Septuagesima (70 Days to Easter) (Matthew 20:1-16 NKJV)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR

Septuagesima (70 Days to Easter) + February 17, 2019

Text: Matthew 20:1-16 NKJV

As you’ve already probably noticed from the bulletin, there’s something different about this season in between Epiphany and Lent.  Easter is still over two months away, but already we begin our countdown to it.  For starters, these next three weeks, we will meditate on God’s grace in Jesus Christ.  Every Sunday of the Church year is centered around the themes in the Gospel reading.  As the saints who went before us chose the readings, these next three Sundays form a sermon series on grace.  First, we hear from the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard that Grace is undeserved.  Next week, in the Parable of the Sower (Luke 8:4-15), we will learn that Grace is received passively.  Finally, and right before we intensify our focus on the cross of Christ, we learn from the story of a blind beggar (Luke 18:31-43) that Grace is spiritually discerned. All of these teachings, put together will better prepare our hearts for our devotion to our Savior, who in great love, willingly offered up His life that sinners might live eternally through Him.

There’s the way of the world, of daily life, the way things should be.  We are so deeply inculcated with those things.  And we should be, when it comes to our dealings in the world.  Workers should get fair payment for their time and labors.  The story of Jacob working for Laban is true: It was unjust for Laban to renege on what he had promised Jacob, forcing him to work another 7 years for Rachel and repeatedly changing his wages after that (Genesis 29:1-30, 30:25—31:9).

But the Kingdom of Heaven is an altogether different matter.  Yet, couched in the terms of wages, Jesus explains: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a landowner…”  Notice how our Lord does not say the Kingdom of Heaven is like an organization—a non-profit or a corporation; it is like a man who owns land, and that’s the first clue that this is going to shift the way we think of how God deals with men in His Kingdom.

This landowner goes out to hire laborers for his vineyard, and with the first, he agrees with them for a set wage (a denarius was a standard pay for a day’s work).  These work 12 hours.  Next, he goes out at the third hour and hires others, promising more vaguely, “whatever is right I will give you.”  These work 9 hours, but their pay isn’t explicitly stated.  Next, he goes out at the sixth and ninth hours, and sends them into the vineyard without a promise of payment at all.  They work 6 and 3 hours respectively.  Finally at the eleventh hour, 1 hour before the end of the work day, he hires those who have been idle all day and sends them.

Now, before we get to the time for them to “pick up their checks,” notice who he has hired: The diligent who were out there first thing, the less fortunate who were late to the marketplace, and the total slackers who—if they had mom’s basements then—would have been crashed in them, playing video games until 4 in the afternoon.

“So when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, ‘Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first.’ And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius. 10 But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius. 11 And when they had received it, they complained against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.’

When it comes time for the payout, every one of these gets the same wage—a denarius.  This is where your blue collar grandfather—who worked his whole life from nothing, who went without the finer things when he couldn’t afford it, but loved his family enough to work 12 hour days—wants to spit on the ground in disgust.  How can it be that the undeserving slobs get the same as those who toiled and sweated for the long haul?

But hear the Master’s response: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. 15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things?”

What he speaks of isn’t a wage gap or unfair practices.  He exposes a fundamental error in the complainer’s heart: You think your work entitled you to a greater share than others.  The Master has every right to pay generously and even at His own expense, without partiality.  But the next part of verse 15 gets to the heart: “Or is your eye evil because I am good?”

I chose to use the New King James version over the ESV because of this direct translation from the Greek.  Where does the problem really lie with the Master paying the slacker the same as the hard worker?  The evil is in the eye of the beholder, because it’s the hard worker who thinks God owes him more.  It’s the sin of covetousness, not being content with how God distributes His goodness.  With our evil eye, we look in judgment on our neighbor say, they’re getting far more than they deserve.  But the truth is that if any of us got what we truly deserved, then “this poor wretched soul of mine, in hell eternally would pine.”[1]  Or as the Apostle Paul writes, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)

What is God’s goodness?  With evil clouding our hearts, we can scarcely understand it, but suffice to say, God only loves unworthy people.  As the Proverbs say, “Surely He scorns the scornful, but gives grace to the humble.” (Prov. 3:34)  To those who boast in themselves, God will be intolerably foolish, wasteful, and extravagant.  Is your eye evil because God is good?

The latest issue of the Lutheran Witness has an article about mercy in the early church.  One particular sermon by John Chrysostom in the late 300’s AD is cited:

“Today, I stand before you to make a just, useful and suitable intercession. I come from no one else; only the beggars who live in our city elected me for this purpose, not with words, votes, and the resolve of a common council, but rather with their pitiful and most bitter spectacles. In other words, just as I was passing through the marketplace and the narrow lanes, hastening to your assembly, I saw in the middle of the streets may outcasts, some with severed hands, others with gouged-out eyes, others filled with festering ulcers and incurable wounds…

I thought it the worst inhumanity not to appeal to your love on their behalf, especially now that the season [of winter] forces us to return to this topic…During the season of winter, the battle against [the poor] is mighty from all quarters…Therefore they need more nourishment, a heavier garment, a shelter, a bed, shoes, and many other things…their need of the bare necessities is much greater, and besides, work passes them by, because no one hires the wretched, or summons them to service.”

The article’s author continues: “If his congregation didn’t step up, he told them, they would be guilty of dereliction of duty towards their neighbor. And there was to be no investigating whether or not a poor person was worthy of the generosity he received. Jesus’ own words encapsulated the motivation for this generosity: ‘Freely you have received. Freely give.’ (Matt. 10:8).”

The very grace we have received is the reason Christians show grace toward others, and grace doesn’t ask questions of worthiness.  But, the evil eye presumes, “They’ll just waste it; we’re enabling them; or what are we going to get in return?”  If you don’t understand grace, you will find soup kitchens abhorrent, you will want homeless shelters nowhere near your house, and you will hoard your hard-earned income with a tight fist and only dole it out to those who can demonstrate they’ll use it to your standards.

Is your eye evil because God is good?  If so, the early Christians should rise up at the judgment and condemn us proud, wealthy Americans because we have outsourced charity to the government—and what a wasteful and impassionate job they do of it—and we outsource to other Christians the job of showing mercy that middle-class Christians don’t want to do themselves, because it might get them dirty and infringe on their worldly luxuries. 

If you are humbled by this, now you’re ready to learn (or re-learn) what grace is.  You are evil, but God remains good. “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  In His goodness, He has delivered up His Son for you to be received as a gift.  Do you now see that none of us has a reason to boast in the presence of God?  It is in fact part of God’s essence that He shows His goodness to the evil like you and me.  Yes, we take it for granted, we turn His Word into a weapon to use against others and feel better about ourselves, we presume on His kindness.  Yet that doesn’t stop Him from giving to us a goodness we are unworthy of.

That’s what this parable teaches us: Grace is shown without partiality.  When Jesus goes to the cross, He goes there without doing the math to make sure it’s worth it.  His love impelled Him to do it.  He did it long before any of us took our first breath, so that we might receive not the wages for our sins, but the free gift of eternal life in Him.  What is a denarius or any earthly treasure in comparison with that?

I pray that God increases the effects of that grace in His Church, in you and me.  May what we have freely received also inspire us to freely give.  Like the example of Christians who have come before us, may the grace shown to us overflow in grace toward others, so that our lives are a testimony to what He has done. May it be that our congregation is a place not known for its looks or its history, but for its works.  I hope that each of you who have received grace with your hearts will pray this with me. Amen.


[1] “If Your Beloved Son, O God” (LSB 568:1)

Thrown into the drink or delivered, God is faithful to accomplish His good purpose! (Jonah 1:1-17, Matthew 8:23-27)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany + February 3, 2019

Text: Jonah 1:1-17, Matthew 8:23-27

One of the great myths about our life is that we’re safer at some times than at others.  The disciples were under the impression that they were safer on land than when they were on the stormy sea.  It’s only when the waves are crashing into the boat that they realize how fragile their existence is.

Jonah thought that he was free and clear if he just fled to Tarshish, in the opposite direction from where God would have him be.  But on the way, God intervened and caused a great storm. And Jonah, even though he was resting secure in disobedience to God, was awakened and called to account.

On the other hand, the disciples in Matthew 8 were doing the Lord’s will, and they still suffered near disaster.  What gives, God?

This is the great question of Christians: I did everything right, so why am I suffering?  I know that Jonah fled from the will of the Lord, and he was driven back by the will of God to preach to the Ninivites. But what had the disciples done that this terrible storm came upon them?

The answer is, we don’t know.  If we look for God in the chances and changes of this life, all we will find is uncertainty and doubt, “Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish” (Jon. 1:6)

But let’s explore this in what we might say to either Jonah or the disciples.  Jonah, though a professed Hebrew “who fears the Lord who made the sea and dry land” (Jon. 1:9) did a very foolish thing by disobeying the Lord’s call.  If you read on through chapter 4, you find out that Jonah did it because God doesn’t give people what they deserve. He relents over disaster for those who fear Him. (4:2)  He demonstrated this not only for the mariners but also for the people of Nineveh.  So, Jonah, if you believe God should give people what they deserve, what would happen if that judgment were applied to you?  Do you believe that suicide at the hands of the sailors is the last word God has for you?  What is your faith, Jonah?

Jonah, the God you fear and serve is indeed “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” (Jon. 4:2)  You did a foolish thing fleeing the presence of the Lord because you disagreed with His ways.  But repent of your evil and believe that He is a God gracious and merciful to you also, and His intent has always been to save you from disaster. “He will not always chide, nor will he keep His anger forever.  He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high and the heavens are above the earth, so great is His steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:9-12)

What would we say to the disciples?  Remember, they are following the will of the Lord; they got on the boat in the right direction.  Yet, disaster still visited them.  The fishing boat is being swamped by the waves, and even worse, Jesus is the one sleeping this time.  They wake him with a prayer: “Save us, Lord; we are perishing!”

Peter, James, John, and the rest, who do you have in the boat with you?  Jesus awakens with a question, “Why are you afraid; O you of little faith?”  You rightly fear the God who made the sea and dry land. You are right to call on Him to save you.  But why are you afraid?  Won’t He will care for and protect you as much on the sea as on the dry land?  Why do you fear this circumstance more than the God who made heaven and earth?

What is your faith and where is your faith?  They’re both important questions to ask, especially, if like Jonah, we’re called to be witnesses of this God and Savior.  We learn what our faith is when we are exposed as sinners and have to learn anew who God reveals Himself to be.  True knowledge of the Gospel is not learned by memorizing doctrines and Bible passages in confirmation class—no matter how demanding your pastor was; it’s “taught by the Holy Spirit and the school of experience”[1] as one pastor put it.  That means you need to be made a real sinner before you can know a God, gracious and merciful.

The other question is, once we poor sinners know a gracious and merciful God, what does that look like in the dangers and disasters we face in life?  What did we confess in the Creed? “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.”  It does no good to compartmentalize where God works—whether sea or dry land, on Sunday morning or five minutes before closing when your supervisor tells you you’re being laid off.  The God who made both visible and invisible is also our strong defense against all spiritual dangers.  “The waves and winds still know His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below”[2] as much as the demons obeyed when He commanded them.  This is the God who holds your life at every moment!  Repent of your little faith and the fruit of fear it bears!

What damage can be done to our calling as disciples by little faith.  Through fear of temporal things—the church running out of money, the lies of the devil and the narrative of the world gaining ground, the future of the nation in which we live.  All of these things are temporal, and we believe in theory that they’re all going to pass away.  But God help us to believe His holy Word, that He cares for us and gives us and the whole world our daily bread.

In the boat, it was not time for Jesus or His disciples to die.  But the time came when this same Jesus, fully man and fully God, was offered up on account of your sins and those of the whole world, that whoever believes in Him should not cry, “We are perishing,” but have forgiveness and eternal life.

Take a moment to let these words soak into your heart again: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Matt. 10:28-31)

God revealed His will to Jonah—go and preach to these pagans so that they might be saved.  And they were.  So was Jonah, perhaps the biggest unbeliever of the book until the end.  He revealed His power to the disciples in calming the stormy sea.  But the lesson for both is that God’s saving purpose will be done, even if for the moment it looks like He’s changed His mind.  Every person who believes in Him, He chose from before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:3-6), and as God does not lie, we can be sure that “nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.” (Rom. 8:39)  This is not a license to put our faith to the test, but a reason to fear the God who made the sea and dry land, who is a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from disaster; through Jesus Christ. Amen.


[1] C.F.W. Walther, “Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel” Thesis III. http://lutherantheology.com/uploads/works/walther/LG

[2] “Be Still, My Soul” (LSB 752, st. 2)

Third Sunday after the Epiphany (Matthew 8:1-13)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR

Third Sunday after the Epiphany + January 27, 2019

Text: Matthew 8:1-13

            Throughout the Epiphany season, our Lord reveals who He is and what He’s come for.  So far, we’ve heard the proclamation of who He is—as a child, at the Jordan, and at the wedding at Cana.  Yet we’ve seen very little of how His arrival is received.

            Today we see how the Lord is to be received in two glorious miracles.  First, a leper approaches Jesus, kneeling before Him and says, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.”  From this brief encounter, we learn how we also ought to approach the Lord with our requests in prayer.  The leper, recognizing that Jesus is the Almighty Lord, approaches with confidence that Jesus will hear his request and has all power to grant it.  But this man also submits himself to God’s will in humility—if you will, you can make me clean.”  He leaves the answer in the Lord’s hands.  He acknowledges that God’s will is always good, even if that meant staying in his painful and grotesque condition.

The Lord immediately answers the man’s prayer: “I will; be clean.”  And with a Word from the One through Whom all creation was formed, the leper is restored.  His flesh, like Naaman the Syrian, is “like the flesh of a little child.”[1]  All of this was in answer to a simple, trusting prayer to the Lord.

            In the second miracle, we learn even more about what this trust is, which is the root of effective prayer.  The faith of the Gentile centurion is such a shining example, that Jesus actually marvels at hearing it.  This faith, which Jesus praises so highly, isn’t something reserved for a select few figures in the pages of the Bible.  It is a faith which He desires to give each of us: it is the faith which receives God’s abundant blessing and in the end, eternal life.

            This Spirit-work faith has three parts to it—knowledge, affirmation, and trust.  These two men had come to know that Jesus was in the area, and the had probably heard reports about what He had done.  This is simply knowledge about Jesus.  Today, people would have a historical faith, acknowledging that Jesus was a historic figure, an important figure.

The next part of faith is affirmation.  These men knew that Jesus had a reputation for healings.  Affirming that knowledge of Jesus’ reputation, they went to find out more.  This is often where people are when they come to church for the first time.  They’ve heard some vague and spotty reports about Christianity, they’ve known Christians to be kind people.  So, acting on that, they give up a Sunday morning, maybe miss the first part of the Pro Bowl.  They’re willing to affirm that Christians don’t have a disease and aren’t going to try to make them drink the Kool Aid.

But that brings us to the last part of faith: Trust.  This is where the leper and the centurion put it on the line: “If you will, you can make me clean.”  “I am not worthy…but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.”  In the case of the leper, he staked his life and future in the community on what Jesus was able to do.  For the Centurion, his servant’s life hung in the balance.

This trust is the thing which only the Holy Spirit can work in men’s hearts.  None of us come to God with a true fear, love, or trust.  The Spirit works faith when and where it pleases God in those who hear the Gospel.[2]  And that remains a mystery to us, humanly speaking.  The same Word is preached from the pulpit, taught in confirmation class, and it touches the hearts of some, but others it just rolls off like water on a duck’s back.

But still the Word is true, and the Word is powerful.  It’s the Word of God to which faith clings.  We’ve already seen how the centurion didn’t shrink away because of his sinfulness, but neither did he look to the good he’d done as reason for Jesus to answer his request.  The centurion threw himself on Jesus’ Word—“only say the word, and my servant will be healed.  For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”  This is what it means for man to “live by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”[3]  This is what faith lives on.

In the centurion’s confession, he is saying that he believes that Jesus is the one who can help his paralyzed servant.  Perhaps more people today would believe this if there weren’t such advanced medicine, which makes extravagant promises about itself.  The centurion sees that Jesus is the Almighty Lord, “who kills and makes alive, who wounds and who heals.”[4]  And just as he has a hundred soldiers under him who immediately obey his commands, he sees that Jesus has heaven and earth, life and death, at His command.

Likewise, the leper’s faith is bold enough to come to Jesus with a great request: “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.”  This man, a Jew (because he was sent to the priest), would have known that only God had the power to grant this request—Miriam was turned leprous by the Lord, Naaman’s servant Gehazi was also turned leprous, but believing Naaman was cleansed.[5]  Yet, he would have believed, even if it hadn’t been His will to cleanse Him.

That’s another part of this faithful trust that’s beyond our human power.  If faith were just a matter of willpower, it would stand to reason that at a certain point, affliction and attack would break someone’s faith.  After all, it so often breaks marriages and other trust relationships between people.  This was Satan’s argument about Job: “Does Job fear God for no reason? 10 Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” (Job 1:9-11)

So, the Lord allowed Job’s faith to be tested.  In spite of circumstance, in spite of sinful weakness, Job’s faith held firm: “Though he slay me, I will hope in him” and as he sits in dust and his flesh covered in scabs, he says, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!” (Job 13:15, 19:25-27) That’s no human willpower, no naïve platitudes, that is the power of God which binds almighty God to His people.

This is why we should never say that what a person endures is harmful to their faith, whether long-standing illness, danger, or personal strife.  The power to destroy faith doesn’t lie in something external to us—The Good Shepherd knows His own and no one can snatch them out of His hand. (John 10:14, 28-29)  What endangers our faith is our own unbelief, blaspheming and sending away the very Holy Spirit by Whom a person is sealed for salvation.  Faith is weakened when we drift from His Word and the gathering of the saints in worship.  Faith is undermined when we make our trials and troubles greater than the Almighty God who has redeemed us.  Faith is destroyed when we deny the Almighty God who has made Himself known and comes to us in fact through His Word and Sacraments.

But how do you know you have faith?  When, in spite of all that is happening, or has happened to you, you don’t look to yourself or man for help.  When you are at the end of your rope, you look to God and say, “Lord, If you are willing, you can change this…only say the Word and it will be.”  Maybe you’re there, or you’ve been there in the past.  Maybe you’re not there yet.  God grant each of you such a genuine faith which gives up on yourself and completely trusts Him.

In a joyous outcome, the man of faith receives what he asked for, “’Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.’  Those who have this genuine and saving faith are blessed.  The Psalmist David sings, “Blessed is the man who makes the Lord his trust, who does not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after a lie!”[6]  Blessed is the one who has this faith, not because everything in his life will be immediately fixed—all illnesses healed, all debts paid, all broken relationships mended.  The blessing of this faith is union with an almighty and gracious God in heaven.  When suffering comes, it means knowing for certain that God is not out to get you.  Rather, “God is treating you as sons” and “He has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’”[7]  And one with this faith is blessed because, though he deserves temporal death and eternal punishment, he also believes that God has made peace with him through the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.


[1] 2 Kings 5:14

[2] Augsburg Confession, Article V “On the Office of the Ministry”

[3] Deuteronomy 8:3

[4] Deuteronomy 32:39

[5] Numbers 12:1-10; 2 Kings 5:13-27

[6] Psalm 40:4

[7] Hebrews 12:7 ; Galatians 4:6

Second Sunday after the Epiphany ( John 2:1-11)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR

Second Sunday after the Epiphany + January 20, 2019

Text: John 2:1-11

When Moses was leading Israel through the wilderness toward the land of promise, he was content to know that the Lord went with them.  But more than a stranger on the bus, Moses knew that He wanted to know the Lord’s ways and find favor in His sight.  And God responded in kind: “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”  But even with the Lord’s promise to go with him, the knowing His ways, the promise, “I know you by name,” Moses longed for more.  He said to the Lord, “Show me your glory.”

But this request, the Lord was not going to fulfill.  It wasn’t the right time.  For all the closeness that Moses had, seeing God face to face, being known by Him, even having his face glow from being in the Lord’s presence—it wasn’t time to see His glory, because “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” (Exodus 32:20)

Around fifteen hundred years later, God is still with His people, but in a new way—a deeper way.  “The Law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17)

On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Building on the closeness that Moses knew, the Lord indeed is going with His people, He has made known His ways through Moses and the Law, and He is indeed personally present.  Again, there is a request: “They have no wine.”  But the response isn’t simply, “That’s not my concern”; it’s “My hour has not yet come.”  The answer is, not yet.  But even as Moses was given a glimpse of the glory of the Lord from the cleft of the rock, the Lord begins to reveal Himself to His people.

If we get caught up in how Jesus did this, or how much wine, or what quality it is, we miss the greatest thing: This sign is about God revealing Himself in a greater and new way to His people, a way that was not possible in times past.  “This, the first of His signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested His glory. And His disciples believed in Him.”  The Lord was unveiling His glory to His chosen people.

What is His glory?  Certainly there’s the technical answers about a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, how Moses could not enter the tabernacle because God’s glory had entered it.  But it’s easier to describe than that.  God’s glory is the unmediated intimacy which He has with man.  This has not been seen on earth since the Fall—ever since then it has been as the hymn says, “Though the eye of sinful man, Thy glory may not see.”  God’s glory has been held back, concealed, clothed.  Just as Adam and Eve could no longer be naked without shame, so God and man could not dwell together in perfect and shameless nakedness.  The union was broken with sin.

St. Paul speaks of this union which God desires with man in terms of marriage:

23 Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior…Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish… Christ nourishes and cherishes the church, 30 because we are members of his body…Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.

He concludes by saying, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church.” (v. 32)  You could say that marriage is an analogy for God’s quest to restore that intimacy with man that was lost in Eden.  And just like the closeness and intimacy of husband and wife, it unfolds over time.

The revelation of God’s glory is akin to man and woman and the road to becoming husband and wife.  Two people meet, and there’s chemistry, but they’re unsure, gradually getting to know one another.  Trust is developed over time and through experience. Infatuation strengthens into genuine love, self-sacrifice and putting the needs of the other above your own interests.  Then there’s the mutual agreement that this is the person that you want to spend the rest of your life with.  And upon being married, declared husband and wife before the community, leaving father and mother and holding fast to each other, that the point of consummation is reached.  Husband and wife become one flesh—bonded together physically, emotionally, and materially.  “What God has brought together, let no man rent asunder.” (Mark 10:9).

And what God has brought together begets children for husband and wife—now father and mother—to nurture together.  This is the order which God established, an earthly reflection of a heavenly reality, the union of man and woman as a parable of the salvation of the world.

But tragically, we human beings have turned over that order and the consequences are palpable.  Today, many Christian churches in America are commemorating Sanctity of Life Sunday, but this isn’t just a problem of abortion.  That’s only a symptom.  There is a culture of casting every tradition aside and fulfilling one’s passions that’s akin to desiring to see God’s glory before it’s the right time to be revealed.  We seek the glory of marriage before the right time and without the burden it involves.  Closeness is sought up front without the time and mutual trust which must come first, and it results in deep secrets being turned into weapons of revenge.  The expectation of sexual intimacy and pleasure are seen as the next step for dating couples, without the duty and commitment that undergird it.  That union is further divided when one turns that mutual enjoyment inward and substitutes an image on a screen.  Couples want to be one life and property, but without the legal obligations from the state which support and enforce that.

Led by hormones and a flippancy toward tradition, it’s actually the next generation that suffers. This is where abortion often shows up, as a desire to eliminate babies from the one flesh union.  Here, the CDC reports that 85.7% of abortions are by unmarried mothers—those who don’t have the stability of a committed husband who does the godly thing and raises the child he has brought into existence.[1]

But God did not jump the gun on His married intimacy with His Bride, the Church.  He revealed His glory when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the Law to redeem those under the Law.

How much we need God to bring us back to that intimacy we had with Him at the beginning!  And that is His burning desire!  God so often compares Himself to a husband longing to retrieve His wayward wife, because we are the ones who left Him.  We are the ones who left Him and made a mess of our lives and the lives of others.  In spite of our unfaithfulness, Christ, our husband, calls us back to Himself.  Even while we were delighting in immorality, Christ was dying for us.  While we were playing fancy free with His order, He was tirelessly seeking our place in His new creation.

At Cana in Galilee, Christ began to reveal His glory, “glory as of the only-begotten Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”  That was just the start!  His glory was most fully revealed to us (so far) when He was lifted up on the cross to take away the sin of the world[2]—to take away your sin and mine.  That’s where God, your husband, not only revealed His heart, but also showed exactly what He was willing to do to win you back and restore that perfect intimacy.

And still, we have not seen all of His glory, but only as much as we are allowed to see now.  We have His Word, we have seen and believed in His Son, lifted up on the cross. The light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of His people Israel—is that He came in the flesh to redeem us.  Yet even still, our Bridegroom is with His Bride.  He hasn’t abandoned us or forsaken us while we wander through the wilderness.  To Moses, He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” (Exodus 32:14)  That was true enough then, but even more so now, because now our Bridegroom baptizes us into His death and resurrection.  He gives of us His Body and Blood to eat and drink.  He has made Himself one flesh with us, and we with Him.

So this day in time, as He comes to us with His Body and Blood, I want you to focus on the 2nd stanza of the hymn, “Soul, Adorn Yourself with Gladness.” (LSB 636).  Stanza 2 expresses our longing for our heavenly Bridegroom:

Hasten as a bride to meet Him,

And with loving rev’rence greet Him.

For with words of life immortal

He is knocking at your portal.

Open wide the gates before Him,

Saying, as you there adore Him:

Grant, Lord, that I now receive You,

That I nevermore will leave You.

Amen.


[1] https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/ss/ss6713a1.htm

[2] John 12:23-24

The Baptism of Our Lord (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR

The Baptism of Our Lord + January 13, 2019

Text: 1 Corinthians 1:26-31

One of the devil’s tactics against Christians is to tell them that they are unworthy.  Here’s how it goes: Not necessarily about being unworthy to stand in God’s presence, but he will tell you that you are unworthy of the name Christian. Don’t you know that good Christians don’t cuss?  Don’t you know that a good Christian shouldn’t drink too much and always live a chaste and decent life?  You aren’t good enough to be called a Christian because you’re not sanctified enough and you’re too weak to overcome your sins.  Your life is full of pockmarks that say, this person’s screwed it up too big for even God to want to fix.

Then the devil points you to other people—who you’re to imagine are doing much better than you.  They must be doing something right, because they seem to have it together.  Their devotional life is so godly, their spirit is so gentle, and they bear their cross so gracefully.   Here, Facebook is a wonderful tool because it can play up notions of inadequacy as you scroll through the parts of other people’s lives they want you to see. They must be doing it right—just to make you feel more like you don’t measure up or could possibly never live up to that standard.

The final leg of Satan’s tactic is to make you feel alone.  You must be the only Christian who has ever struggled with sin this hard, and hasn’t been able to overcome a weakness.  God is far away and has far more important matters to attend to than your small requests and griefs.  I should just buckle down and try harder; I shouldn’t be so sad, and shouldn’t struggle in my faith.

The devil will take you everywhere except to the Jordan River where Jesus is.  There the Lord of Glory stands in the midst of sinners.  He does not quench a faintly burning wick, but upholds the weak in faith, the attacked, those who have been humbled by the weakness of their flesh, those whose cheeks are stained with tears from their own sins and the sin and death that has happened to them.

But who do we find in the Jordan?  John the Baptist recognizes Him: “I need to be baptized by You and do You come to me?”  I am not worthy to untie the strap of your sandal. I’m no better than any of these others who stand confessing their sins!

Jesus came to these waters willingly.  “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”  He’s come exactly for this purpose and there is no place He would rather be, than in the midst of these sinners to fulfill righteousness for them.  He is truly the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and when He is lifted up on the cross to draw all men to Himself (John 1:29, 12:32).

Where does that leave you and me today?  St. Paul writes to the 1st century Corinthian Christians and us:

26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

“Consider your calling, brothers,” he says.  Think about where you were when God worked faith in your heart to believe that Jesus shed His blood in love for you.  So, think about it!  Whether it was a special moment in your life or you’ve just always known it, I want you to think about what brought you to the foot of Jesus’ cross.  Was it like a job interview where you put forth your best foot, showing your qualifications, and waited to be called back?  Was it like buying a house where you put in an offer and hope that you’ve made an appealing enough offer?  Nothing of the sort!

In fact, God’s amazing grace and power is displayed in calling the under-qualfied, the undeserving, the screw-ups and backsliders.  God chooses to do it this way, so that every one of us would know that it is not because of any personal advantage that we have been chosen by God—no merits, no seniority ladder, no coming from the right kind of family.  And that brings us into the dirty waters of the Jordan River with Jesus.  We stand together, a great mob of people who have this in common: none of us have something to boast about before God.  We are all equal recipients of God’s undeserved favor.

St. Paul is a great example of this himself.  He was an enemy of God when he was called, a real soldier of the devil’s cause against Christ and His Church.  He was in the middle of that mission when Christ knocked Him down on the road to Damascus and humbled him.  But it wasn’t a once-and-done conversion.  Even Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles, wrestled with doubts about his past sins: “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given” (Eph. 3:8) and “formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent.” (1 Tim. 1:13)  On top of that, he bore sins that he was not able to master or leave behind: “A thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” (2 Cor. 12:7-9)

But you know, even at this point, we’re not safe from temptation to pride.  500 years ago, this Gospel was so rare that people flocked to hear it.  Today, Christians often go to the point of taking the Gospel for granted.  This is what we tell ourselves: I know I shouldn’t do this, but that’s okay, God will forgive me anyway.  I’m a child of God through faith, so it doesn’t matter what I do because God will always catch me.  That’s another deadly form of pride, because it’s a symptom of a hard heart that refuses to acknowledge what it cost to have Jesus stand in the Jordan and ultimately bear the world’s sins in His body on the cross.  It’s actually the same heart that says, it doesn’t matter what you believe, you’ll go to heaven as long as you’re a good person.

God chose what is weak, low, and despised to shame the strong and proud.  He calls people to Himself who confess that they have no power to save on their own.  What does God do for these weak and needy children?  St. Paul continues: 30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”  You have been given not only forgiveness of sins, but a strong protection against sin, the devil, and death.  Because God the Father called you, you are in Christ Jesus, meaning that you have the sure and certain love and protection that God bestows on His beloved Son.  The Voice that sounded from heaven, and the Spirit that descended on Jesus, spreads to include you.

“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”  You have a new existence in Jesus your Savior.  In Him, you have consolation in the weakness of your sins.  He gives you a mighty defense against Satan’s accusations, just as He faced the devil in the wilderness.  He daily and richly forgives all your sins, as your risen and glorified High Priest.  He has made you part of a communion of saints which spans time and place, earth and heaven. You are not alone to face sin, death, or devil alone because the Lord is with you to uphold you.

This is what it means to be given the name of “Christian.”  You are a sinner, standing in the Jordan, expectant and hoping in your Messiah and Savior, confessing your sins and believing in that full pardon that Jesus has gained for you.  Yes, you will be attacked, you will have doubts, and you will have weaknesses which the Lord in His wisdom doesn’t remove.  But “resist the devil, firm in your faith” because those evils are all meant by God to continually bring you to Christ crucified.  He is your strength and salvation.

St. Patrick preached this good news to the Irish, and the poem St. Patrick’s Breastplate reflects this confidence that we have from God:

I bind unto myself today
    The strong name of the Trinity
By invocation of the same,
    The Three in One and One in Three.

I bind this day to me forever,
    By pow’r of faith, Christ’s incarnation,
His Baptism in the Jordan River,
    His cross of death for my salvation,
His bursting from the spicèd tomb,
    His riding up the heav’nly way,
His coming at the day of doom,
    I bind unto myself today.

Amen.

The Epiphany of Our Lord (Isaiah 60:1-6)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR

The Epiphany of Our Lord + January 6, 2018

Text: Isaiah 60:1-6

Today begins the Epiphany season of the Church year.  This tradition of celebrating Epiphany comes to us from the Greek Church, where Epiphany means “to give light and cause to appear”[1]  Originally, this holy day commemorated several instances where God caused His glory to be revealed—the birth of our Lord, His Baptism in the Jordan, the Wedding at Cana, and the visit of the Magi—so it was duly named “Theophany” or God causing Himself to appear to men.  Now, we have each of those as separate holy feast days—Christmas, the Baptism of Our Lord, the visit of the Magi, and the sign at Cana in the season of Epiphany.

But why does God talk about light so much?  Why did we hear on Christmas, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.” (Isaiah 9:2)  It’s because of what St. John describes at the beginning of his Gospel: The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.” (John 1:9-11)

But this darkness is so deep, the agnosticism so great, that we are scarcely aware of how bad it is.  John Lennon sings, “Imagine there’s no heaven, no countries, no religion, and no possessions.”  But Mr. Lennon, our race’s problem runs deeper than squabbles over land claims, government conspiracies, religious zealotry, and the psychology of criminals.  True those are all things which plague our existence on earth, but the what’s behind all of it is that human beings have lost sight of their Creator.

“For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,

and thick darkness the peoples”

Sin has cast darkness over the human race, and over each person’s heart.  Our own reason and strength are hamstrung and unable to know and worship God as we ought to.  The word translated “thick darkness” can also be translated “a fog” which we in the Willamette Valley should be able to relate to.  Imagine being lost in the middle of a field on one of our pea-soup nights and trying to find your way in the right direction.  That’s what sin has done to our ability to find and fully know God.

Not to mention, in that darkness which covers the earth, we are darkened in how we regard one another as fellow creatures of God.  Every violation of God’s good creation springs from the darkness between us and God.  We insert our own ideas about God, and thus invent idols or worship demons.  We spurn the good God does through parents and other authorities and fight against them.  We alienate from our fellow men and devalue their life and wellbeing.  We turn marriage into a plaything for our own pleasure, holding to our spouse when it’s convenient and building walls or casting them off entirely when things get hard.  Our lips become weapons against the good name of others and we give our image a boost by stepping on their back.  All the evil which is committed to us and which we ourselves are guilt of is the result of this darkness.

John Lennon wistfully repeats the chorus, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.”  But it doesn’t matter how many people you get together, the human race cannot and will not be saved by our own actions.

But heaven has seen our wretched state, and God has heard our anguished cries:

Arise, shine, for your light has come,

and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

                For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,

and thick darkness the peoples;

                  but the Lord will arise upon you,

and his glory will be seen upon you.

                And nations shall come to your light,

and kings to the brightness of your rising.

God has shone His light into our darkened world to work our salvation.  Epiphany is God making His salvation to appear in the midst of darkness.  The incredible truth of that is that He did not wait for us to find our way to Him.

Today, we reflect on how God revealed Himself to people who were not seeking Him, but yet what they found was the true God.  Magi were astrologers, adept at seeking answers from heaven based on what the stars are doing.  Kings would put their faith in these “wise men” just as some people today order their days according to horoscopes and fortune cookies.  When a star like no other appeared, the Magi sought the king whose birth it announced.  Perhaps some of them had heard the prophecy of Balaam (another unlikely instrument of God), in Numbers 24:17: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.”  But with or without knowledge of that prophecy, God used the star to lead these men to Jesus and they worshipped Him and brought Him gifts.

But more importantly, this means that the Gospel has the power to bring salvation to all who believe—even sometimes to those who humanly speaking would be on the wrong track, like the Wise Men, or someone who comes to know the true God after dabbling in many religions.

    Lift up your eyes all around, and see;

they all gather together, they come to you;

                  your sons shall come from afar,

and your daughters shall be carried on the hip.

                Then you shall see and be radiant;

your heart shall thrill and exult,

                  because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you,

the wealth of the nations shall come to you.

                A multitude of camels shall cover you,

the young camels of Midian and Ephah;

all those from Sheba shall come.

                  They shall bring gold and frankincense,

and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lord.

In our day, I think it’s easy to give far too much credit to the darkness, and far too little to the Light.  The darkness is great, and seems to be increasing.  Hypocrites give God and His Church a bad reputation, sex abuse scandals shake people’s faith, false religion is on the rise with people leaving “denominations” for a pop Christianity that fails to feed them with solid food.  That’s all not to mention the darkness that anyone can see in this world.

But Almighty God shines His light, despite the darkness. On Christmas Day we hear from John 1: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (v. 5)  God will not be overcome by darkness, because His intention is to save people, even though we are lost and scattered in our darkness.

The Light shines in the darkness, and this light has reached you.  Formerly you were wandering through the thick, foggy darkness of this world, but through the powerful work of the Holy Spirit, you have seen the bright light of Your Creator and His Son, Your Savior.  As we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom come,” so God continues to answer that prayer.  The effect isn’t always apparent to us, but when we witness it, it’s a beautiful sight. 

What we need in the darkness of the world and our own hearts is God’s Light, which shines from outside us and shines within us.  God is faithful, and He will truly bring His sons and daughters from the ends of the earth—even through the fog of thick darkness—to share in His eternal Kingdom.  In that place, darkness will be no more, and all who have received His light will praise and exalt God’s Name in the presence of the holy angels and before the glorious throne of grace. The Apostle Paul confesses in 1 Timothy 6, “He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see.”  And yet, He has called us to approach and give Him our worship and praise now and into eternity.  “To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.” (1 Timothy 6:15-16)

[1] 2 Timothy 1:10


Sunday after Christmas (Luke 2:25-40)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR

Sunday after Christmas + December 30, 2018

Luke 2:25-40

Forty days after Jesus’ birth, He was brought to the temple according to the Levitical Law. Also there at the temple is a man named Simeon. A righteous man, to whom the Holy Spirit revealed that he would not die until seeing the Lord’s Christ. And this day will be that day.

I suppose Simeon could’ve taken that promise and ran with it. He knows the Christ is coming to Israel. That’s what God promised through the prophets. Might be a great time to go see the world. Visit Rome, Visit the East. See how big God’s world really is. He had all the time in the world—as long as he refused to look for the Lord’s Christ.

Turns out, that line of thinking is prevalent today. Somehow, this world of ours started believing that we could avoid death. Any time the day of death threatens to show, all we have to do is hide our faces, close our eyes, and go to a happier place. If we just look elsewhere everything will turn out fine. If we look elsewhere, we’ll have all the time in the world to enjoy ourselves.

So we refuse to talk about death. We insist that funerals be a “celebration of life.” We demand that the dying aren’t told the truth of their condition, for their own good. We lie to our relatives because we don’t want them to worry or grieve with us.  And we pretend that moment of death never actually happens to anyone. Only the before and after. Here happy with us, or there, happy with Jesus. Nobody actually dies in the world’s eyes, because no one has seen it happen. It’s scary and unknown, and it’s out of our control.  Ignorance is bliss. Ignorance is to never die.

This is one of the biggest reasons why the world hates Jesus. Because to see Jesus is to see death. You cannot look at Jesus, hanging there on that cross, and not talk about death. Maybe that’s part of the reason plain crosses without a corpus are so popular.  Then the cross can be a symbol of a tepid Christianity that strives only to make its adherents happy.  But, you cannot look at Jesus, with the nails in His hands and feet, and think it’s a celebration of life. You can’t look at Jesus, saying “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”[1] and hide the truth of death away. You can’t look at Jesus giving up His Spirit with a great shout, and pretend death doesn’t really happen.[2] You can’t look at Jesus and be ignorant about death any longer. So the world refuses to look for the Lord’s Christ.

But here stands Simeon. He hadn’t escaped. He hadn’t refused to look. Simeon came to temple, probably every day, hoping to see the sign of the consolation of Israel, like a kid who checks the front porch every day for an expected package. Yes it would also mean his imminent demise.  That was the price it cost to see the Lord’s Christ. And this, he saw Him with his own eyes in flesh and blood. He held Him in his own arms. There would be no way to avoid death now. No way to pretend it wasn’t at his door. Simeon only had moments left to live. And he knew it. And this is what he said.

Lord, now you let your servant depart in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the sight of every people. A light to reveal you to the Gentiles and glory to your people Israel.

Don’t misunderstand. Simeon wasn’t at peace with death. And don’t you be either. For God Himself is not at peace with death. And Jesus’ own death was anything but peaceful. The reason death and Jesus are so intertwined is because death is what Jesus came both to do and to destroy. Jesus dies. And that is the very center of the Christian faith. Jesus dies. And that is how our sins are forgiven. Jesus dies. And that is how He is with us always. Jesus dies. And that is what had to happen first before there could ever be a resurrection.

Simeon is not at peace with death. Simeon is at peace with God. For He held in his own arms, he saw with his own eyes in flesh and blood, God’s salvation from death for him. Because of this infant Jesus, all who die will live again. You will live again. That’s why we use this text at funerals. Because those words of Simeon are about the victory over death that Jesus won for us through His resurrection. That’s why we also use this text in the liturgy. After communion, after we have held Jesus in our hands, seen Him in flesh and blood, we too can say, Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation.

The world is afraid to look at death. Afraid that they might be taken next. Afraid that they might have to deal with the pain, the tears, the grief. So we’re asked only to remember the happy times. Only to bring up the good stories. Celebrate. Be happy. Anything to chase death away.

Therefore the world is afraid to look at a Jesus who dies. Refuses to look for the Lord’s Christ. Even though in that death, all the things they fear die with Him. Even though death comes for all, no matter how deep they hide their head in the sand. If all we remember of Jesus are the happy times. If all we bring up are the good stories. If all we do is celebrate. If all we look for is to be happy, then there is no Gospel. There is no good news. There is no need for Jesus. Because there is no need to conquer death.

We look to Jesus, even though to do so is to see death. Because we’re no longer afraid to look at death. Even our own. Because we have seen Jesus fight death head on and win.  And that victory, that resurrection is ours through Him. We have seen the salvation of our God with our own eyes. Therefore we depart now, and will depart then, in His peace, according to His Word, both after we see Him in His Body and Blood today given and shed for us, and when we pass from this life.  The sting of death has been removed by Jesus’ own death, and what remains for us is His resurrection…our resurrection which we anticipate on the Last Day.  Thanks be to God! Amen.


[1] Matthew 27:46, Psalm 22:1

[2] John 19:30, Matthew 15:37

The Feast of Our Lord’s Nativity A.D. 2018 (John 1:1-14)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

The Feast of Our Lord’s Nativity A.D. 2018

Text: John 1:1-14

The theory of evolution would have us believe that everything which exists is the product of natural forces—genetic mutation, chance, and death.  Before you have a visceral reaction against even the word “evolution,” take a minute to consider this naturalistic view of the world in light of what the Evangelist is saying here.

            This is an especially appropriate topic to consider on Christmas, because of our Savior’s birth into the human world.  There are many Christian fellowships that see no problem with the theory of evolution or even promote its cause.  May we be strengthened in our faith to build up our brothers and sisters in Christ!

            St. John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God. All things through Him were made, and of what exists, nothing was made apart from Him” (vv. 1-3).

            The human wisdom of evolution tells us, In the beginning was something that already existed.  We’re not sure where it came from, but we’re pretty sure that’s how things were 13,798,000,000 years ago.[1]  Then, that pre-existing matter exploded and set off the biggest exothermic reaction to ever happen.  So many billions of years later, you have the world as we know it.  “Math, science, history, unraveling the mystery that all started with a big bang.”[2]  This is quite a different story from St. John, claiming unprecedented insight 14 billion years after the fact.

            The problem isn’t the numbers, because Christian squabbles over how many thousands of years is just as trivial as evolutionists’ how many billions of years.  God doesn’t tell us, because it’s not important.  It comes down to Who was there when it happened.  Was it an impassionate, mindless glob of energy that governed itself by laws of physics?  Or was it a God Who is the originator of everything, and creates by His Word?

            Now, certainly it would be an impressive achievement for this God to create all that exists—the Milky Way, stars, galaxies; earth with its oceans, mountains, deserts, and clouds; immense varieties of land, sea, and flying animals.  All of this is remarkable, but what are we to be considering it?  How did we become self-aware, intelligent, adaptable, and able to communicate?  St. John continues, “In [the Word] was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light in the darkness shines, and the darkness has not overcome it” (vv. 4-5).

            If everything were a result of natural forces, what is man?  An animal amid a great company of different species.  Man is certainly a noble animal, but who’s to define what is noble or valuable?  Man must be filled with hubris to think of himself as superior to any animal or plant or rock.  It’s all matter, and all of us came from the same atoms.

            On the other hand, if we believe St. John, we see that the same God who created all things out of nothing, also gave mankind a very special place among “all things that exist” (v. 3).  Everything that exists was made through the Word of God, but “in Him was life and the life was the light of men.”  What gives man his nobility and his value?  God does, the very Author of Life does.  And among all creatures that have the breath of life, He gave His Light to man.  Therefore, in the words of Genesis, man is created in the image and likeness of God[3]—thinking, self-conscious, emotional, relational, creative, and able to communicate.  Communicate with whom?  With God and with one another.  God created through the Word, expresses Himself by words, and reveals Himself to man through the Word.  God created language just for mankind.

            And God does more than simply communicate with man.  According to who He is, He relates with man.  This relationship with man is deeply damaged on man’s side: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.”  Later, John will explain, “The light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.”[4] The people God created to know him and know one another, used another of their God-created attributes—a will of their own—to refuse Him.  In so doing, they became so darkened, that even when God the Word came into the world in the flesh, man knew nothing of Him.

            Naturalism can account for none of the unique blessings and unique curses belonging to humanity.  According to evolution, death is a natural part of the system, a recycling of matter.  If man behaves like an animal, it’s because he is one.  The evils which we hate are taught to us and are simply our desire to propagate our own genes.[5]  But these theories offer no answer to pain, loss, grief, or pangs of conscience.  All they can do is point you toward death as an escape into oblivion.

            But St. John tells us of so much more for humanity.  We have more than a futile, animal existence.  And when we experience pain, loss, grief, and guilt, it is not simply up to us to bear that burden and think our ourselves out of it.  We are creatures of God, beloved by Him.  He never casts us off as refuse.  He shares His own likeness with us!  And where does He show that in more brilliant clarity than in the Incarnation?

The God who created heaven and earth, who personally formed each of us in our mother’s womb, bound Himself forever to His creation.  The Word became creature of this creation through the womb of the Virgin.  And now there is nothing that can wrench us from His hands.  In former times, God said, “Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.”[6]  But when the Word became flesh, He moved in with us permanently.  The Word was made flesh, and He is now forever human, just as much as from “the beginning He was with God and was God.”

In the words of the Nicene Creed, for us men and for our salvation, He became man.  The Word became flesh to purify it—to purify us from all ungodliness, which shows itself in idolatry, rebellion, murder, sexual immorality, and greed.  The Incarnate Word purifies us by taking all these things into Himself.  He takes dying people of the flesh, and raises us up to be children of God, sharing in His life.

This is the universe we exist in—not a chaotic, heartless mass of energy and matter.  We exist in a creation that is tended and cared for by an Almighty Creator.  But even more than that, though we are corrupt and dying, our Creator also took it upon Himself to save us.  In the Word made flesh, we have a God who takes a dying humanity into Himself that through Him we may have life eternally.  Amen.


[1] Give or take 37 million years. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planck_%28spacecraft%29#2013_data_release

[2] Theme song to the TV show Big Bang Theory

[3] Genesis 1:-26-27

[4] John 3:19

[5] A rationale espoused by Richard Dawkins in “The Selfish Gene” (Oxford, 1976)

[6] Isaiah 49:16

Fourth Sunday in Advent (Luke 1:39-56)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Fourth Sunday in Advent + December 23, 2018

Text: Luke 1:39-56

THE WORLD WAS SAVED THROUGH CHILDBEARING

AND YOU ARE SAVED BY BELIEVING IN THE FRUIT OF THE VIRGIN’S WOMB.

Part 1 – God used two unlikely mothers to bring His Kingdom to earth.

“Thy Kingdom Come,” He taught us to pray.  But no human being would have imagined that the coming of His Kingdom would look like this: The meeting of two women, both very unlikely mothers.  Elizabeth, who was barren and had grown old.  Mary, who was a virgin betrothed to a man but remained pure.  This is where God was at work to bring His kingdom and save us.

Save us from what?  Sin had come into the world through another mother, Eve, the mother of all the living.[1]  The serpent deceived her and she rejected God’s ways, and her husband with her.  Together, they brought forth a race of humanity enslaved to sin, destined to die.  Their actions empowered the devil to set up his kingdom over men.  But a Word from the Lord gave them hope: “The Seed of the woman will crush the serpent’s head”[2]  The woman’s Seed would destroy the works of the devil.[3]

God who made this promise brings us to this meeting of unlikely mothers.  They are daughters of Eve, but both have conceived in supernatural ways.  Natural conception only perpetuated the curse—sin from fathers to their children.  But there are times when God has stepped in to intervene, where He disrupted this world order to bring about something new, a greater hope.  God steps in and breaks this earthly cycle of sin and death.  Elizabeth and Mary are the final two in a line of 7 wombs which the Lord visited. [4]  Elizabeth’s conception reminds us of Sarah’s, and the future promise made to Abraham: “In you and in your offspring shall all nations of the earth be blessed.” (Gen. 22:18)  The fulfillment of that promise came in the virgin womb of Mary.  And how fitting it is that the final womb that God filled is of a virgin, so that which is conceived is called Holy and the Son of God![5]

Part 2 – God brought blessing by the fruit of Mary’s womb.

Now, when Mary came to Elizabeth, the latter makes an incredible statement: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”  Mary is truly blessed among women, because not only had the Lord done great things to her, but He in fact did great things within her!  That second part of the benediction stands out though, because it recalls several other times blessings were spoken:

In Psalm 67, the faithful sing, “May God be gracious to us and bless us…that you rway may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations.”[6]  Through Aaron the priest, the Lord put His threefold blessing on Israel: “The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make His face shine on you and be gracious to you, the Lord look upon you with favor and give you peace.”[7]  Finally, David in Psalm 29, after ascribing glory and strength to the Lord, concludes by saying, “The Lord bless His people with peace.”[8]

So, when Elizabeth exclaims, “Blessed is the fruit of your womb,” it’s true.  Every divine blessing has one Source.  Yes, the Lord, but specifically this Lord in the flesh.  He is none other than the blessed Fruit of Mary’s womb.

In Psalm 127, Solomon says, “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.” (v. 3)  This cannot be more true than of the fruit of Mary’s womb.  Through Jesus, God gives an everlasting heritage in a family of faith.  Through the fruit of Mary’s womb, the richest reward is given to all who believe: peace with God, freedom from sin, and victory over death!

Part 3 – God’s ways are disregarded, just as the fruit of the Virgin’s womb was not highly esteemed.

How incredible that God blesses and saves through a mother!  But who thinks highly of pregnancy and motherhood?  It’s so mundane! Being a mother is such a burden and inconvenient! It’s messy and babies ruin your supposedly “perfect” figure!  Just look at the teenage mothers!  If only they had avoided this terrible consequence, they wouldn’t be held back from careers and “real” success by these chains of motherhood!  “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.” (1 Corinthians 1:27-28)

This isn’t the first time that people looked down their noses at God’s ways.   The Child who was born of Mary was also despised, just as people despise the way He came to share our flesh.  Who thinks highly of the Fruit of Mary womb?  Jesus is just a historic figure, a role model to emulate, an eccentric prophet.  But a Savior?  How can the Christ be born in a nowhere town, to a young mother of no fame?  “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (John 6:42)  Yes, this is how God’s Kingdom entered the world: through the birth canal of a woman.  This is how “He has shown strength with His arm”—not with mighty thunder but with the cries of labor. 

Part 4 – All who receive the One born of woman are in fact born from above.

The Apostle Paul magnifies the Son of God’s human birth saying, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent His Son, born of woman, born under the Law, to redeem those under the Law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”[9]  Everyone who receives the Fruit of the Virgin’s womb, has actually themselves received a supernatural birth.  The Evangelist John writes, “to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, 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.”[10]

It took the intervention of God to break the cycle of sin and death in our natural birth.  Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, God’s Son was born.  Now that saving work of God has come to you.  Though you have human parents, you have been adopted by God the Father in heaven.  You have been “born from above” by water and the Holy Spirit.[11]  The blessings of God are yours because He has adopted you and given you His own Name.

THE WORLD WAS SAVED THROUGH CHILDBEARING AND YOU ARE SAVED BY BELIEVING IN THE FRUIT OF THE VIRGIN’S WOMB.

Because of this, the song of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the song of all believers.  We are His servants in humble estate, the communion of saints is His Israel, and we are offspring of Abraham according to His great promises.  So, let’s together turn back to the Gospel reading in the bulletin and magnify our God and Father with the song of Mary:

My soul magnifies the Lord,

47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.

For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

50 And his mercy is for those who fear him

from generation to generation.

51 He has shown strength with his arm;

he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;

52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones

and exalted those of humble estate;

53 he has filled the hungry with good things,

and the rich he has sent away empty.

54 He has helped his servant Israel,

in remembrance of his mercy,

55 as he spoke to our fathers,

to Abraham and to his offspring forever.  Amen.


[1] Genesis 3:20

[2] Genesis 3:15, NKJV

[3] 1 Timothy 2:14-15, 1 John 3:8

[4] Empty wombs that God intervened in: Sarai (Gen. 11:30), Rebekah (Gen. 25:21), Rachel (Gen. 29:31), mother of Samson (Jdg. 13:2), Hannah (1 Sam. 1:2), Elizabeth (Lk. 1:7), Mary (Mt. 1:18)

[5] Luke 1:35

[6] Psalm 67:1, 2

[7] Numbers 6:24-26

[8] Psalm 29:11

[9] Galatians 4:4-5

[10] John 1:12-13

[11] John 3:5