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

Third Sunday in Advent (Matthew 11:2-6)

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

Third Sunday in Advent (Gaudete) + December 16, 2018

Text: Matthew 11:2-6

God sends His messengers to point us to the true signs of Christ’s imminent kingdom.

For about the last 40 years, Americans have been very skeptical of what their government is doing.  This was epitomized in the 1974 Privacy Act after the Watergate scandal, which sought to make government dealings available to the public.  When it comes to man, sometimes force is necessary to get them to explain what they’re doing.

But not so with the Lord.  In Amos 3:7, He says: “For the Lord God does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.”  Some accuse God of being secretive or double-minded, of withholding information from humanity. But this is not true!  God created humanity for fellowship and oneness with Himself, and even since our parents sinned, God has been working tirelessly to reveal His will to us in spite of our deaf ears and blind eyes.

When it comes to His work of taking our sins away and restoring eternal fellowship with man, God does nothing without telling His will to men.  Whether they listen is another matter.

He told His people ahead of time what He was going to do.  From Malachi 3 and 4: “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple…I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.”  He sent that forerunner of the Christ in John the Baptist.

“Comfort, yes, comfort My people!” says your God. “Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, That her warfare is ended, That her iniquity is pardoned; For she has received from the Lord’s hand Double for all her sins.” The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord; Make straight in the desert A highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted And every mountain and hill brought low; The crooked places shall be made straight And the rough places smooth; The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, And all flesh shall see it together; For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”  (Isaiah 40:1-5)

But to those who turn away from Him and hate His Word, the Bible will forever remain a closed book.  For them, this earlier Word through Isaiah is true: “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; Keep on seeing, but do not perceive. Make the heart of this people dull, And their ears heavy, And shut their eyes; Lest they see with their eyes, And hear with their ears, And understand with their heart, And return and be healed.”  That’s how it was with Herod, who locked John up in prison.  John had preached against him taking his living brother, Philip’s wife.  John was God’s messenger to Herod to repent of his evil ways for the Kingdom of Heaven had come.  But Herod and his new wife, Herodias, refused to listen.  Rather than continue to be made to feel guilty by John, he locked him up in prison. (Matt. 14:3)

God continues to send His messengers far and near, who make His will known.  This is what St. Paul teaches in the Epistle lesson: “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful.”  These servants of God today are pastors, called by Christian congregations to preach the Word of the Lord and administer the Sacraments according to Christ’s institution.  Pastors take a sacred vow in the presence of God and the congregation to preach nothing more or less than Scripture says.  They also vow that they will bring that Word to bear in evangelical (Gospel-centered) spiritual care for God’s flock. This means they are to call those who are sinning to repentance and to pronounce the Lord’s forgiveness to all who repent.

Congregations, for their part also have a sacred duty to hear the Word of the Lord spoken by their called pastor.  They do not “hire” a pastor to simply put on a pleasant feel-good show on Sunday and feed them intriguing spiritual nuggets in Bible study.  Christians have this right to call a man of God so that He will be the Lord’s instrument to keep watch over their souls–rebuke them when they err, instruct them in true doctrine, guide them in living holy lives, and strengthen and keep them in the true faith (Hebrews 13:17, 1 Timothy 4:1-5, 1 Peter 5:2-3).

“Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’”

Now, John, the man of God, had a problem, because His preaching and wound him up in prison.  That led him to have some doubts if he had preached the right message.  If this is the Lamb of God come to take away the sin of the world and bring about God’s Kingdom, why am I rotting in this jail cell?  He’s not alone in his doubts.  Other men of God have doubts when their hearers rear up because of what they preach.

For my part, I’ve had my doubts in my call at this congregation.  When I came, several long-time members–people who had been part of calling me to shepherd this part of the Lord’s flock–bugged out of my spiritual care and the support of Bethlehem because they did not agree with the Scriptural doctrine of the Lutheran church.  But when 6 households up and leave, including several council members, in the first year of my arrival, it led me to have serious doubts.  Did I say something wrong?  Was I not whimsical enough in the way I taught the faith?  It was a very rough first year, and during VBS week of 2017, I was facing 6 of them tell me they were never coming back because I didn’t pick or let them sing their favorite ditties.  If even the forerunner to Christ had doubts, you can imagine how doubts must plague pastors today.

But Christ, my Lord has helped His servant see the truth, just as He did for John.

“Jesus answered [John’s disciples], ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.’”

Jesus could have given him a simple “yes,” but He chose to do more.  He points John to the signs of His Kingdom.  These were signs that could only mean that Jesus was the Christ, God Himself come down to usher in the new covenant.  The signs were external, visible (yet spiritual discerned) confirmation that John’s ministry was right where it needed to be–even if it meant being in a jail cell and soon execution.  John, in spite of what it looked like, was fulfilling his ministry.

Jesus’ way of pointing to spiritual signs continues to be true today, because the ongoing task of God’s messengers is to point to the signs of Christ’s imminent Kingdom.  The Christian faith is assaulted by intellectual attacks: our children are made to feel backwards and closed-minded by their teachers and peers for their moral convictions, we are worn down by voices who urge us to shake off what they call an unreasonable faith.  Some are forcefully attacked at gunpoint, with threats of death, and others have their reputation and livelihood destroyed.  The Church cries out, “Are you the One who is to come? Or are the secuarlists right?  Have we been lied to by the Bible and our pastors?”

Jesus is here to point you to the signs of His Kingdom.  It is not a kingdom like this world, with borders, and an army to fight reproaches.  Rather, you are blessed because you are poor in spirit and have believed the good news preached to you.  Your spiritual eyes and ears, which you know are plagued by sin, have been opened to see and hear Jesus in the Scriptures, see His Body and Blood in the Sacrament, hear His voice from heaven announcing that you have peace with God and have eternal salvation.  You, who were dead in your trespasses, God has made you alive with Christ, and you will most certainly be raised to life when He comes again.

Incidentally, the Lord Jesus has also given answer for Bethlehem.  He pointed me to (and continues to remind me) what signs prove that His kingdom has come among us: the Word of God is preached and taught in its truth and purity here, sinners are brought to repentance and believe the precious word of forgiveness that He has placed on His servant’s lips, adults and children are baptized and publicly confess this Scriptural faith, and every age from infants baptized to elderly laid to rest acknowledge that God has worked all of this.

May Jesus Christ, John the Baptist’s Lord and yours, fill you with joy and conviction that the Kingdom of Heaven is coming among us and will continue to come so long as His Gospel is preached.  For His holy Apostle Paul has said, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to all who believe.” (Rom. 1:16) Bessed is the one who is not offended by Him. Amen.

Advent 2 Midweek

Advent 2 Midweek “For unto us a Son is Given”: The Answer of Samuel

In the Name of Jesus. Amen.

The devil loved barrenness. In Genesis 3:15, after the devil had tempted Eve, and she and Adam fell into sin, the Lord said to the Serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed

[offspring]

; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” The devil knew that one day a Seed of the woman would come and defeat him. So the devil was very glad whenever a woman could not conceive. He took it as an opportunity to gloat, as if there were a possibility that God’s promise wouldn’t be fulfilled.

Last week with Sarah, and next week with Elizabeth, we don’t hear the devil’s gloating. But this week we have Peninnah. Peninnah was the wife of Elkanah. Peninnah’s womb was fruitful; she has multiple sons and daughters. Elkanah also had a wife named Hannah, whom he loved, in spite of the fact she could bear him no children. The Lord had closed Hannah’s womb.

From time to time, Elkanah would go with his family to Shiloh where the tabernacle was set up, and it’s likely that he went for the appointed feasts. During these feasts, the Israelites offered peace offerings. The priests would burn certain parts of the animals on the altar, and the Lord gave a portion of the meat from the peace offerings to the priests. But most of the meat was given back to the one who brought the offering. And it was now holy meat to be eaten as a sacred meal from the Lord. The peace offerings were an Old Testament anticipation of the Lord’s Supper.

During these feasts, Elkanah gave portions to Peninnah and her sons and daughters. “But to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb” (1 Sam. 1:5).

It was during these feasts that Peninnah provoked Hannah and made her weep bitterly. Peninnah proved to be a rival, an adversary, tormenting Hannah because the Lord had closed her womb. Hannah wept, and refused to eat. No doubt Hannah felt the personal hardship of being barren. But as a faithful woman who trusted the Lord’s promises, she’s not just thinking of herself. She thought of the Seed of Promise who is to come for all people and end the gloating of God’s enemies.

Yet there’s Peninnah mocking: I have children and you don’t. Poor barren little Hannah! All she wants is a child, but she’s a fruitless tree, a dead end of descendants. Under these taunts are the taunts of Satan himself against all of God’s people: “You wait for the promised Savior, but he’s never coming.  Has He said He would never leave or forsake you?  Look at how things are?  You call this promised answered?  I’m the prince of this world, and no one can overthrow me. You’re destined to live under me in my kingdom, and serve me in everlasting unrighteousness, guilt, and cursing.”

Hannah weeps, and we weep with her. We feel our bodily malfunction—the parts that fail to function as God first created them, the lives cut short, our own waning strength.  We see the devil’s offspring everywhere in the form of those who hate Jesus.  This is what our eyes see and our ears hear, but we do not see our Lord fighting back. We cry out with David in Psalm 13, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” We cry out with Moses in Psalm 90, “Return, O Lord! How long? Have pity on your servants!” Like Hannah, we pour out our hearts before the Lord!

After everyone else had eaten and drunk in Shiloh, Hannah rose and prayed to the Lord in the bitterness of her soul. She prayed, “O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son” Literally what it says in Hebrew is “a seed of men.” Hannah asks for a seed, and it’s not a stretch to hear her praying for the Seed, the promised One, who as Hannah says, will “appear in the presence of the Lord and dwell there forever” (1 Sam. 1:22).

It wasn’t the Lord’s will at that time to send the Promised Seed. Nevertheless, He gave Hannah a son in order to show that he does not make his promises in vain. “And in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, “I have asked for him from the Lord.” (1 Sam. 1:20). The name Samuel in Hebrew means, “One who is heard by God” or “God heard.” Hannah named her son Samuel because he was an answer to prayer. God heard, and He sent a seed.

This was a great comfort to Hannah, not only because the Lord opened her womb, but because he confirmed His promise. Hannah’s comfort is our comfort because we have longed with her for the promised Seed. And we have even greater comfort than Hannah’s because we know that promise was fulfilled.

For centuries God’s people prayed in distress under the weight of sin and death, “Return, O Lord! How long?” For centuries the devilish Peninnah mocked God’s people. And then the fullness of time came (Gal. 4:4). The womb was Mary’s womb, and the child’s name Jesus, which means “the Lord saves,” (Matt. 1:21) because He would save His people from their sins. Jesus is the true Samuel. He is the one for whom Hannah and all the faithful prayed, and it is of Jesus that we say, “I have asked him from the Lord” and He has heard us.

Much to the chagrin of the devil, God’s promise proved true. Jesus came and fulfilled that ancient curse against the serpent. The devil opened wide his mouth to destroy Jesus with false accusation and bitter death. Yet it was on the cross that Jesus crushed the ancient serpent’s head with his heel.  After Satan, whose name means “accuser” spoke bitter, discouraging, and tempting lies to men, Jesus answered for them once for all!  Peninnah has been silenced forever, and in our ear, Jesus speaks peace: “Your sins are forgiven. The ruler of this world is cast out.  You shall not die, but you shall live. The children of the desolate one are more than her who is married.”[1] Take heart! God’s promised Seed has come in answer to your heartfelt cries!

We are a people at peace in the word of the Lord that He gives us.  But the voice that is no longer heard is the accusing voice of the devil.  Together with all of the blessings Jesus gives, He also gives us a holy and peaceful silence. Jesus makes the devil shut up.  In John 8, a woman caught in adultery is brought to Jesus, and the Pharisees say, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”  Jesus silences them by saying, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”  Finally, one by one they leave, and Jesus says, “‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ 11 She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.’”

In the same way, Jesus answers for and silences all of Satan’s accusation. When Jesus gave himself for us, he showed his promise to be true and the devil’s taunts to be lies. The devil may still rant, but because of what Jesus has done we can tell him, “Silence”  “Submit yourselves to God, resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7)  He must be quiet, and let you come to the house of God and eat the double portion of Christ’s sacrifice in peace. And then at the end, the devil will go down bound hand and foot to hell, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

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


[1] Matt. 9:2; John 12:31; Psalm 118:17; Isaiah 54:1