The Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord

~ A Service of Lessons & Carols ~

Readings: Genesis 3:8-24 | Isaiah 7:10-14 | Luke 1:26-38 | Matthew 1:18-25 | Luke 2:1-20

Text: Luke 2:1-14

You’ve no doubt heard it at least once so far, and maybe several times today: Merry Christmas!

Merriam Webster declared the Word of the Year—the most looked-up word of 2022—was ‘gaslighting’. They write, “In this age of misinformation—of ‘fake news,’ conspiracy theories, Twitter trolls, and deepfakes—gaslighting has emerged as a word for our time.

“A driver of disorientation and mistrust, gaslighting is “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one’s own advantage.” 2022 saw a 1740% increase in lookups for gaslighting, with high interest throughout the year.

“Its origins are colorful: the term comes from the title of a 1938 play and the movie based on that play, the plot of which involves a man attempting to make his wife believe that she is going insane. His mysterious activities in the attic cause the house’s gas lights to dim, but he insists to his wife that the lights are not dimming and that she can’t trust her own perceptions.”[1]

I don’t mean to imply that when we say, “Merry Christmas” to one another, the person saying it is “grossly misleading someone especially for one’s own advantage.” But there is a similar effect, when we’re told that Christmas should be merry.  There is a dissonance between what can see and feel and what we’re told. “Merry Christmas!” which means, we should are expected to be glad about some ethereal “spirit of Christmas.” For a moment, forget all of your troubles, choke on saccharine-sweet nostalgia of days which you may or may not have had, put on a smile, and sing glad songs. It may not be insidious for us to wish “Merry Christmas” to one another, but in a time of death, economic turmoil, natural disasters, and increasing alienation, it can be a bit like the biblical proverb, “Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda.” (Prov. 25:20)

I would like to suggest a stronger word to associate with Christmas: Joy. Joy and happiness are two related, but separate things. Joy has deeper roots than happiness, because it has to do with solid truths, not just passing circumstances. Joy has to do with faith. Happiness comes and goes, but joy endures through hardship.

A Christmas can be merry if you have peace in your family, the ability to be together (think of all the post-WWII ideals of Christmas, which now are meant to drive you to eat more cookies, drink too much, and spend more money than you have).

But even under the shadow of the death of your spouse, the long trial of bodily pain and unsuccessful treatment, the increase of inflation-driven poverty—you can have a joyful Christmas.

Why? Because light has shone in the darkness of this world. God is not disinterested, but has come to save. Peace has come to earth between God and man in the forgiveness of their sins, one who has the power to conquer the devil, and break the curse of death.  It is for all who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death: the divorced and the married, those whose infirmity keeps them at home and those who take part in festivities, etc.

No matter what pop music and the retailers say, the Nativity of Our Lord is a celebration of the holy, almighty, God taking our sin and disease-ridden race and world into His own care. It is the greatest rescue mission ever done.  As one hymn puts it, “For you are the Father’s Son, Who in flesh the victory won. By Your mighty power make whole All our ills of flesh and soul.” (Savior of the Nations Come, LSB 332, st. 6)

Don’t be gaslighted at Christmas, but take joy at your Savior. Celebrate that, bask in it, sing it out, in spite of the rage of sin and death against it.

Amen.


[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/word-of-the-year (accessed 21 Dec 2022)

Commemoration of St. Thomas

Readings: Ephesians 4:7, 11-16 | John 20:24-29

Text: John 20:24-29

Who was St. Thomas and why is he remembered?

Thomas was one of the apostles. In the lists of the Apostles in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), Thomas is paired with Matthew, so perhaps when they were sent out in twos (Matthew 10:5-6), they travelled together.

John gives us more of a personal story of Thomas. The first time, he is introduced as, “Thomas, called the Twin” or Didymus (john 11:16). There are a total of three accounts that involve Thomas in John’s Gospel, and it’s the last one which gets the most attention. Thomas has gained such a reputation that his name as become associated with doubt. This label goes back even to the time of the Reformation, as Albrecht Durer, who carved this woodcut for his Small Passion series (c. 1510), named it “Doubting Thomas.”

Application

Let’s look at all of them together, so that we can better appreciate Thomas, one Jesus’ Twelve.

11 After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 13 Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, 15 and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:11-16)

Lazarus’ death is a teaching moment for the disciples of Jesus, including the Apostles. Our Lord calls the end of Lazarus’ grave illness “sleep” because this is an enemy which He is about to conquer. Most Israelites saw death as a prison, calling it Sheol, but Jesus had come to release such prisoners. Once He explains clearly that Lazarus has died, notice Thomas’ bold confession! If Jesus can undo even death, then let us go and treat it playfully as a temporary condition—to fear the grave as little as we fear going to sleep!

Later, in the Upper Room, as Jesus is giving His farewell sermon, our Lord says,

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:1-6)

Thomas is not afraid to ask the question which nags at all of us as we hear these words. He’s just said such an incredible thing, that He goes to prepare a place in His Father’s house. Then, Jesus says we know the way. But do we really? How can we be sure? Let me have detailed instruction, lest I get lost and lose such a precious reward!  Thomas’ question prompts the Lord Jesus to clarify saying that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Just as much as He is the Resurrection, displayed in Lazarus (John 11:25-26).

Thomas, through honest questioning, has learned that Jesus is the Master over the grave, the sure and certain way to eternal life with God. Yet, he has also seen his Lord betrayed, cruelly tried, and brutally crucified, dead, and buried. Come the evening of that first day of the week, Thomas as a lot to put together. Has the grave in fact swallowed the Lord up? Did we set our hopes too high?

24 Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”
26 Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:24-29)

If we only focus on one apparent failure of Thomas, we end up doing what the world does with its forefathers right now. All of their contributions are reduced to the one fact that they owned slaves, for instance. Same with Thomas, that he is caricatured as “Doubting Thomas.”  Better not be a “doubting Thomas” and with that label, envelop the whole person, and dismiss his desire for certainty.

Each account of Thomas is about faith and the certainty of what one believes. He can boldly go to death with Lazarus, knowing that Jesus is its victor. He can be sure that he Jesus will bring him and all who believe to the Father to dwell in the House of the Lord forever [Ps. 23:6].

Maybe St. Thomas was the first Lutheran, because he was concerned about certainty in his faith and the message he was being sent out to preach. That’s a distinguishing mark of the Evangelical Reformation: Rather than speculating about what God may or may not think, the ways the Lord may be moving members of His Church, the process for the soul after death, or whether departed saints can pray with us or for us—Lutherans are bound to the clear Word of God, to receive it by faith.  Does it say, “whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” and “this promise is for you and for your children” and that Baptism is “a circumcision made without hands…having been buried…[and] also raised with him through the powerful working of God”?[1] Then we will baptize even our infants because we trust the Lord’s saving work in Christ for them.  Does the Lord say to the repentant thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise”?[2] Then we will not entertain any talk of purgatory for extra purification over and above the blood of Christ which was shed for us. Does the Scripture says, “Truly no man can ransom another” and “There is one Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus”?[3] Then we will only pray to the Triune God and not put our hope in Mary or any other servant of God.

What does St. Thomas teach us at Advent?

Advent is a time for Christians to meditate on the first coming of our Lord, and to ask the question, “O Lord, how shall I meet you?” (LSB 334) when He comes again in glory. The End Times are again a place for certainty and confidence. As St. John would later write, “So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. 17 By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world.” (1 John 4:16-17) Let us not get swept away in the fantastical speculations of so many teachers who trouble believers with talk of invisible comings of Christ, rapture, rebuilding an earthly temple, and Armageddon. Let us follow the example of Thomas, who firmly believed the Lord’s Word and wanted to have confidence in it for himself and his hearers. As your pastor, that is my aim and what I delight in too. Stick with the clear words of Jesus, for “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed…[for] these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:29, 31)

In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.


[1] Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38-39; Colossians 2:9-12

[2] Luke 23:43

[3] Psalm 49:7; 1 Timothy 2:5

Fourth Sunday in Advent

~ Rorate Coeli ~

Readings: Deuteronomy 18:15-19 | Philippians 4:4-7 | Luke 1:39-56

Text: Philippians 4:4-7

“The Lord is at Hand For You”

Intro: It formed the theme for last Sunday, and now here it is again: Rejoice in the Lord always. Today focuses heavily on the reason for rejoicing in all circumstances: The Lord is at hand.

1. The Lord is at hand…to judge.

a. His nearness is not good news in and of itself: 32 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates.” (Matt. 24:32-33) The Lord’s imminent return is not good news for the unbelieving.

b. Jesus was near to Peter when he denied his Lord and Jesus’ gaze caused Peter to weep. (Luke 22:58-62) The Word that Jesus had spoken caused bitter tears.

c. He is near even when you are purposely overriding your conscience and doing what you know isn’t right. In these moments, we put on a mockery of the life of faith, using the Lord’s patience as an excuse to gratify our flesh. Remember the bitter tears of Peter, and repent.

> The nearness of His condemnation of our unbelief isn’t His ultimate goal. His desire is to put our Old Adam, with all his rebellion and wickedness to death. Instead of judgment, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18) The Lord is at hand.

II. The Lord is at hand…for His people.

a. The Lord’s nearness had caused the people to tremble at the foot of Sinai. “Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.” (Deut. 18:16) So the Lord sent Moses and Aaron as His representatives. He promised to once again draw near in the Prophet who would bear His Word (Old Testament reading, Deut. 18:15-19).

b. Elizabeth and Mary recognized the nearness of the Lord. Even the infant John recognized it and rejoiced inside Elizabeth! It was not just a thoughtful reminder, but it was embodied in the infant in Mary’s womb.

c. This is the comfort of the Lord being at hand for you, bringing His mercy and salvation. The Israelites hoped for this Prophet, Elizabeth and her baby leapt, Mary’s soul magnifies the Lord and her spirit rejoices in God her Savior.

The Lord is at hand with His Word and in His flesh.

III. The Lord is at hand…for you.

a. Though we rightly deserve His displeasure for our denials, our weakness, and our unfaithfulness, the Lord Jesus Christ was born to save His people from their sins (Matt. 1:23). The Lord is at hand to save you.

b. The nearness of the Lord is not just a cognitive device to calm our minds. It’s a truth which our faith clings to, and a peace which is delivered by the Holy Spirit through God’s Word. The Lord is at hand to give you peace.

c. And it’s a reality that as often as we forget or push away the nearness of the Lord, we look for peace in the wrong place. We try to find it in our understanding and how well we manage our life and relationships. This can only give us a passing, human peace.

d. In that false belief, we think the Lord is far away. I’m suffering, and He’s somewhere else. His congregation is hurting and He is idly looking on. Our world is wandering into darkness, and He must just be fed up with us.

e. But our Lord does not simply stand by waiting for us to “figure out the right thing to do.” He is active in our lives, to break our confidence in our understanding, our own proud accomplishments. And that illusion of self-made peace we give up in repentance, God fills us with peace that no man could ever dream of.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 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.

Because it is true the Lord is at hand, cast your cares on Him; seek His help in prayer; praise Him for the abundant good He does for you, and enjoy a peace which surpasses that of our thoughts. Rejoice in the Lord at all times, for “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble…The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.” (Psalm 46:1, 11) In the Name + of Jesus.

Amen.

Commemoration of Nicasius and Eutropia, Martyrs

Text: Romans 12:14-21, Luke 6:27-36

as seen in Wikipedia

Who was Nicasius?

Nicasius was a bishop in Rheims, on the frontier of the Roman empire. This area had a Christian presence dating back to 260 AD.

In the new year’s eve of 407, a horde of Barbarians crossed the frozen Rhine River. To the Roman inhabitants of Gaul, it was called the Barbarian invasion. They sacked cities along the way.

Bishop Nicasius was said to have had a vision concerning this invasion, and he warned the people about it. They asked him if they should take up arms, but Nicasius responded, “Let us abide the mercy of God and pray for our enemies. I am ready to give myself for my people.”

When the Vandals arrived at the gate of the city, Nicasius attempted to slow them so that more citizens could escape. He met the advancing army with his companions: Jucundus, his lector, Florentius, his deacon, and Eutropia, his virgin sister. The Vandal army put him and his companions to death at his altar or the door of his church, while he was praying from Psalm 119: Adhæsit pavimento anima mea: Vivifica me secundum verbum tuum. “My soul clings to the dust; give me life according to your word!” (Ps. 119:25)

The legends have it that after the death of Nicasius, the Vandals were so scared, they left the area and left their plunder behind.

Application

Our Lord says, 27 But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

St. Paul writes to the children of God:

“17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

How can Jesus say such a thing? How can it be that God’s instruction would be to roll over against the force of those who hate us?

These are hard words for us, because it doesn’t seem right or fair. Our world tells us to demonize those who hate or abuse us (or sometimes even just trouble us). Take away their power by whatever means necessary, destroy their reputation, seize their assets, remove them from memory.

But who was Nicasius, a bishop to take up arms? What chance did they have against this advancing army when the Romans soldiers had retreated to deal with other invaders? His priority was to save civilian lives…and the souls of the enemies.

Yes, the lives of his enemies. The lives of your enemies are precious in God’s sight. The life of the one who abandoned you, who hurt you, who cheated you in court. Their life is just as precious as yours to God. No matter how much the image of God has been smeared over by the filth of evil, God still priced their life with the precious blood of Christ.

6For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” (Romans 5:6–10)

When we see those who are our enemies as human beings loved by God, rather than seeking to be rid of them, we see ourselves as witnesses to God who has had mercy on us.

When the Vandals crossed the Rhein, it was not just their armies. It was also their women and children—their families with them. They were fleeing for their lives against a ruthless invading force that had forced them out of their homes—the Huns. For the past 30 years, the Huns had been wreaking havoc on the Germanic peoples and forcing them as refugees into the Eastern Roman empire. This doesn’t excuse their actions of killing an unarmed bishop and his attendants, or robbing from the people of Gaul. But rather, as Nicasius said, “Let us abide the mercy of God and pray for our enemies.” For that is what God, who rules over the nations, who desires the salvation of the nations, has commanded us.

So, who are our enemies today? Woke idealogues? Democrats or republicans? Abortionists? Illegal immigrants? Do we take a cue from the world and demonize the people who belong to these movements, dehumanizing them?

Instead, let us entrust our lives to our Lord, who 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” (1 Pet. 2:23) And see those who set themselves against us not according to their sins (3If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? 4But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.” Psalm 130:3–4), but according to God’s mercy shown to His enemies, His power to convert them, and to save them from the coming judgment.

Let Nicasius and his companions remind us this Advent that Christ came into the world to save all people, and that His desire now is that disciples be made of people from every nation. In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

Third Sunday in Advent

~ Gaudete ~

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

Text: Isaiah 40:1-8

It’s been said that Isaiah is a reflection of the Bible, Old and New Testaments. The first 39 chapters speak of God’s judgment against His wayward people and the nations of the earth. The 40th chapter begins the proclamation of John the Baptist, announcing the coming of the Servant of the Lord and culminating in the New Heavens and New Earth and the rejoicing which follow (Isaiah 65-66).

I. The Hebrew word, “Comfort” ties together God’s judgment and His gracious pardoning of sin.

a. We’re familiar with this verse, especially from the hymn which we’ll sing during Communion.

b. This word—nacham—which here means comfort, is also used before the Flood:

i.  The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. (Gen. 6:5-6)

c. Human sin is so serious that He regrets making man. It grieves Him to His heart. So much so that He sends destruction on the earth except for Noah and His family who feared Him. Don’t be fooled into thinking that your sin doesn’t have a serious impact on your Creator. It’s no light, private matter that “doesn’t hurt anyone that much.” It grieves God to His heart.

d. Remember the judgment against the ungodliness, the drowning of hard-hearted Pharaoh, the death of the uncircumcised nations who fought against Him. Remember Jesus’ warning about the end of days, how it will come when people are “marrying and given in marriage, and then the flood came and swept them all away.” (Matt. 24:38-39)

II. But see what this nacham, regret, causes God to do—not just to save one family in an ark, but to give His Son as a ransom for all.

a. After the floodwaters had subsided, the Lord promised, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done.” (Gen. 8:21)

b. It’s not a bigger act of judgment, but a monumental act of grace and salvation for sinners. For even though the wickedness of God grieves God to His heart, His heart is love. It moves Him to send His Son. And from what His Son came to do, comes not regret on God’s part, but comfort to the contrite. The very same word in this new context, nihem, means to comfort.

c. Out of the suffering which His Son freely bore, behold what God has done:

that her warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.

III. This Word has a real effect. Here a modern image is appropriate: that of a road grader.

    A voice cries:
                  “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
                Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
                  the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.

a. The Lord’s work to lay down and restore according to His plan. A freshly graded road doesn’t puddle, or have cart tracks. What a bombed-out, washed-out mess our world is, and our own hearts because of sin.

b. His Gospel changes us from what our sin has made us, and restores us into the human beings we were created to be. Just as a road with a proper crown will drain and put the water in the proper place, the water of our Baptism works to restore us to God’s design.

c. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, not only to objectively save us from what we deserve, but to manifest God’s work through faith with a new heart. This is where we see a deposit of that salvation, the new creation which God works in His people.

d. Here is an example of this “road grading” of the Holy Spirit. In speaking about the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” Luther writes:

He has set this up for our strengthening and assurance as a sign along with the promise that matches this petition in Luke 6:37, “Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”…
Therefore, this sign is attached to the petition so that when we pray we may recall the promise and think, “Dear Father, I come to you and pray that you will forgive me for this reason: not because I can make satisfaction or deserve anything by my works, but because you have promised and have set this seal on it, making it as certain as if I had received an absolution pronounced by you yourself.” For whatever baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which are appointed to us as outward signs, can effect, this sign can as well, in order to strengthen and gladden our conscience. (Large Catechism, III 96-98)

There are plenty of things around us that can cause us to doubt this proclamation of “Comfort, comfort” and that God’s Kingdom has come to us. Like John the Baptist asking in prison, “Aren’t you the Coming One who will proclaim liberty?”  But the Lord points us to these visible signs of His coming: “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.” (Matt. 11:4-5)  You have been given eyes to see God’s work and your ears have been opened to hear God’s Word. You are daily cleansed from the leprosy of your sin and your body is daily being prepared for the resurrection (even if outwardly it wastes away), and the Gospel has been preached to you.

Not only do you hear of this Kingdom, but in these ways that the Lord points us to, we also see His Kingdom coming among us. So, take comfort, dear citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, when all else fades away, this Word of your God stands forever. In the Name + of Jesus.

Amen.

Commemoration of Ambrose of Milan

Readings: Ephesians 3:8-12 | John 10:11-16

Text: Ephesians 3:8-12

Who was Ambrose? What led the Church to remember him?

Aurelius Ambrosius was born in 339 to a Roman Christian family in Gaul in modern-day Germany.

His father was a praetorian prefect, or high-ranking administrator for the province. Ambrose was set to follow in his father’s footsteps, going to school in Rome. He practiced law for a while, but in 370 was eventually appointed civil governor of Liguria and lived in the capital, Milan. He was a noteworthy statesman, good orator, and well-liked.

Four years later in 374, bishop Auxentius, an Arian, died in office. This controversy had been brewing since the council of Nicea. Arius’ teaching that Jesus was not true God had many adherents, especially in the court. There was a lot of controversy about who would follow him. The Nicene and Arian laity were fighting over this question, so much that Governor Ambrose had to step in. As he was addressing the crowd, the Nicene laity began to shout for his election as bishop, “Ambrose, bishop!” The Arians were okay with that, because Ambrose had treated them fairly.

Just one big problem. He was still a new Christian, an unbaptized catechumen with no theological training.  He fled from the meeting and hid at a colleague’s house. This colleague gave him up and within a week, Ambrose was baptized, ordained, and consecrated on December 7, 374.

He was faithful in his office, adopting an ascetic lifestyle, selling his property and providing for his sister. He had good favor with the people as governor, and now as bishop he was even more loved. This favor helped him in his future relations with government interaction.

Ambrose not only cared for his flock, but from his experience in the state, saw the need for the public welfare of the Church. He served as spiritual counselor to the next several western emperors. His goal was to forge an alliance with the Roman state to bolster the orthodox faith against Arianism, paganism, and Judaism.

He influenced Emperor Gratian to remove an altar to the goddess Victory from the Roman senate. He refused a later emperor’s wife’s demand to have Milan’s churches facilities used to garrison Gothic (Arian) troops. He resisted imperial influences on teaching and disciple within the Church, clearly articulating a proper division between church and state: “For the emperor is within the church, not above the church.”[1] He called Emperor Theodosius I to publicly repent in the streets of Milan after he massacred civilians in Thessalonica in retaliation for an imperial official’s murder.[2]

He also became a prominent theologian. Through his acumen and eloquence, Ambrose was instrumental in Augustine of Hippo’s conversion. He also authored the hymn which we just sang, Savior of the Nations Come, along with two others in our hymnal (874 and 890).

Application

It’s noticeable how unworthy and unprepared Ambrose was for the task that the Lord laid at his feet. Like St. Paul, he was a most unlikely candidate (save for being hostile to the Church).

To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord

God’s work is not seen in the individuals and personalities of the saints He calls to service. This is a vain dream of our sinful heart which wants to be remembered and make a legacy for one’s self.  His work is to “bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages” which is made manifest in the Word of God.

You don’t have to be a bishop or preacher in order to share in this work of God. Parents do it very simply by reading the Bible with their children, teaching them to pray, modeling lives of devotion to the Lord. Friends do this by displaying the love of Christ and living in the joy of the Gospel, so that those who don’t believe or are conflicted can be guided by the light in you. Everyday Christians do this when they live their lives conscientiously—holding to life in a society that embraces death as a savior, honoring marriage in the midst of hedonism, knowing what is right in an age of moral relativism.

The Lord raised up Ambrose at a time of crisis in order to faithfully guide His Church. That’s what needed to happen for the good of God’s people in that place and time. He wasn’t thinking about how he would be remembered by history, how his eloquence would ripple to Augustine, and later to Martin Luther. Too often we are sold the idea that what we do must be exceptional, but that is to aggrandize ourselves. It is enough to love the Lord who has brought His Word to us, to love our neighbor who is right before us, and to pray for the Lord’s guidance and that He equip us for our various tasks.

What does Ambrose teach us about during the Advent season?

It’s an overwhelming thing to ponder the big picture—our country, our world, where things will go. Nevertheless, God has revealed to us the mystery that surpasses every other variable about this life: Christ is coming again in glory, and in the meantime, He rules at the Father’s right hand to accomplish His loving and saving purpose.

How do we take part in something so monumental? By bowing our hearts in prayer to Him, “Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.”

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


[1] Ambrose, Sermon Against Auxentius, 36

[2] Walker, Williston, “A History of the Christian Church” (4th ed.), pp. 159-160.

Second Sunday of Advent

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

Text: Malachi 4:1-6

Every day, we are reminded that the godless enjoy prosperity and ease. They are the ones getting their way in the senate, gaining favor in school and society. The boastful sneer at the Christians and speak evil of them falsely (calling them bigots for not bowing down toward their god: same sex marriage).

Psalm 73 describes their success:

4         For they have no pangs until death;

         their bodies are fat and sleek.

5         They are not in trouble as others are;

         they are not stricken like the rest of mankind.

6         Therefore pride is their necklace;

         violence covers them as a garment.

7         Their eyes swell out through fatness;

         their hearts overflow with follies.

8         They scoff and speak with malice;

         loftily they threaten oppression.

9         They set their mouths against the heavens,

         and their tongue struts through the earth.

10     Therefore his people turn back to them,

         and find no fault in them.  (Psalm 73:4-10)

You look at the worldly people—those of the queer movement, the anti-Christians, the ones whose consciences are seared—and think how easy they have it! Right now, they enjoy public favor and protections, right now they are at ease in their lifestyle. Their values are celebrated on the news and in the public square, while the Christian is demonized. It’s their dealings that are successful, their barns that grow ever fuller. Sure, they have the same pains as other mortal men, but the gods of their delusion care for them. The life of a pagan is the life of freedom and peace in this world.

Recall the story of Naomi and her husband, Elimelech. She went into the land of the Moabites when unfaithfulness brought famine. Their sons married Moabite wives, and then Elimelech and his sons died in the land of Moab. Upon hearing that the Lord had visited Israel and restored bread to Bethlehem (the “house of bread”), Naomi is poised to return. She tells her Moabite daughters-in-law to stay:

Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!”… “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me?... No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” (Ruth 1:8-13)

Why would anyone choose to be at odds with other men? Who would follow after a God whose path brings such suffering?

But He is also the God who promises life and salvation through His Son. There is salvation from the curse found nowhere else!  So, what will you have? Peace now, in the favor of man and their gods? Or the peace from heaven that you have to wait to see?

To those who hold to the Lord, in spite of the passing promise of worldly peace, He promises, “The sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in His wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.” The day will come when the people faithful to the true God will be vindicated. There will be a separation between the righteous and the wicked, and only the righteous will have God’s favor in eternity.

The signs which are given assure us that He is not leading us on:

 “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, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” (Luke 21:25–27)

Notice the biggest things that the worldly people fear: getting sick (especially terminally), that the climate will change and the oceans rise, ominous predictions about clean drinking water going away, that the economy will collapse and cause them to suffer want, and worst of all death itself because they don’t know what comes next.

We’d be lying if we say we’re haven’t shared in at least some of these fears, because we’re human and our sin also clings to the gods of this passing world.

Although the people of the world are in terror because of the threat of the world being destroyed, this should actually encourage the Spirit in God’s children that His Word is true. The fact that people are terrified of climate change and “apocalyptic” events should assure us that the word of the Lord is true.

At this point, they will accuse you of holding to a tradition that makes you right and condemns everyone else. That’s a valid point, because who wants a worldview that can’t serve them? Yet we do not have this truth from ourselves. It isn’t borne out of a self-chosen favoritism that says God loves people like us and condemns everyone else. It is borne from His own Word.

It’s a Word which condemns our sins all the same, because we have desired what is contrary to His will. We have been guilty of sexual immorality, of blaspheming, of neglect and hatred of our neighbors. Yet, in confessing those as the sins which they are, the same Word declares the forgiveness of our sins for the sake of the blood of Christ.

Elijah has come, John the Baptist, who pointed to the faithful and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” All who were struck by their sin heard that and repented of their wicked works and believed in the Lord who works righteousness.

So, now the task of the Church is to proclaim this same repentance and Gospel to all the people of the earth. All who believe in Him will be saved. All who refuse to believe will be condemned (Mark 16:16). So, at last, it is not our opinion of others that counts, just as their opinion and raging cannot do anything more to us than bodily suffering [Matt. 10:28].

The judgment which ultimately has power is that of the Lord, who separates those who fear the Name of the Lord given in Baptism, and those evildoers who spurn His call to turn from disaster. It is they who will seek mercy on the Last Day and will not find it. The time of clemency is now. “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near” (Isaiah 55:6)

We’re not pleased that people will be condemned. Neither is the Lord, who is the world’s Savior. So let us continue to tell them this truth, in hope that they also will repent before “the day comes upon them burning like an oven.” O Lord, have mercy upon our race, especially upon the souls of those who now proudly reject you. May they be turned from their ignorance and rejection before it is too late! In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

First Sunday in Advent

~ Ad Te Levavi ~

Readings: Jeremiah 23:5-8 | Romans 13:8-14 | Matthew 21:1-9

Text: Matthew 21:1-9

“Your King Comes to You”

This is the beginning of Advent, the season leading up to Christmas.  This word, Advent, is handed down to us from generations of Christians before us. It means, “to come to” (ad + venire), It’s about Christ’s coming—first to save His people from their sin, and again at the Last when He “will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for Him” (Heb. 9:28)

“Say to the daughter of Zion,

       ‘Behold, your king is coming to you,

humble, and mounted on a donkey,

on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’ ”

Behold says Zechariah. Wake up! Pay attention! Why? Because your King is coming. He alone shall reign among you. What does it mean to have a king when we live in a democratic republic? We did not choose Him, but He was given to us.

Christ alone is your king, not Moses with his law. Sin, death, and the devil are not your master. Let none but Christ your Master be. All these tyrants who have long plagued you are vanquished by your King, Jesus.

Jesus alone is chosen, promised, and sent by God to you. He has purchased and won you.

He came in this way because He is King—more than a personal King, but King of Creation.  Above His cross, He bore the inscription, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” but He is so much more.  It would simply be a tragedy if Jesus came as the rightful King of the Jews, they didn’t receive Him and rather crucified Him.  But in fact by their rejection, God established His reign, so that after He rose from breaking the power of His enemies, He proclaims, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me.” (Matt. 28:18)

What sort of King He is

            He is not an earthly ruler of an earthly kingdom.  He is a spiritual King whose Kingdom is one of faith (yet one day of sight).  The Jews had it wrong when they heard of God’s Messiah coming as King.  They heard terms like kingdom, land, and Zion, and they were confined to merely physical interpretations.  Right before His ascension, the disciples still asked Him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)  By which they meant, are you going to set up a nation state, establish a worldly government, choose people to be your “right hand man” and so forth. Some false teachers even still say that Christ will come to establish an earthly kingdom in a “golden age” for a 1,000 years. But if we listen to all of Scripture, and to Christ Himself, it’s clear this is not how He reigns.

We are at a severe disadvantage to think of the Kingdom, of Zion, of Israel, and our King in merely earthly ways.  He is God, so His reign extends not borders found on a map but extends over the whole universe—“He upholds all things by the Word of His power.” (Heb. 1:3)  His Zion is not merely a special name for the earthly city Jerusalem, but for His dwelling in the midst of His holy people—“For the Lord has chosen Zion; he has desired it for his dwelling place: “This is my resting place forever; here I will dwell, for I have desired it.” (Ps. 132:13-14)  His Israel is not the blood descendants of the patriarch Jacob, for “All who 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.” (John 1:12-13)

At Jesus’ entry into the city Jerusalem, it was expected that He was an earthly king, for He was riding in as Solomon, the natural son of David (1 Kings 1:44).  Yet, it was soon clear that His reign would not be a continuation of King Solomon.  God raised Him up, not to a dazzling throne with fanfare.  The shouts of Hosanna quickly came to a close.  Instead of a gold-clad throne, He was raised up to reign from the tree of the cross.  The justice He established was the “temporal death and eternal punishment” that we “justly deserve.”[1]  The righteousness He established was the sinless, obedient heart and life that no son of Adam could do.  He was indeed righteous and having salvation, as Zechariah foretold (Zech. 9:9).  But what earthly King could do this for His subjects?  As the King of the Jews breathed His last and was laid in the tomb, it became all too clear that His reign would not be limited to Jerusalem.

How He reigns

            Among earthly rulers, you find power, politics, sway, and even corruption.  Not so with King Jesus.  He comes “humble and mounted on a donkey.”  He comes not to be served but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28)  He comes not with threats of condemnation but with words of comfort for the broken, the sinful, those “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matt. 9:36)

That is how He still comes, in humble means, as a servant-King.  He brings people into His Kingdom, under His reign, not by coercion and threats, but by His humble, yet powerful Word.  He doesn’t display His power in mighty acts of destruction, but in the peaceful fruit of sins forgiven and the hope of eternal life.  He nourishes His people, not with glorious power to overcome every obstacle, but with His crucified and risen Body and Blood.  All this so that His power might be perfected in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).

            Indeed, the Day is coming when He will come in power, but now is the day for His Kingdom to grow.  We often grow impatient with His ways, but He who knows the hearts of all also knows what truly “work” to extend His reign.  When we’re surrounded by businesses and churches-modeled-after-consumerism that seem to thrive we grow envious of their visible success.  But if we are to be faithful to our Lord, we too remain humble servants, waiting to be exalted by our God.

Why He Comes

Lastly, we consider why He comes.  It might occur to us that we get by just fine without a King.  But who is able to face the Judgment Day without fear?  King Jesus intercedes for you.  Who is able to face the spiritual warfare that would deceive us, make us complacent in our sins, and drag us ignorantly to hell?  King Jesus is able to loose our chains and fight for us.  Which one of us can do battle with death and overcome?  King Jesus comes to give you His victory over the grave!

The crowds who saw Jesus coming into Jerusalem cried, “Hosanna!” This wasn’t just praise for Him. It’s a cry that means, “Save us, we pray!” So that cry is still on our lips every week. Our King comes to us with His victory, His intercession, and the victorious host, and gives it all to us His Body and Blood. That continues to be our cry, “Hosanna!” and He answers us with His might!

He purchased and won you from sin, death, and the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy precious blood and innocent suffering and death.  He did all this so that you would belong to Him and live with Him and serve Him in His Kingdom.  In this life, that Kingdom may not look like much—it is sometimes hard and painful, take sacrifice, even cost you your life—but it is a Kingdom which endures beyond time, gives victory over death, and promises you eternal prosperity and blessing from God.

Behold, daughter of Zion, who are the faithful of God in this place, your King is coming to you, and God grant you to receive Him.  Amen!


[1] Lutheran Service Book, p 184

The Feast of All Saints (observed)

Readings: Revelation 7:2-19 | 1 John 3:1-3 | Matthew 5:1-12

Text: Revelation 7:2-19

Theme: The victory and salvation of the Church of all time belongs to the Lamb, which He has given to you.

I. Reading the Book of Revelation is kind of like diving into the Old Testament. It seems to be full of contradictions, scary judgments, and uncertainty about who belongs to God and who doesn’t.  Only occasionally are there some quotable parts that bring comfort…

Examples of seeming contradictions: The wickedness of man is great, so God destroys all except eight through the Flood.  God desires to bless the nations, and then he orders Joshua to exterminate them. He promises great things for Israel, but then sends them into slavery in Egypt, then later rebellion and exile. 

But neither the Old Testament, nor the Book of Revelation can be properly understood without God’s Son, Jesus Christ.  Just as the Old Testament is the story of God’s people—the patriarchs and Israel—Revelation is about the Church.

II. One of the reasons Revelation isn’t appealing is because it has a stark, honest view of the fallen world.  It’s like a horror movie that takes a level view of the evil so that you can see just how insidious and deadly it is. Unlike slasher movies or grotesque video games, it does not glorify the evil or cheer for how bad things can get.  Rather, Revelation shows the true nature of man’s wickedness, the devil’s contempt and murderous plans, and the only Power that can overthrow such worldwide corruption.

III. This section of Revelation gives us a view from above, the eternal picture of the Church, lest we be weighed down with the moments we endure right now.  It’s actually through the past history of God’s people, recorded in the Old Testament, that we understand the full significance of this vision.

a. The evil of this world (as uncontrollable as it seems to us) is held back at God’s command, just as it was when God sent the Flood (Job 38:11).  It is God who knows His own, and calls them out as an exceedingly great host, preserving them against the seemingly out-of-control forces of darkness.

b. The ranks of Israel recall the battle census of Numbers, where each tribe is accounted. But something is different here! Judah is at the head of the line.  The Lion of the Tribe of Judah has conquered as the Lamb standing even though it had been slain.

“Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” And…I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain…And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne” (Rev. 5:5-7)

c. Now that the Lamb has conquered in the fight, there is a great multitude—an exceeding army[1]—that no man can number. This is what the Lord indeed had sworn would be to Abraham (Gen. 15:5-6).

d. The great tribulation has played out from the time when enmity was set between the woman’s seed and that of the Serpent (Gen. 3:15), carried out by those who are of the devil.  It’s pictured in Daniel 12:1-3, rising again in the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD (Matt. 24:15-21), but reaching its apex in the time immediately before the return of Christ. It is not identified merely by intensity at a particular point in history, but from the Fall all the way until the final Judgment (Matt. 23:29-36).

e. Because of the Lamb’s victory, they stand in victor’s robes and bearing the palm branches of pilgrims (Lev. 23:40) and victors (1 Macc. 13:51). Not because they had the strength, but because the Lord fought for them (Exod. 14:14)

40 And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.” (Lev. 23:40)

The Jews entered it with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel.” (1 Macc. 13:51)

So their cry gives glory to God: “Salvation (security, safety) is by our God who sits on the throne and by the Lamb” 

f. They are before the throne of God and are serving Him day and night.  He who sits on the throne makes His dwelling among them 27 My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 28 Then the nations will know that I am the Lord who sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary is in their midst forevermore.” (Ezek 37:27-28, and John 1:14).  Theirs is the victory over God’s enemies—over sin, devil, and even death itself.  Hear the promises all rolled together here:

10They shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them.” (Isaiah 49:10)
6The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.” (Psalm 121:6)
8He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 25:8)

IV. From this eternal, heavenly perspective, we see what is true for us.  These words are already yours in Christ.

So what do you think of the Church?  If you were to just look with your eyes and measure by your human understanding, you would see defeat and scattering, division and failure.

No!  Look with the eyes of faith which God gives you, so that you may know that the Church is the weak and victorious.  Small and forlorn in ourselves.  Dead and dying to the world.  But in Christ—the Lion of Judah, the Lamb who has conquered His foes—we are God’s great host, beloved and holy, though we die yet shall we live.

Beloved of God, we are already part of that multitude, so take up the praise already, because it is yours to hold onto, even while we now dwell in the shadow of death.  That shadow will pass away when the true light comes.  In the Name of + Jesus.

Amen.


[1] In this context, ochlos can mean “a mass of soldiers” (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph.jsp?la=greek&l=O%29%2FXLOS#lexicon)

Reformation Sunday

Readings: Revelation 14:6-7 | Romans 3:19-28 | Matthew 11:12-19

Text: Matthew 11:12-19

Theme: The Reformation is about the natural beauty of hearing the Word of Christ in faith.

They’re on the side of your head, but they don’t often get much attention (unless something is wrong with them). But on this commemoration of the Reformation, let us focus on the human ear.

I. Different human ears:

a. The ear with the kind of piercings that would shock your grandmother. This is the Reformation understood as breaking away from the powers that be. Luther is the epitome of the “little guy” who stands up against the mighty and he triumphs. He is the German national hero who broke the chains of the Roman papacy and the Holy Roman Empire.

The “freedom” of the Reformation means that no one can stand in the way between me and God. This is the way I am, and God better accept me. No one can tell me how I am to worship, with all the anarchy that invites.

b. The ear with ear buds in. This is the freedom of the Reformation, to interpret the Bible on my own terms. You choose what comes in and cancel out any “noise.”  The Bible becomes a private, self-chosen book of belief. One of the sad outcomes was the magisterium was replaced with each individual Christian being his or her own “pope.” 

c. The ear with beautiful, tasteful gold earrings. Consider the impact of the Reformation on art. One can take pleasure in the music, visual arts, and architecture. J.S. Bach, one of the greatest musicians of the baroque period. Beautiful and colorful stained glass that glisten in the sun and fill the sanctuary with rich colors, depicting beautiful scenes. Grand sanctuaries that have beautiful chancels and high altars which fill one with awe. But while these all have pleasing aesthetics, if the focus is on the human achievement, the Gospel is missing.

This persists in our own day when church music is judged on the basis of how it makes you feel, more than what is being prayed or confessed in the words.

II. The ear, unadorned, unobstructed, in the beauty which God gave.

a. Our Lord says, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”  This is what the ear was made for: to receive the Word of God, and the heart to receive it in faith.

b. John & Elijah are evoked because they were instruments of the Lord directing His people back to the hearing of His Word in obedience and faith. Contrast Ahab and the Pharisee’s response to Elijah/John: “When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, ‘Is it you, you troubler of Israel?’” and “When all the people heard this, and the tax collectors too, they declared God just, having been baptized with the baptism of John, 30 but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.” (1 Kings 18:17; Luke 7:29-30)

c. The Reformation was about this: The beauty of hearing the Word of God in faith. True freedom is given by this, not breaking earthly bonds. True understanding is given by the Holy Spirit on God’s terms, that we may repent and believe in Jesus, clinging to Him through all. True beauty springs from this Gospel, not the other way around.

III. The necessity for ear care.

a. Lest it be clogged with wax. Discernment is good just as ear wax keeps out foreign objects, but an excess can cause hearing loss. Dr. David Scaer: “I hate Lutheranism!”  A few examples:

i. The idolizing of Martin Luther and imitating him and quoting him excessively.

ii. The devotion to all things labelled Lutheran tradition, as in “This is the way we’ve always done it and how dare you question if the tradition is edifying or the interpretation is faithful to Scripture.”

III. Finally, “I learned that once upon a time in Catechism, and now I never need to learn again.”

IV. Lest the ear be neglected and dirty.

a. Magnifying the freedom of the Gospel can lead to trivializing the Word of God and treating the holy as profane. We must watch out for this in an age where all kinds of other traditions are criticized (especially since Christianity is in a villainized category today). Here, we do well to look to our fathers and mothers in the faith, who revered the Word of God as holy, saw the benefit of piety, and handed these rich practices to us in our own fleeting age.

~ The Reformation reminds us how all things depend on the faithful hearing of God’s Word. This is His gift to sinners, that with ears that hear, we may rejoice with tongues that confess, throats that sing, and lives that profess His grace and riches given to us. May the Lord who opens deaf ears, clothes us with pure garments, and renews our hearts so bless us in this true faith. In the Name + of Jesus.

Amen.