Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany (Matthew 5:21-37)

Jesus cuts to the chase.  He doesn’t sugar coat His message to lure people in with fluffy words, only to hook them.  Right away, He gets to what His work is about by confronting us our failures by the Ten Commandments.

But He doesn’t quite follow the order given on Sinai (Exodus 20:1-20)—first our duty toward God, and then our duty to our neighbor.  He starts with the fifth, and He applies it in terms of the greatest amount of damage we can cause by breaking them.

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’” This was the very one committed by Cain when the world was newly infected with sin.  But the murder of Abel didn’t just come out of nowhere. As James says, “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” (James 1:14-15)  Jealousy over Abel’s offering sprouted into hatred for his brother, and blossomed into Cain raising his hand against him.

The commandment forbids more than ending someone’s life.  It always begins with a devaluing of the other person and a justification for wrath.  That anger could be well-deserved (being cheated out of money, betrayed by family, etc.)  Yet in our anger, we rise up to the position of God and execute judgment: First of the person (“You fool!”) and then carry out sentence (“You must die!”)  Now, it doesn’t always get to the severity of shedding blood, but it is the same root sin in the heart. And this should scare us, that we have this vile potential within us—that we would remove the dignity given by God to other human beings.  It should also humble us because that very person we would write off as an idiot, God valued them so much that He gave the price of His only Son’s blood to save them.

Next, Jesus addresses sins against our nearest neighbor—our spouse (or future spouse): “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” This is about breaking or cheapening the one-flesh union.  If you thought it was just about deed, then there are plenty of couples who have stayed faithful for years.  But the Sixth Commandment includes breaking that union in the heart.

If you think Jesus isn’t wise to our modern technology, you’d be dead wrong.  More than ever, this application of the sixth commandment is relevant because of the prevalence of pornography.  Several surveys document how rampant this is in a digital age where provocative images can be subtly viewed on handheld screens.  Many people talk about porn in terms of addiction, but Jesus doesn’t give that latitude. He says very clearly that every instance of being enticed by someone who is not your wife or husband is indeed adultery.  And despite the excuses we make, the damage caused by inviting erotic content into our lives or our marriage does real damage to our spouse.

Certainly, it can destroy you on a psychological and emotional level, because men objectify women’s bodies and women dream of the man who can satisfy them in ways their husband cannot.  But it’s even worse for the Christian who indulges in this private adultery because of the damage it does to their soul. Their conscience is at odds with the Word of God. The weak and wicked flesh tries to justify itself, tries to make excuses.  And the danger is real: if you are lured into living by the flesh, you will fall under the condemnation, “neither the sexually immoral…will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10). 

Just as not all anger leads to murder, not all adultery of the heart leads to divorce, but the immorality is all too real.  The one-flesh bond which God made man and woman for is tugged at and—if left unchecked—rent asunder. ““It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”  Here is another place where our modern way of thinking is at odds with God’s ways.  Whether we are looking for loopholes to get rid of a troublesome spouse, or trying to quiet our conscience after the papers are signed, we can’t deny God’s intent for marriage: That He desires husband and wife to live in lifelong commitment, loving and honoring each other.  Divorce is the consequence of our hardness of heart—his and hers. And here even the “innocent” party can come guilty of adultery.

The Lord chose these sins to open up His preaching because they are the ones which have the most collateral damage.  Their consequences can be felt. Some can’t be taken back. Others take years to rebuild trust. These are the things which hold our sins up before our eyes, and we cannot make excuses for ourselves.  We can’t pay God back for what we’ve done.

Where does that leave us?  All of us are found to be sinners, and we’ve been all-too comfortable with that.  We have zero merit to bring to God, but as we are emptied of our own righteousness, our faith brings us to the Lord.

At the beginning of service, we confessed that in two verses from the Psalms:

“Our help is in the Name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” (Ps. 124:8) and

“I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord, and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.” (Ps. 32:5)

Where is our help?  Not in what a good job or terrible job of obeying we’ve done, or keeping ourselves free from public shame.  It’s not in getting it right next time. Our help is in the Name of the Lord—in who He is as the Savior of sinners.  That is the Name which He put on you in your Baptism. He puts His Name on sinners, making enemies and wicked people into children of God.  What could possibly make up for the sins which we’ve done? Only the blood of Christ can pay so high a price to God. Only being crucified with Christ can free our conscience from the guilt we bear.  Only being raised with Him to newness of life and the help of the Holy Spirit can transform our desires away from dead works, into love for God and love for our neighbor.

“I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.”  Jesus puts real healing in confessing your sins.  Not just in the privacy of your own heart. After all, you can see where privacy can lead you in gross sins and excuses for them.  He’s talking about confessing your sins to another Christian. Three places in the Gospels, Jesus attaches this promise to confessing your sins to another, usually your pastor: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound on heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” and “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven him” (Matt. 16:19, 18:18; John 20:21-23)  This isn’t about power on the part of any man; it’s about you speaking the truth of your sin, exposing yourself before the Lord, and hearing His words of grace and peace. Truth be told, we’re more nervous about exposing our wickedness to another person, and we’d rather “deal with it” ourselves.  But the Lord knows this, and also knows what we need to truly heal our souls and bodies.

For several months, I’ve put it in the bulletin that private confession and absolution is available, but I want to show you what exactly it is.  Turn to page 292 in the hymnal. There are several suggestions for preparing your heart to make the most out of it—reading the Ten Commandments, praying penitential psalms.  It’s not that these make the forgiveness any more or less effective, but they sharpen the focus of what this is about and who God is for you. Then, you see a dialog between you and the pastor, along with a general confession.  Then, there’s a space where you may (and please do take advantage of this) verbalize your sins.  Then, without excuse for them, you simply say, “I am sorry for all this and I ask for grace. I want to do better.”

Then comes the best part, the unexpected part, because if you exposed yourself any other place in life, you would be looked at differently and possibly ostracized.  But before the Lord and His minister, you hear, “God be merciful to you and strengthen your faith.” Can you believe this?! Then you hear a forgiveness that’s better than another person can give; it’s the Lord’s forgiveness—talking directly to you, who have just laid it all out there knowing that you only deserve temporal death and eternal punishment.  And He has forgiven you! Alleluia! Praise the Lord! So, consider this your personal invitation to call me and set up a time for confession, so you can have the Lord’s help to turn from your sin and grow in faith.

What this teaching of Jesus also shows us is that the Church and this congregation need to be a place where we’re not surprised to see ourselves and others as sinners with broken lives.  Your pastor doesn’t talk down to you; these words of Jesus hit home. I also don’t avail myself of confession as often as I need to. Life gets in the way and I make excuses.

Here in this place, what unites us is our common help in the Name of the Lord, so we support each other, looking not for how trouble-free our lives and others’ should be, but how Jesus, who saves us from our sins, is at work to restore fellowship with God and healing from our past (or present).  We’re here to support one another in the aftermath of sins we can’t erase from our past—murders, adulteries, divorces, oath-breaking—but we know that the Lord has taken the record of debt that stood against us and nailed it to Jesus’ cross. So, with the help of God and His power to bring good out of evil, we care for each other and bind up each other’s wounds.

Just as Jesus knows how real our sins are, may we all also know how real a Savior He is for us. Amen.

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (Matthew 5:13-20)

There are two errors that we can fall into with good works:

One error is that we can prove to God and others by our actions that we are good.  The proof that we are right with God is that we are busy doing the things God apparently wants.  This happens in many Christian churches that don’t understand the connection between the Sacraments and God’s election of people to salvation.  Every day is the pressure to prove to yourself and others that you are part of the elect because you are busy doing so much for the Kingdom.

The other error happens when we react to that and say that “saved by grace” is a pass to do nothing. Thinking we can be “good with God” and not worry about doing what’s important to Him.  This is the error the Book of James addresses in very clear terms: 14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead…24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:14-17, 24)

The Church has wrestled the topic of works that are pleasing in God’s sight since before Jesus even spoke these words in the Gospel:

13 “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. 

14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. 

But a little later Jesus tells us, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of God.”  How can we avoid thinking our good works contribute to our salvation?  Martin Luther made a helpful distinction called “two kinds of righteousness.”  That is, the righteousness before God—the one which saves us from sin, death, and hell—is received as a gift.  “This is an infinite righteousness, and one that swallows up all sins in a moment, for it is impossible that sin should exist in Christ.”  The other kind of righteousness is the good works that are done on earth, and those most definitely need to be active, yet it never exists without the first: “This righteousness goes on to complete the first for it ever strives to do away with the old Adam and to destroy the body of sin. Therefore it hates itself and loves its neighbor; it does not seek its own good, but that of another, and in this its whole way of living consists.”

Another way to look at this is to determine where good works come from.  Do they come from you, or is it the result of God’s work in you? It’s very easy for us to think of the things we do as Christians as our choices, our labor, our words.  After all, the work is done by us, so why wouldn’t there be an element of personal credit in it?  

This is where the Epistle reading is helpful, because it makes clear that following Christ and belonging to the Christian religion is not the work of our hands:

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)

When Paul preached to the Corinthians, it wasn’t a motivational speech.  He wasn’t revving them up to live their best life now, and he didn’t sway anyone with his perfect actions or white smile.  If he had, then there would have been a church of Paul. Rather, Paul was serving Christ, the risen-and-yet-unseen Lord of All.  They believed not because he preached a message that “made enough sense” but as a demonstration of God’s power in our hearts. If it were a message that “made sense” more people should accept it, but it’s a message that confesses that we are of no account before God.  Our choices cannot save us. Our works apart from faith are nothing but “filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64:6 NKJV)

Because the foundation of why we’re Christians is not our work, neither is what we do as new creations in Christ  As soon as living a Christian life becomes a kind of self-help routine, you might as well leave God out of the picture.  You don’t need Him. He just left us instructions on how to be good and now we can plow forward. And you can see where that leaves the Church..  The groups that have left God and His Word in the dust are the ones which have nothing but good-looking works to cling to. It’s the church bodies that bend God’s word that stress social gospel the most, and all they can pat each other on the back that they agree this is what they ought to be doing.  

Just as we don’t receive credit for becoming Christians, neither do we receive credit for remaining in this Christian Church.  This is the Holy Spirit’s work. In the Old Testament reading from Isaiah 58, the Lord rebukes His people because while their outward works are many, it has become a godless exercise in patting themselves on the back.

“‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’ Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord?” (Isaiah 58:3-5)

When we try to take our Christianity and mold it into our own exercise, then we immediately run into problems. If Christianity is a human invention, then why didn’t people think of it sooner?  What makes Christianity better than Buddhism or Mormonism? Both of those seem to be a good set of rules for “right” living. And if it were just a matter of getting God’s attention with our works, they’d be a good effort.  But those good works which truly please God are His work through us.

I often wonder what God is calling our congregation to, because of what I see other churches doing: hosting a soup kitchen, a clothing bank, giving out gas vouchers.  It gives me the feeling that we’re not “doing enough” not being busy in what the Lord’s task is for all of us who gather around this altar.

But it would be wrong to label us as unfruitful Christians because our works are not something we can show to others.  The fruits are there, because the Word is there and clung to.  The Sacraments are there and believed in for our benefit.  The fruits may not be something passers-by will see and praise us for, but what does Jesus say about our works? “Beware of practicing your righteousness before others in order to be seen by them…and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matt. 6:1-4)

The works that I’m privileged to see as your pastor are happening all the time—in families that pray together and teach their children the catechism, who bring themselves and their children to church in spite of hectic schedules when it would be easier to stay home, in sharing their faith with family members and inviting them to hear the Word of eternal life (John 6:68). In coming to Bible studies and desiring to deepen their understanding.

Works are happening in acts of generosity shared with those you meet in need, being generous with the earthly abundance God has given.  Prayers ascend abundantly for one another. It’s a beautiful thing to see brothers and sisters showing love and compassion—even toward those who haven’t been able to worship among us because of long-term illness.

But is it these works that will make us right with God?  Of course not. These are works that come from God making us salt and light—people who both preserve the world by God’s work through us, and who guide others out of darkness (like the lighthouse on the cover).  The confidence that we are in Christ and do good works, is that His Word is preached among us and He promises that His Word will not return to Him void. The one who preaches is not just talking into the air, but God takes that Word and changes your hearts.  He makes stronger, more loving, sanctified people out of each of us.

Is there more we can do? Yes, of course, and it’s right for us to pursue that.  Is there some way we can better serve Lebanon and the surrounding area? God grant that we’re open to His guidance!  Can we grow more in His Word, so that we are equipped to serve our neighbors better? Yes, there are plenty of opportunities.  And where we fail, we come back to that perfect righteousness of Christ, which alone has made us right with God and heirs of His Kingdom.  As Jesus says, He makes us to be the salt of the earth and light of the world. So it is our prayer that His will is done among us, and we gladly follow where He leads.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, look with favor upon each of us in our vocation—pastor and hearer, citizens, husbands and wives, parents and children, and workers. Give us wisdom, courage, and patience to serve in sacrificial love, and strengthen us each in our callings. And as You have blessed us with various and unique gifts. Grant us the grace and wisdom to use these gifts always to Your honor and glory; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. 

Purification of Mary and Presentation of Our Lord (Luke 2:22-32)

The Gnostics of the first century imported many strange ideas into the Christian Church.  Named after their chief aim: knowledge/gnosis, they believed the story of salvation was that the stuff of this world was evil and foreign.  Our true selves were meant to dwell in spiritual forms. They taught that Jesus came to impart this hidden gnosis to free us from the bonds of evil, creaturely life.  The Gnostics are the ones being described by the Apostle John, 1 John 2:19-20: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.  But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you know all things.”  They separated themselves from the rest of the church because they came to believe they were more gifted than other believers, and they didn’t need to occupy themselves with lowly earthly things like worshipping together in a building, continuing the learn from words preached by a mere man, and eating and drinking body and blood which—in their view—Christ had shunned.

This disdain for earthly things is a perennial problem that the Christian Church wrestles with.  In the law of Moses, God commanded a temple, an altar, sacrifices, priests, and the like. You couldn’t claim to be worshipping God without honoring these institutions.  In fact, by Jesus’ time, this had become a point of contention between Jews and their northern Samaritan relatives. We catch it in Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well:

[The woman said,] 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father…the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:20-24)

What Jesus seems to be saying is that the hour is here where earthly things like locations

and temples don’t matter, because God is spirit.  Another group around the time of the Reformation latched onto this idea.  They were called the Enthusiasts.  They reacted so strongly against the Roman claim that the church was only where the pope, bishops, and cathedrals were, that they said God touched people directly, without means.  Their proof text was good example of why you should never accept a verse out of context: “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing.” (John 6:63)

But is this really true?  Jesus is being presented in the temple, fulfilling the law of the Lord.  If Jesus truly were above these things, wouldn’t he be telling people to forget about all that obsolete stuff and go find Him out on the hillside?  But no, we find Him here in the Temple today, and later teaching in the synagogue and Temple. Actually by Mary and Jesus coming to the Temple, this confirms that everything God commanded under Moses had a purpose—the pair of turtledoves, the temple, the altar, the priesthood—and most of all the 40-day old Child who first opened Mary’s womb.  These things were all ordained by God to accomplish His purpose.  

Devout Simeon declares that he has seen God’s salvation when he holds the infant Jesus.  The Holy Spirit led Simeon to the Temple and that is where he found the peace to depart this life.  

Today the errors of Gnosticism and Enthusiasm are still a temptation.  Whether it was someone who said, “You can’t put God in a box” or it was an excuse you came up with, it’s not a good thing when we despise the institutions God has given and invent our own worship.

The most widespread one is telling yourself you can be a Christian, yet never or rarely worship with other Christians.  “I don’t need to come to church to be forgiven.” “Life is really busy…but I pray.” Once the devil gets ahold of someone with lies like this, not even the pastor can help, because then he’s thought to be self-serving  It wasn’t a pastor or pope who gave the Third Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”  It was the Lord who gave this command for your spiritual good.  You can’t have spiritual wellbeing without stopping your work and resting in His.  You wouldn’t go weeks or months without eating, but God is patient with us when we overlook that “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every Word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matt. 4:4)

Another example is the practice of infant dedication.  They point to the example of Samuel being “lent to the Lord” (in the Old Testament lesson, 1 Sam. 1:21-28).  A big deal is made out of the parent’s promise to raise their child in a Christian home—which, don’t get me wrong—is a beautiful thing.  But dedication replaces the rock-solid promise and dedication that Christ gives in Holy Baptism. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit””Repent and be baptized, every one of you…this promise is for you and for your children”…[it is a] “circumcision  made without hands” (Matthew 28:19, Acts 2:38-39, Colossians 2:11-12).  Call it an ordinance if you must, but by all means believe that it has power to do what the Lord promises.

These earthly things God gives for our good, because they are rich with His promises and have His saving, consoling, and strengthening power.  We’re acting foolish when we put our own reason above the Lord’s wisdom. But we are here, in the midst of these gifts today. We have stopped what we do with the rest of the week, and that’s good because here the Lord gives His peace.  Here, you are brought back to your Baptism, where your doubts, your failings, your being wise in your own eyes, and all your sins, were nailed to Jesus’ cross, and where you were raised with Him to new life.

And here, you share with Simeon in the blessing of the bodily presence of your Lord.  Because it’s here that the Lord is among us, gathered in His Name. It’s here on the altar where bread and wine have been prepared, that the Lord gives us His own Body and Blood.  The power isn’t in how noble the building or altar are, whether it’s in a glass or a chalice, what kind of bread or wine. The power is in His Word: “Take eat, this is My Body, given for you…Take drink, this is My Blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”  And because we trust His Word, we acknowledge what the Holy Spirit put on the lips of Simeon:

29  “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, 

according to your word; 

30  for my eyes have seen your salvation 

31  that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 

32  a light for revelation to the Gentiles, 

and for glory to your people Israel.” 

Not only have our ears heard, but our eyes have seen it in the earthly things to which God has located His salvation.  Thanks be to God! Amen.

Second Sunday after the Epiphany (John 1:29-42a)

Every year in January, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is a chance for manufacturers to tout their latest innovations, upgrades in the most attractive way.  This year’s convention had everything from a foldable tablet to a spoof toilet paper robot by Charmin. But every year the theme is celebrating the new and leaving the old in the dustbin.

For people, there’s something attractive about the new, because interlaced with it is a hope in something ultimate.  Now we can say we’ve finally arrived! This is it! Everything before it was working toward this but now we’re here!

What John the Baptist proclaimed on the banks of the Jordan was truly something new: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

It started with Adam.  Sin arrived with the disobedience of our first parents, the human will turned against its Creator.  This was new, but it was in no way good. Behold, the man who brought sin into the world.

God did something new with Adam’s descendant, Abraham, as He called him to offer up his son Isaac on Mount Moriah.  As they climbed the mountain, Isaac wondered where the sacrifice was. Abraham replied, “God will provide the lamb.” (Genesis 22:8)  And just before he raised his knife to slaughter Isaac, the Lord showed Abraham that lamb he would provide was not Isaac but a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. Behold, the lamb who saves your son from death!

God was doing something new when He chose the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to be His holy people, set apart by Him.  And this too was marked by a lamb, whose blood saved the children of Israel—specifically it saved their firstborn sons from death.

But God was not content to only save one son, one family, or one nation of the earth.  So, what John says on the Jordan shows God’s true intent: to take away sin and death from all the sons of Adam: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes way the sin of the world.”

And we learn about this from both Abraham and the Passover lambs.

From Abraham, we learn that there is a distinction among the sons of Adam—those who believe the Word God speaks, and those who reject it.  Abraham “believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” (Gen. 15:6)  Paul would later say the true offspring of Abraham are not those of blood descent, but those who share in the faith of Abraham. (Galatians 3:25-29)

From both Abraham and Passover, we learn that sin cannot be taken away without a death.  Not just any death will do, but a firstborn son and a spotless lamb—a firstborn son and a lamb which God Himself will provide.  It is the blood of this son and lamb whose blood covers sinners, who dies in their place that they might be set free.

Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world—who takes away sin for all who hold to the words and promises of God!  Look with the eyes of faith upon the Lamb, who has taken your sins away!

God has done something new, something better than ever before in a salvation that is for everyone who believes.  This is the blessed truth we take rest in today: That God’s Lamb, God’s Son, has given His life for us, and now to us.  The Jews ate of a lamb, drained of its blood which painted the doorposts, but what the Lord has done for us is give us His Son.  “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed,” Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” (1 Cor. 5:7-8)  Cleansing out not yeast from our houses, but desiring to be free from the malice and evil of our hearts, we come to the altar, singing to the Lamb of God to have mercy on us.  And He does. He gives us His Body and Blood to eat and drink, and the faith of Abraham receives in it forgiveness, life, and salvation.

Yet even with a new song in our hearts [Ps. 40:3], this is not the ultimate; it’s close but not at its final destination.  The words of John must continue going out until it has reached everyone who will believe. So news of the Lamb of God goes out on a preacher’s lips, as he says to the contrite heart, God’s Lamb, Jesus Christ has taken your sins away. You shall not die. Depart in peace.  We hear those words again and again as we wrestle with what we inherited from birth and the sins we’ve added.

And we know that grace and peace isn’t just for our own salvation.  It’s for our children, for our siblings and cousins, for our friends.  And so we tell others, as it happened with Andrew:

“The two disciples heard [John] say this, and they followed Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, “What are you seeking?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and you will see.” So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus.”

Andrew told his brother, Peter, who later would became the leader of the apostles.  But what was it that led Peter to respond to the news, “We have found the Messiah”?  That wasn’t Andrew’s concern; it was God’s, who is the One who not only desires Peter’s salvation but also has the power to create faith in him.

What holds us back from telling others about Jesus, God’s Lamb?  We can make excuses like we’re shy, or we’re not good at talking (ask Moses about that, Exod. 4:10-12).  But it really doesn’t depend on us! It depends on God, who loves both you and them so much that He didn’t stop with Abraham, Isaac, or Israel.  His blood was shed to free them from the chains of sin, pay for the guilt which weighs heavy on their soul, and fill them with immortal peace! What will be the right thing to say to them?  When will be the right opportunity? No amount of worry or cleverness on our part will make such an encounter more likely to succeed. These are things God will decide and plan, just as He did from the day Andrew and Peter to the events which led to you sitting here worshipping the Lamb today.

This is the wonderful work of God, the new and saving work, which is complete in heaven and yet continues on earth.  And we joyfully follow Jesus, God’s Lamb, as we anticipate the eternal kingdom He has prepared for us. Amen.

Baptism of Our Lord (Matthew 3:13-17)

Among the many mysteries of Christmas is that God was born.  This was something that many—trying to use their reason—couldn’t wrap their heads around.  God fully embraced our human nature in Jesus Christ: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we have seen His glory” (John 1:14).

Another is that God revealed this great news of salvation to the lowest of the earth—unknown Mary and Joseph, descendants of David but nowhere near the class of royalty.  Then it was first announced to shepherds keeping watch over the flocks, not kings or prophets. As His ministry grew, it was not received by the well-to-do religious people of pedigree, but by tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners (Matt. 21:31-32).

Standing among those mysteries that is offensive to our human nature is that God, who became flesh and associated with sinners, was ministered to by men, by human hands.

John would have prevented Christ from receiving a baptism for sinners.  What is this?! Surely there must be a mistake that God’s Messiah needs to receive a sinner’s baptism?  “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  John has been sent to “prepare the way of the Lord” and “make His paths straight” (Isaiah 40).  But is that to include baptizing the sinless, holy Lord Himself?

Now, this isn’t the first time that the holy Son of God was cared for by human hands.  Just last week we heard of the flight to Egypt: It was Joseph and Mary’s hands which carried Him to Egypt.  It was Mary’s breast at which God’s Son nursed. Later in His ministry, Luke 8 tells us many women, including Mary Magdalene, among others, provided for Him out of their means (Luke 8:2-3).  Our reason says this is far too earthy for God to be born, to be weak, to depend on human care.

But God doesn’t say this.  God says, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”  It is part of His eternally wise plan to stand in the Jordan with sinners, to humble Himself and make Himself one of us.

God did amazing things by the hand of John.  God had said through the prophet, “Prepare my way before Me,” but who imagined that it would look like this!  John’s feeble hand—subsisting on locusts and wild honey—would bring Jesus down into the water and out again.  With this simple act, God displayed the sign of all signs: “Behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’”

The Son of God, even though He is almighty in power, made Himself weak to accomplish our salvation—all righteousness.  But again, it comes down to the judgment of man versus that of God. Man thinks that righteousness depends on something we can do to “do our part.”  But fulfilling all righteousness is completely a gift. Let it be so now, because this is gaining for sinners exactly the kind of salvation they need: One that doesn’t depend on their contributions in the least.

Rather, it’s a righteousness for all these unrighteous gathered here—the prostitutes, the tax collectors, all who are waiting for God’s consolation.  It’s a righteousness to cover your unrighteousness. Your filthy, hateful intents and desires; your words both scathing and callous; what you’ve done and what you have left undone and made excuses for.  God has seen it all. This is the fitting way to bring righteousness to you: for the Son of God to be baptized into your sin, so that you can be baptized into His righteousness.

But it wasn’t finished that day with John’s baptism, and neither was God done using people to fulfill His saving plan.  Soon enough, the hour came where human hands carried out the wrath of God against sin—your sin—the soldiers seized and bound Him, they blindfolded and slapped Him and spit in His face, the clothed Him in a purple robe and then struck Him on the head, and finally as the soldier’s hands pounded the nails into his hands and feet and hoisted Him into the air.  Just hours later, human hands took His lifeless body down from the cross and laid Him into a tomb.

Then, it was complete—God had used these people for His saving purpose.  On the Third Day, Jesus rose from the dead and on the fortieth day ascended into heaven—His hands extended in blessing upon His Church (Luke 24:50-53).

Now let’s return to the marvels that God does through humble instruments.  We’ve heard about the people in the immediate life of Jesus. But what can we do to be doing God’s work today?

I’ll name the most contrary-to-reason work first: prayer.  If you want to do something important in God’s kingdom, put your own hands together and call on the Lord.  Truth be told, we often neglect prayer and think little of its ability to turn a hopeless situation around.  We confuse thinking and worrying about a person with prayer, but it’s really a different thing. Circling around the small orbit of our understanding can do very little.  And maybe that’s where part of the confusion lies, in our ability to affect things versus God’s. If we’re merely worrying, it’s because we are nearly helpless to make anything better.  But if our hands are asking and open to the Lord to take over, that’s where we will be amazed. That’s where, after calling on Him in the day of trouble, we will glorify Him for His deliverance (Ps. 50:15).

And that’s not all that God does through us.  He works through each of us in serving our neighbor—doing His will in our families, our community, as citizens.  Now when we’re doing God’s work, sometimes the things we do make a great impact—as if the heavens were opened and everything changed that moment—like when you have just the right words to save someone’s life.  Those are nice, and we really like to see our actions make a big impact. But that’s not always going to be how it goes.

More often than not, the work is long and hard, and the reward is seen much later or maybe kept as a surprise in eternity.  Like raising children to believe in and follow Jesus, it takes years of care and attention. Like being a friend to someone who’s a religious skeptic, it’s wondering if you’re getting through.  Or like praying for God to get through to a drug addict, you see his many foolish decisions and backsliding and might even lose hope that he could ever change. Yet even in these, God is working through you—your prayers, words, and actions.

This is the God in Whom we believe, who is able to do all things, and who does holy and awesome things on earth as it is in heaven.  And the confidence we have before Him comes through His birth among us, His Baptism in the Jordan, His death and resurrection, and our being baptized into Him.  And our Baptism is just one more example of God’s work among us—not putting our confidence in the man who did it, but in the Word of God, which says: “All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

Second Sunday after Christmas (Luke 2:40-52)

Some eighteen years later, Jesus would sit up on a mountain and say:

31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. 

34 “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. 

True as those words are, we often have a hard time living by them.  Worries about food, clothing, and tomorrow (and more) are a constant companion.  Try as we may, living in complete faith remains out of reach.

This was true even for the parents of Jesus.  Contrary to what we may guess it would be like to have a sinless child in the house, there was no shortage of trouble from the sinful people living around Him.  The Gospel tells us about one time in particular when Jesus’ family went up to Jerusalem for the yearly Passover feast. Twelve years after the events we celebrated at Christmas, this was a well-established pattern for their family.

But then something happens which is the nightmare of any parent—their child has gone missing.  On top of Mary and Joseph’s parental worry, there’s what the Shepherds, the Magi, Simeon, and Anna have said about this boy Jesus.  He’s the Son of God, holy, worshipped, and the consolation of Israel…AND NOW HE’S GONE MISSING!

Imagine their distress as they look all over the place for Jesus.  They’re already a day’s journey out, perhaps spending the rest of the day looking for them among the thousands of other northbound pilgrims.  Then they spend another day going back to Jerusalem, and searching around for their son. Finally, it says after three days they found him in the Temple.

And when they find Him, what His mother says is smoothed over by the English translation.  Among the emotions she’s overwhelmed by, scenarios of him being torn by a wild beast, trafficked into slavery, and countless other possibilities—but then to find out that he wandered off of his own volition!  A mixture of relief, exhaustion, hurt, and anger are all behind her words (translated literally):

“Child!  What have you done to us?!  Look! Your father and I have suffered as we searched for you!” (v. 48)

And with words that would be flippant on anyone else’s lips, Jesus replies: “Why were you seeking me? Didn’t you know [implied, you ought to] that it is necessary that I be about my Father’s business?” (my translation)  Apparently worrying your parents half to death isn’t breaking the 4th Commandment, otherwise Jesus would be guilty of sin. (Kids, don’t ever try this at home!)

But with this debut in the Temple is complete, Jesus submits to His human parents, goes home and Mary, by the grace of God and the patience and self-control of the Holy Spirit, “treasured up all these things in her heart.”

Now, how are we to treasure up all these things in our hearts?  Will we ever come to a day when we don’t become anxious about what happens in this life?

In the Old Testament lesson, we heard about Solomon’s request of God:

O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of your people whom you have chosen, a great people… Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?” (1 Kings 3:7-9)

Solomon asks God for an understanding mind for the task that he is given.  God answered his prayer and gave him wisdom renowned all over the inhabited world. He wanted for nothing all of his life.  Yet even this didn’t spare him from the trouble of his sins, and the way that impacted his family.

But that understanding mind is a model for us, who believe in Him who is greater than Solomon (Matt. 12:42).   The proverb of Solomon teaches us, “The fear of the Lord is beginning of all wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” (Prov. 9:10) This is the wisdom which the Holy Spirit teaches us each day of our troubled lives.  It’s the wisdom which soothes our pain and gives us endurance as we suffer. We hope that knowing what God’s plan is would make our calamities an easier pill to swallow, but that’s an empty hope.  Rather, the wise and understanding heart God gives is one that fears, loves, and trust in Him in every circumstance, no matter how our timid hearts and minds tremble.

But that’s not all God gives us to treasure in our hearts.  In Ephesians 1, St. Paul explains an amazing mystery that God’s children are made wise to: “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.” (Eph. 1:4-7) God from eternity has arranged for our adoption as His children.  From eternity, in spite of the failings of our parents, the disasters that have struck our lives, the swirling events of history, our own broken path—God has worked all of them for this purpose: That you are chosen and redeemed, a child of God through faith in Jesus, an heir of eternal life.  

That’s what the quote in the bulletin on Predestination and Eternal Election is getting at: Our God, our Savior and Redeemer, has chosen us from before the foundation of the world.  So when the worst happens to us here in time—deadly illness, losing a child, a car accident, rape, bankruptcy—your Father “in His counsel…determined and decreed that He would assist us in all distresses. He determined to grant patience, give consolation, nourish and encourage hope, and produce an outcome for us that would contribute to our salvation.” (FC SD XI 48)

Mary and Joseph suffered greatly because they worried for Jesus.  Yet, this is He whom the angels guarded when Joseph was warned to flee from Herod or to move to Nazareth.  Not that this doesn’t mean we will suffer, but we have the very same angels on our side, so that we may be confident, “Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place—the Most High, who is my refuge—no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” (Psalm 91:9-12).  The same host of heaven guard you and yours.

Rest assured, beloved of the Lord, even though your confidence and sense of peace ebbs and flows, your Lord does not.  His Word to you endures forever, and nothing in all of creation can overrule His fatherly care for you in Jesus Christ. It was necessary that day for Jesus to remain safely on His path, so that your adoption by grace into His family might be sure.  Thanks be to God forever. Amen!

First Sunday after Christmas (Matthew 2:13-23)

On Christmas Day, the Holy Evangelist John said to us, “He came to his own, and his own did not receive him.”  This didn’t start once Jesus began to preach and teach; it began that silent, holy night in Bethlehem.  When the magi arrived in the capital of Israel, it wasn’t just Herod who was troubled by their seeking a King it was also “all Jerusalem with him.”

The magi had the Wisdom which came to them when Israel was carried into exile.  The Hebrews brought their Scriptures with them, and translated them into Aramaic, called the Targums.  In them, the Persians took Balaam’s final oracle to heart: “A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.”  But it seems they didn’t have Micah’s prophecy (even though he was a contemporary of Isaiah and predated the Exile).  For those in Jerusalem, it was a well-known answer. The chief priests and scribes tell them that they will find the King “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: 

 ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, 

      are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; 

                  for from you shall come a ruler 

      who will shepherd my people Israel.’ ”

Yet, even though they are quick to answer, none of them follow the Magi to Bethlehem.  They are troubled rather than joyful, with their eyes fixed on earth and despising the newly-risen Star.

The magi worship the King of Israel with sincere hearts, but are warned of Herod’s deceit.  He has no intention to worship the infant King. Mad Herod would rather take care of Jesus the way he did his own family—by killing him.  After the magi don’t return, Herod’s full rage is unleashed upon the boys of Bethlehem. In an act of violence unparalleled in its day, Herod slaughters every boy two years old and under.  And all Jerusalem and the chief priests and scribes silently consent to his extermination.

The boys in Bethlehem give up their lives while their brother, the Incarnate Deity, sneaks off in the night, safely borne to Egypt.  What kind of god is He that this should happen? Where is the peace on earth which the angels proclaimed? Could this be what God’s favor looks like?

The answer is not satisfying to our reason, which constantly demands God justify Himself to us.  It is as the prophet said,

8For my thoughts are not your thoughts, 

neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. 

9For as the heavens are higher than the earth, 

so are my ways higher than your ways 

and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

The answer is satisfying to the heart of faith.  But, do we claim to understand God’s thoughts and ways?  If we claim to have sounded those depths, then we are smarter than St. Paul, who cried out,

33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 

34  “For who has known the mind of the Lord, 

or who has been his counselor?” 

35  “Or who has given a gift to him 

that he might be repaid?” 

The only god we can understand and make sense of is an idol.  If we say, “I would not worship a god who would do this,” then we will surely perish.  Repent.  We cannot judge God and we are in no position to speculate about His motives or what He would or wouldn’t do.

God has given us His Word.  That is where He makes His thoughts and ways known to us.  We can go nowhere else but His Word. If we do, as Luther said, all we will find is the “old devil and old snake.”  In God’s Holy Word, He tells us that the slaughter in Bethlehem took place “to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’”

That, God tells us, is His purpose, and it is good. Herod’s soldiers came and slaughtered the sons without any resistance, the mothers wept and refused to be comforted.  All this so that the Son of God would escape in safety until Herod’s death.

The Lamb of God must go to the slaughter, but not until the appointed hour.  As an infant, He answers Herod the Great the same way He will answer Caiaphas, Pontius Pilate, and Herod’s son—with silence and humility.  He does submit to their violent intentions, but only according to His own will—“No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”  He is Almighty God veiled in human flesh.  He upholds the universe by the Word of His power, and Herod’s plans are no exception.

His plan is to rescue all of mankind by His rejection, suffering, and death and “for it cannot be that [this] prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.”  And it will be so when all things are fulfilled.  It is not that He is ever too weak to save the boys (or any other person from tragedy), but it is not His holy will.  Instead, these boys have what Job prayed for: they are spared a life of suffering.  Their hearts will never bear the full weight of grief and they will never outlive their children.

They are the first New Testament martyrs.  They die in order that Jesus might escape and return to die for them. Jesus’ martyrdom is that which liberates and gives eternal hope to them.  It is Jesus’ life which was given in exchange for theirs. It seems as though they “are no more,” but in truth they live.  The promise of Abraham, of an everlasting inheritance is finally theirs.  Herod, in his seeking to destroy the Seed of Abraham, actually delivers these boys into their eternal home.  They lose their earthly lives and in turn receive the fullness of peace and joy which the angels announced. By their death, these little ones praise their God and Savior.  Their lives are brought to nothing and filled with Christ.

So it must be for each of us.  “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  We too must become like the children of Bethlehem—emptied of self and filled with Him.  He lived His life for us, He died His death for us, and He rose from the dead for us. Therefore we each press on so that those may be ours in full.  This is our inheritance: That we ourselves die and that in Christ Jesus we live. Here, by faith, there by sight. It is God’s good and gracious will to slay us that we may live.  “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.”  How frightful a thought if we are His enemies, but He calls us sons.

Because Jesus was not among those slain boys, it is we who are called out of Egypt as sons.  We are delivered from slavery to sin and the despair of death. Instead of sin, we receive His righteousness.  Instead of death, He brings us into His victory over the grave. Thus another word of the prophet Jeremiah is fulfilled: “I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for peace and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

Then, He brings us to the prophecy cited in the Gospel: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”  But hear what the prophet goes on to say:

16  Thus says the Lord: 

“Keep your voice from weeping, 

and your eyes from tears, 

for there is a reward for your work, 

declares the Lord, 

and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. 

17  There is hope for your future, 

declares the Lord, 

and your children shall come back to their own country.

The boys of Bethlehem are not forsaken, and they are far from being “no more.”  Their mothers, who mourned in this life, found comfort in the death of Mary’s Son, whose death and resurrection, gave both them and their sons a future hope.  Their grief was severe, but their joy is eternal, because they now enjoy the perfect peace which Jesus won for all.

“He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”  Children who “consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”  Peace to all who are in Jesus Christ through faith. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas Eve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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