power to save.  The Church belongs to Christ, His Holy Spirit sees to the growth and sustaining of faith, but think clever programs and marketing will bring a greater yield from the Lord’s harvest.  This same mighty Lord is in our midst in worship, but how easily we can get hung up on the human and earthly elements that we miss His blessings because of our unbelief!

Yet, since the Messiah has come, and we are in between His Incarnation and His glorious, eternal return, we can be confident in our Bridegroom’s dedication.  He has given Himself up for us that we might be seen as holy and blameless in His sight [Eph. 5:25-27].  He has also sent us the gift of the Holy Spirit into our hearts.  The same Spirit who once hovered over the waters of creation, when the light was separated from the darkness, is there to minister to us.  It is He who manifests the glory of Jesus to us anew, every time that our hearts have grown cold and our joy is nowhere to be found.  Through His powerful Word and the tangible signs that point to Him—Baptism, Absolution, and the Supper—we behold Jesus’ glory: “Glory as of the only-begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)  It is He who now brings us out of the darkness of unbelief, making us light in the Lord [Eph. 5:8].

And that’s the light that was described in the Epistle reading from Romans 12:9-16:

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. 10 Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.

This isn’t simply a laundry list of things for Christians to do, but a description of the life we have in God’s Messiah.  It’s the result of our heavenly Bridegroom’s work in His bride, the Church, and each of us individually. 

Here in Christ is a glory which is prepared for all people.  It’s not just for those who can relate to weddings.  It’s not a joy that’s held back from those who must abstain from alcohol.  We remember this wedding celebration because our Bridegroom was there, and He made Himself known in part.  His hour would come, when He would, “for the joy that was set before Him, endure the cross” (Heb. 12:2).  Our crucified and risen Lord and God has become our Bridegroom—He is ours and we are His forever.  And this day, we rejoice to be invited to the foretaste of the marriage feast of the Lamb in His Kingdom, where He gives us joy in His Body and Blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. Amen.

The Baptism of Our Lord

Readings: Joshua 3:1–3, 7–8, 13–17 | 1 Corinthians 1:26–31 | Matthew 3:13–17

Text: Matthew 3:13-17

You’ll meet people who are skeptical about God and consider confident Christians arrogant for saying they know so much about knowing what God’s will is or what’s right and wrong.

This plays out in two main ways.  The first is the approach of the atheist, who says there is no god because there’s no empirical evidence to support the claim.  They argue that it’s not reasonable—even foolish—to put your trust in and be convinced of something that can’t be reached by the scientific method.  That isn’t proof for the non-existence of God; but an arrogance that existence hinges on human perception. 

The second is the approach of the mystic, who believes that God exists, but is unknowable and cannot be constrained by human thoughts or even the words of the Bible.  They, even if they claim Christianity, remain unsure about what God says is right and wrong, whether the history of the Bible is factual, and may even consider it going too far for a Christian to be sure they are forgiven and will enter paradise when they die.

In both cases, a personal God is placed out of reach.  The result is that people are left unsure and alienated.  But God would not have us unsure about His existence, so He is the One who makes Himself known.  And He does this in the way that we are able to perceive Him: through words and through the tangible element of water in Holy Baptism.

But to us, doubters and skeptics, to mystics who get lost in the darkness of our own reason, a light has shone.  The Holy God revealed Himself in the flesh, here on earth at the water of the Jordan in the Baptism of John.  Here, He revealed Himself in a Name, in the flesh of His Son, and in the Spirit’s appearance as a dove.  To those who are seeking some firm experience and sighting of God, a voice came from heaven saying, “This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased.”  This man, Jesus, standing there in the water, humbled in the form of a servant like us, is where God appears to us.  And what could this appearing to man mean, but peace, as the Spirit of God descends and remains on Jesus.  Where is peace following judgment, but in Jesus who was born for us, whose heart pumps holy, sinless blood, and who will deliver His peace to the dead in trespasses and sins, those who like the rest of mankind are children of wrath [Eph. 2:1-3].

The Small Catechism says that “Baptism works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this as the words and promises of God declare.” (Small Catechism, Part IV, “What Benefits Does Baptism Give?”)

Where is this great promise written? Mark 16:16 says: “Whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mk 16:16).  Peter echoes, “There is also an antitype [to the Flood] which now saves us—baptism” (1 Pet 3:21 NKJV). Furthermore, St. Paul says, “He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying.” (Titus 3:5-8), and “We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Rom 6:4). We believe what God’s Word says about Baptism. We trust His promises—the Word that has been spoken to us and confirmed by the Holy Spirit’s testimony. We live by faith in that. Baptism works the forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to us by naming us as Christ’s own and delivering the power and benefit of His death and resurrection to us.

Baptism does what God says it does. Its glory is hidden from the eyes of the world for it is glory like that of our King and His Kingdom. It is rejected by the proud, the wise, the knowledgeable, the mighty [1 Cor. 1:26-31].  But it is honored by those who know they need saving and know Christ.

The Baptism of Jesus institutes and empowers our Baptism. His Baptism is the beginning of the great exchange. It is a kind of reversal of our Baptism, which works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation. In His Baptism, Jesus is anointed as our King.  He doesn’t have any sins to be forgiven, but Baptism doesn’t heal Him. Instead, it infects Him. Baptism gives Him our sins. It marks Him as guilty. We step into the clean waters of Holy Baptism filthy in our sins, and this heavenly washing washes our sins off of us for it is a washing of rebirth and renewal. Jesus steps in clean and pure, without sin, into the dirty water we left behind, full of scum. When He steps out, He is dirty. He is anointed for His Office with our disease and death.  The Christ is the priest who acts on behalf of sinners.

He is most certainly not rescued from death and the devil. Immediately after His Baptism, the Holy Spirit will drive Him out of the promised land and into the wilderness in order to hand Him over to the devil [Matt. 4:1]. Baptism sets Him as the scapegoat who takes our sins away and as the Passover Lamb who shields us from the angel of death by His death. The Lord doesn’t remove our sins by simply dismissing them. He ingests them. He becomes them [2 Cor. 5:21]. Thus, the Father and the Spirit won’t help Him. He is a worm and not a man [Psalm 22:6]. He suffers in the desert without manna. Rather than receiving eternal salvation in Baptism, He is marked for the cross and condemnation. There, He will suffer hell in our place. As our substitute, He will be betrayed by His friends, stripped naked, humiliated, and tortured. He will know and endure all of our sorrows and then some, and He will be forsaken by His Father [Ps. 22:1].

This is what empowers Baptism for us, and makes it for us a saving water. Christ inaugurated and instituted Baptism that saves by being Baptized, by making the exchange. He takes what is ours and in exchange gives us what is His. Our Baptisms joins us to Him and His Baptism. Baptism makes us the beloved sons of the Father in whom the Father is well-pleased. Christ takes our sins and gives us, in exchange, His holiness. He suffers His Father’s wrath so that we would enjoy His Father’s blessings. He accepts the devil’s accusations so that we might have the angels’ praise. What the Father says of Jesus, He says of us. We are the beloved and in Christ He is well-pleased with, even proud of, us.

How much God has revealed Himself to us!  No wonder St. John marvels, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are!”  And why can’t our fellow men, who carry the same infection, are under the same sentence of death, receive this? John says, “The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him.”  Without receiving the testimony, the Gospel of Christ, people remain in darkness.

Thanks be to God that He has called us out of this darkness!  But our heart aches for our unbelieving neighbors.  We want them to be saved and not sent to perdition and eternal fire!  We know that no matter how pleasant and nice they may be, it is only by having Christ as their substitute that they can be saved.  But what can we do?

We share Christ: how He has created us, how our lives belong to Him not to ourselves, how we are weak and have failed God and one another but God being rich in mercy has taken our punishment away, and how we look forward to a world that truly is perfect and bodies that are free of the bondage to decay.  It is Christ who is able to save them, and His Holy Spirit who reaches them through this.  No amount of our cajoling or persuading has the power to bring them to the light; only God can do this and He truly does as we pray, “Thy Kingdom come.”

Dear saints, keep on believing in your God, and keep on praying that He would keep you through the trials of this world and by His Spirit-breathed Word bring us to where faith gives way to sight, and time gives way to eternity, and thorns and thistles give way to Sabbath rest.  Amen.

Second Sunday after Christmas

Text: Matthew 2:13-23

The life of Christ has a twofold purpose. First and foremost, it is substitutionary. Everything that He did and suffered happened in our place, for our own good. As a result, we are saved from our sins, reconciled to God, and have true righteousness before God. We are saved by God’s grace and receive His salvation in faith.

Now that we are justified by faith and have peace with God, Christ’s life also serves as an example for us. This does not mean that we merely do as Jesus does in holy living—simply a moralistic What Would Jesus Do?—but we also follow Him in cross and suffering. Everything we suffer results in steadfast faith in Christ as we bear the cross. This is what St. Paul means when He says in Romans 5, “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”  As contrary to reason as this may be, God brings all suffering to a wonderful, glorious outcome.

The life of Christ is substitutionary, and it is our example. It is this side of our life in Christ that we consider today as we hear of our Lord’s flight to and from Egypt as well as the slaughter of the Innocents in Bethlehem.

What seems to be more bad news this week actually shows how life as a Christian plays out among us. Mary and Joseph had to flee to Egypt because King Herod became paranoid that his throne was in jeopardy from an interloper Who was called the King of the Jews. Our Lord’s journey to Egypt was an arduous trip. His life was in danger. It was a long trip. Look at a map of that part of the world and you’ll see that it was at the least 75km (45 miles) to get from Bethlehem to Egyptian territory. There were no airplanes, no trains, no automobiles. The family had to stay in Egypt more than just a few days. They had to wait out Herod for almost a year. When Herod the Great died, an equally evil leader took his place. The family moved back to Nazareth in Galilee to avoid another bloodthirsty leader, and that was 145 km (90 miles) further.

The only-begotten Son of our heavenly Father deserves better than these humble accommodations. He shouldn’t have to flee cities and countries because of a mortal king worried about his earthly throne. Yet Jesus is, as Isaiah prophesied, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief [Isa 53:3]. What greater grief to be acquainted with than the death of many innocent children in the search for the Christ Child. Everything seemed destroyed. The joy of Christmas is soaked with blood and humiliation.

That’s the way it is this side of eternity. Consider the great heroes of the Old Testament. They did not walk an easy road to where God wanted them to go. Joseph suffered greatly in prison before becoming the second most powerful man in Egypt [Genesis 39-41]. Moses fled the Israelites before meeting the Lord in a burning bush and returning to his own to lead them out of Egypt and toward the Promised Land [Exodus 1-6]. King David, after he was anointed King of Israel, had to flee from King Saul as an outlaw [1 Samuel 16, 18-31]. The three young men in Babylon were thrown into a fiery furnace for confessing the true God [Daniel 3]. Daniel was thrown in a lion’s den for praying against an unrighteous law [Daniel 6]. Even Saint Paul had to be shown how much he had to suffer for the sake of Christ’s name [Acts 9:16; 2 Cor. 11:23-30].

Christian suffering continues today. Instead of everything becoming easier now that Jesus is born, things only seem to get worse. Misfortune is only beginning. As it was with Jesus, so it is with us. Just when we think things should get easier, life becomes more difficult. Where there was once honor, now there is ridicule and shame. Where there was blessing in your vocation, now everything goes against you. Where there was good health, now you have more illness. Where there was once happiness in your family, now there are painful deaths and separations, wayward children, poverty, and debt. It should not surprise us when we meet sudden disaster, untimely loss, and unfair treatment. That’s because in all suffering, God is making you similar to the suffering image of His Son.

There is a silver lining to these dark clouds. Almighty God protected Mary, Joseph, and the little Child Jesus on their journeys to and from Egypt. Three prophecies are fulfilled in today’s Gospel:

“Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Hos. 11:1)

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,

weeping and loud lamentation,

Rachel weeping for her children;

she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Jer. 31:15)

“…He would be called a Nazarene.” [Isa. 9:1]

These are reliable, yet true indicators that Jesus is the promised Messiah. The blood of the innocent children that died at Herod’s hands confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Their death spares them from all kinds of grief in this life, yet gives them blessed rest as they wait for the return of Messiah to raise the faithful departed.

As God led the innocent children out of this vale of tears, so He will do the same for you. He saves you through the perfect life and all-sufficient death of His Son Jesus. His Word is certain and precious above all things, just as Saint Paul says in Romans chapter eight: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Rom. 8:18)

We have a glimpse of this future glory that awaits us here in the Divine Service. Here we rest in Jesus Christ as He forgives our sins and strengthens our faith in preaching and the Sacrament. When we leave His presence here, we live In His grace as we turn away from worldly things and live in self-denial, patience, and prayer. There is an end of every cross, and it comes in God’s good time. We confess our faith in God, the Father Almighty, who created and still rules everything in heaven and earth [Rom. 8:38-39; Heb. 1:3]. Everything that we suffer strengthens our faith, which is that union we have with Jesus Christ. Consider those Old Testament saints mentioned a bit ago. There was an end to their suffering and an ultimate end to their lives. Yet the end of their pilgrimage on this earth wasn’t their final end. It was only the beginning. They sleep in peace, awaiting the return of Jesus to raise them from the dead.

So it is with us and all the faithful ones. We are the Church on earth, waiting in hope. We wait in the promise that all crosses have an end in Jesus Christ. He is well acquainted with suffering. He knows what it is like to walk the lonely way, a more lonely way than we’ll ever walk. He Himself has walked it, and as our Lord and God, He knows how to strengthen us to follow Him. We see in His earthly life assurance of how our Almighty Father will also care for and protect us from every evil of body and soul, possessions and reputation, and bring us safely out of this valley of sorrows to Himself. So, we cling to God the Father and our Savior Jesus Christ above all things, believing that patient endurance brings everlasting hope. Amen.