First Sunday in Advent (Ad te levavi)

Readings: Jeremiah 23:5–8 | Romans 13:11–14 | Matthew 21:1–9

Text: Jeremiah 23:5-8; Romans 13:11-14

The Lord promises three things through the Prophet here: Salvation, security, and righteousness. 

We know salvation most of the time from the lack of it.  Nobody asks to be saved from good days, joys, and pleasures.  Instead, people cry out to be saved from disaster, betrayal, and danger. 

Security is something we long for—the health and wellbeing of our loved ones, and protection of our property.  In our time and place, we’ve become accustomed to a certain level of security.  Police and military, safe food and water, courts, and technology all afford a feeling of security.

Righteousness is freighted with religious associations, but I would argue that every person knows righteousness.  Perhaps not by that name, but as “being in the right” or “being accepted.”  It is the quest for this that drives both the transgender to demand affirmation from society and that drives the excuses we make for our failures.  We long for righteousness, even though we often look for it in the wrong place.

Salvation, security, and righteousness are basic human needs.  And it was these which the Lord had once promised to Israel.  When they were under the cruel yoke of Pharaoh in Egypt, the Lord promised to save them from their taskmasters.  As they stood on the other side of the Red Sea, Moses led them in song, “The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation” (Exodus 15:2)  Repeatedly, as the records of Joshua and Judges and Samuel record, the Lord continued to save His people.

He promised them security, as they would dwell in their own land, safe from their enemies all around.  “And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God. Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field…the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground… Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out. The Lord will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before you.” (Deuteronomy 28:2-7)  They came close to this under righteous kings, but it never remained long.

Righteousness was handed down to them by the just decrees the Lord gave.  As opposed to the ways of Abraham, the wandering Aramean [Deut. 26:5], before His call; against the practices of their Egyptian neighbors; abhorring the worship of the people of Canaan, the Lord revealed truth to correct man’s darkened imagination.  So, He said to Israel, “Righteousness, and only righteousness, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” (Deut. 16:20) 

But all of these blessings seemed to pass away by the time of Jeremiah.  Their salvation dissolved into captivity by the Babylonians; their hedge of security was torn down because of mass apostasy; their righteousness was in tatters so that they became a byword among the nations [1 Kings 9:7; Jer. 24:9].

In their low position, their Lord sends Jeremiah with His Word:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’

Salvation and security for Israel were promised in the land, a nation with rulers and borders.  But that was hardly realized before it crumbled away.  Even after the Exile, the return to Jerusalem was incomplete.  It missed the goal because they forgot the Lord who brought them out of Egypt [John 8:33]. Security was lost to a strained tension with their Persian, Greek, and Roman rulers.  Under the rabbis, righteousness had become a matter of obeying human precepts. 

Nevertheless, “the days are coming,” the Lord declares.  It will be sure, sure as the promise He made to Abraham: “‘Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’” (Genesis 15:5)  Where Israel had failed because of sinful weakness and disobedience, the Lord would succeed in His purpose.

However, His manner of saving and bringing security, of becoming our righteousness is not what we expect.

“Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when they shall no longer say, ‘As the Lord lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,’ but ‘As the Lord lives who brought up and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.’ Then they shall dwell in their own land.”

In our thinking, salvation means taking away the problem immediately and permanently.  Wars are won when the enemy is defeated and retreats.  The Red Sea deliverance was nice because it was visual, and the Israelites could see the dead Egyptian forces on the shore [Ex. 14:26-30].  But God’s salvation is immediate and permanent: “It is finished,” the Lord says from the cross (John 19:30).  And He declares that salvation to you surely: “All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.  For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:3-5)  It’s a salvation that is received through faith in the Lord’s Word.

Security is a feeling most of the time.  We feel safe because of our confidence in created things—trustworthy authorities, locks on our doors, vaccines, a gun in the safe.  But creaturely security can quickly be shattered.  Even worse, a false security can tell us not to worry about how God will judge us.  But when God promises security, there is no higher authority and nothing can overturn it. When God gives security, it is sure: 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:38-39)

As I mentioned before, human righteousness is always seeking affirmation—whether it’s before the true God or before other people.  To be right is to be able to stand without shame and have some proof of being blameless.  This is what the society does by making protected classes. The Lord our righteousness works in another way.  He declares us righteous through His Son, who is without sin and who Himself took the blame and bore the shame as He hung naked upon the cross.  That righteousness, He reckons to you through faith.

It’s to us that St. Paul writes:

11 Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. 12 The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

The days have come, which the Lord declared.  But our reason and experience still cry out that something’s missing.  His salvation, security, and righteousness are now.  And we also look forward to even more: we wait for our salvation to be manifest, our security to be tangible and permanent, our righteousness to be revealed and not obscured by ungodliness.

We despise the ongoing burden of sin, death, and the devil, but we are sure that our God will deliver us from every evil.  We long to live securely, yet we will not find it in this mortal life.  Yet we will rest secure eternally.  We hunger and thirst for righteousness, even while we see unrighteousness all around.  Nonetheless, the Lord will surely satisfy us. [Matt. 5:6]

Beloved in the Lord, your God is faithful.  He has done what He promised before and He will surely bring it to completion at the Day of Jesus Christ [Phil. 1:6]. Amen.

First Sunday in Advent (Series B)

Text: Isaiah 64:1-8

“Enough is enough!” When things get so bad, you’ve tried again and again, yet you can’t see any way through, you might throw up your hands and say, “Enough is enough!”  Maybe you’ve been feeling that way lately?  It could be the many maddening topics in the news—election fallout, coronavirus scare and hope, the stress and pain the holidays bring up.  It seems to be one thing after another…

On top of that, there’s been the general apathy toward God that results in churches being sparsely populated (except for the feel-good ones).  When we tell others about the hope within us, often they reject it with a smug pride and say it’s none of our business what beliefs they hold.  This especially hits home for pastors, when they labor constantly, and end up with people isolating themselves from the congregation and they see kids hardly ever coming back once they reach confirmation.

Enough is enough!  Or as the Psalmist said, “O Lord, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked exult?” (Ps. 94:3)

Isaiah, too, was saying enough is enough!  He had preached to Israel and her kings for over 60 years, but no one seemed to listen.  He had rebuked them for being a vineyard of wild grapes, of calling evil good and good evil, preaching impending judgment but the kings and people stubbornly putting the Lord to the test.

Besides this, Isaiah had been given to foresee the future blessings of God: the Servant of God (Isa. 42:1-9, 49:1-13, 50:4-11, 52:13–53:12), the redemption (Isa. 44), deliverance from death (25:6-9), victory over enemies (37-38).  God would provide deliverance and restoration from what His people were living under, and Isaiah saw it in such clear terms that his prophecies are written like it’s already happened.

But put that all together—the frustration and the promised blessing, and out comes this prayer in chapter 64:

Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down,

that the mountains might quake at your presence—

                as when fire kindles brushwood

and the fire causes water to boil—

                  to make your name known to your adversaries,

and that the nations might tremble at your presence!

                When you did awesome things that we did not look for,

you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.

What’s it going to take to get past the bad and into the promised future good?  Why does God allow His people to be so hardened toward Him?  Why does He let His enemies trample on His people and profane His Name?  This is the contradiction God’s prophet sees: On the one hand is the everlasting covenant between God and His people, where He promises us every  blessing and says that His Word goes out and accomplishes every purpose for which He sends it (55:9-12).  On the other hand is the daily experience of foolishness, weakness, stubborn hearts, and the victory of the grave.

                We have all become like one who is unclean,

and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.

                  We all fade like a leaf,

and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

                There is no one who calls upon your name,

who rouses himself to take hold of you;

                  for you have hidden your face from us,

and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.

The only remedy is a direct and powerful intervention from God, which would make arrogant tremble and would turn this broken and rebellious world on its head.  And isn’t that what we pray for to?  The world is getting worse and worse, our sinful flesh keeps doing those things which are against the Spirit, and we are sick of burying our dead and talking about the resurrection while the world snickers and we can’t fill the hole left by those who’re gone.

    From of old no one has heard

or perceived by the ear,

                  no eye has seen a God besides you,

who acts for those who wait for him.

                You meet him who joyfully works righteousness,

those who remember you in your ways.

                  Behold, you were angry, and we sinned;

in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?

God is the only one who can answer prayer, much more a prayer like this!  And He did indeed answer Isaiah’s prayer, though not exactly in the way expected.  It was much less violent than that, yet no less mighty.  He came down from heaven, but was born of a humble virgin.  He appeared, but first to shepherds. Nations gathered to Him, but they were foreigners and they worshipped Him even as a Child.  He came in covenant faithfulness and also answered for the rank apostasy.  God’s answer was not in another Flood, but in being lifted up from the earth, crucified, death, and buried, and rising again on the third day.  In Jesus Christ, very God and fully man, all the judgments and blessings of God culminated.

In this one born of a virgin, the transgressions of the wandering sheep were smitten and healed. In Him, the covering cast over all peoples, death, is taken away.  In Him, the bruised reed and the faintly burning wick is not snuffed out, but is called in His perfect righteousness.

And He continues to come down from heaven in ways which only faith knows to look for: God does not boom from heaven with condemnation and judgment, but with salvation in His Son’s life-giving Gospel.  His Word is preached in congregations big and small, and there the very gates of heaven are opened, sinners are released, and the One with whom the Father is pleased speaks, and we listen to Him (Matt. 17:5).  His Kingdom comes quietly, but powerfully as parents pray for their wayward children, people come back to their childhood faith with a truer appreciation for the pure Gospel, and friends share the blessed hope of knowing Jesus and invite them to church.  The Lord comes down from heaven and strengthens us in every season, but especially when it all seems too much to bear, and the tangible assurance of Jesus Body and Blood delivers His peace.

Isaiah prayed for the Lord to intervene for Israel, and He did at that time.  Although they were dragged into exile, they were restored until God’s promise for every nation was fulfilled in Immanuel, God with us.

Today, we feel like enough is enough, but we also have seen how God acted in times before.  In His wisdom, He acts for good and does not delay except that more people repent and be saved.  Scripture does assure us that the second coming of Christ is at hand, and when He comes again it will be to judge His foes and set all things right.  But most of all we rejoice that this coming builds on His first, where He remembered His mercy toward us.  Because of Jesus, we are able to confess,

But now, O Lord, you are our Father;

we are the clay, and you are our potter;

we are all the work of your hand.

                Be not so terribly angry, O Lord,

and remember not iniquity forever.

Behold, please look, we are all your people.

Amen.

First Sunday in Advent (Text: Matthew 21:1-11)

Triumphal Entry

Happy New Year!  No, really! What? You think I’m crazy and I better check my calendar.  I have. The Church has a calendar she follows. It’s not one that competes with January-December.  It’s like the fiscal calendar or the school calendar, but more. The Church Year centers around the events in the Life of Jesus, God in the Flesh, and of His Church.

It runs regardless of the months, and is patterned Sunday-to-Sunday, as we recognize where our true life is: in the resurrection of our Lord.  The seasons of the Church year are: The Times of Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost/Trinity. It begins here with Advent, preparing us to celebrate the birth of our Savior and looking forward to His coming again.

In case you were wondering, this isn’t a new idea.  In Israel, God actually instituted a yearly schedule of feasts for His people to celebrate His acts of salvation and on-going provision (see Leviticus 23)—the weekly Sabbath, the Passover, Pentecost, the Day of Atonement, and so on.  By remembering these events, they remembered who their God was and who they were in relation to Him. “I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

That’s also what we mean to do—remember who our God is, glorify Him for what He has done, be filled with joy at His salvation, and grow in who we are in relation to our great God.  So, here we are at the start of the Church year, but what are we doing in Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives? It’s to remind us Who we celebrate at Christmas.

We start the Church Year in Jerusalem because there, Jesus accomplished His mighty saving work—the act of God which fills the rest of our life with hope, which gives shape to our lives in this passing world, which we weekly and daily remember every time we call upon His Name.  It’s a fine way of kicking off this new year, focused on the blessings which we daily live in, and continuing to walk on our pilgrim way until time gives way to eternity.

It’s common to hear conservative voices campaign to put Christ back in Christmas, yet it’s equally important to know Who that Christ is.  He’s not just special because of His birth. In fact by the time Jesus was born, there were many allegedly special births:

  • Egyptian kings were considered descendants of Osiris and Isis, and called “god incarnate”
  • Alexander the Great was said to have been “virgin born”
  • Augustus Caesar dubbed himself “son of the deified one” (Julius) and was called “savior of the world.”

So, His birth by itself doesn’t set Him apart from these, except that we believe He is “begotten of His Father before all worlds…and He was made man.” (Nicene Creed)

This virgin-born Son of God is the true Savior of the world.  He is able to do for us what no other could—neither angel or man. He comes as King to do what no other ruler could, and to make us citizens of a Kingdom which cannot be shaken or overthrown.  Certainly, other kings had come—even in the humble manner of riding on a work animal, a servant of the people (Solomon, for instance 1 Kings 1:33-34). But none of them was the King of Kings, Who set aside His glory, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:6-8)  By His all-atoning death and resurrection, He won for Himself a Kingdom beyond anything the rulers of the earth squabble over.  He gained a Kingdom whose citizens come from all the nation-states of this world and yet are united under this one, eternal Lord.

This is the Jesus we have come here to meet, no mere prophet who points to a salvation on the horizon.  He’s right there, sitting on a donkey with men’s garments underneath Him. But where is He now?

Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna in the Highest. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. He is here today.  We join that crowd, now knowing to whom we cry: This is none other than the Christ, the Savior of the world.  It is quite right for us to cry hosanna, Save us, Save us, Save in the utmost.  That what Jesus came to do. That’s why He entered Jerusalem. Because we needed Him. And He made our need His own.

Today, that once-for-all sacrifice is brought to us. We are given that body and blood to eat and drink. We are given the forgiveness of our sins. The same forgiveness proclaimed to the people long ago. The same forgiveness proclaimed from the cross. That’s your forgiveness as well.

And by that forgiveness, we are taught. We learn what love is. What love does. And by that love, we know the Law of God. We learn what mercy is, because Christ has had mercy on us first. We are among the crowds who come to Jesus. We are among the many who are glad to come to the house of the Lord. Now that house is no longer confined to a room in a building. But the temple in which Jesus resides is now you. His presence is right there beside you with His gifts. With the water of Baptism, with the word of Absolution, with the Bread and Wine of which He says, “This is My body, this is My blood”—this is where we go to find Him, for He hasn’t promised to be anywhere else with His saving grace. 

He needs to give these gifts to you, solely because we need them. We need life. We need forgiveness. We need salvation. And there’s Jesus, giving them right here for you. They weren’t free to purchase. They cost our Lord everything. But they are free to you. No work from you required. Because it is finished. There’s nothing left that needs to be done for those things to be yours. They are, because Jesus has given them to you.

A blessed new year in Christ to you.  We worship today and for as many days as the Lord gives us until our pleas are answered in eternity. Amen.

The King of Kings Comes for You (Matthew 21:1-9)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran Churches, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR
First Sunday in Advent (Ad Te Levavi) + December 3, 2017
Text: Matthew 21:1-9

“Your King Comes to You”
 
This is the beginning of Advent, the season leading up to Christmas.  Advent comes to us from Latin, meaning “to come to” (ad + venire), That is, Christ comes, and comes to His people.  That being said, Advent is for meditating on Christ’s coming—when He came in meekness, and when He comes again in glory and power.
 
Today, we will focus on the Scripture that Zechariah made of this day:
“Say to the daughter of Zion,
       ‘Behold, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’ ”
 
Behold says Zechariah. Wake up! Pay attention! Why? Because your King is coming. He alone shall reign among you. Christ alone is your king, not Moses with his law. Sin, death, and the devil are not your master. Let none but Christ your Master be. All tyrants who have long plagued you lie at your feet, for Jesus is your king. Jesus alone is chosen, promised, and sent by God to you. He has purchased and won you. Heaven, earth, and all creatures cry out that Jesus is your king.
 
He came in this way because He is King.  King of the Jews, but so much more.  It would simply be a tragedy if Jesus came as the rightful King of the Jews, they didn’t receive Him and rather crucified Him.  But in fact by their rejection, God established His reign.
 
What sort of King He is
He is not an earthly ruler of an earthly kingdom.  He is a spiritual King whose Kingdom is one of faith (yet one day of sight).  The Jews had it wrong when they heard of God’s Messiah coming as King.  They heard terms like kingdom, land, and Zion, and they were confined to merely physical interpretations.  Right before His ascension, the disciples still asked Him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)  By which they meant, are you going to set up a nation state, establish a worldly government, choose people to be your “right hand man” and so forth.
 
But we are at a severe disadvantage to think of the Kingdom, of Zion, of Israel, and our King in merely earthly ways.  He is God, so His reign extends not borders found on a map but extends over the whole universe.  His Zion is not merely a special name for the earthly city Jerusalem, but for His dwelling in the midst of His holy people–“For the Lord has chosen Zion; he has desired it for his dwelling place: “This is my resting place forever; here I will dwell, for I have desired it.” (Ps. 132:13-14)  His Israel is not the blood descendants of the patriarch Jacob, for “All who receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13)
 
At Jesus’ entry into the city Jerusalem, it was expected that He was an earthly king, for He was riding in as Solomon, the natural son of David.  Yet, it was soon clear that His reign would not be a continuation of King Solomon.  God raised Him up, not to a glittering throne with fanfare.  The shouts of Hosanna quickly came to a close.  Instead of a gold-clad throne, He was raised up to reign from the tree of the cross.  The justice He established was the “temporal death and eternal punishment” that we “justly deserve.”[1]  The righteousness He established was the sinless, obedient heart and life that no son of Adam could do.  He was indeed righteous and having salvation, as Zechariah foretold (Zech. 9:9).  But what earthly King could do this for His subjects?  As the King of the Jews breathed His last and was laid in the tomb, it became all too clear that His reign had not yet come in power.
 
How He reigns
Among earthly rulers, you find power, politics, sway, and even corruption.  Not so with King Jesus.  He comes “humble and mounted on a donkey.”  He comes not to be served but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28)  He comes not with threats of condemnation but with words of comfort for the broken, the sinful, the misguided.
 
That is how He still comes, in humble means, as a servant-King.  He reaches people not by coercion and ultimatums, but by His humble, yet powerful Word.  He doesn’t display His power in mighty acts of destruction, but in the peaceful fruit of sins forgiven and the hope of eternal life.  He nourishes His people, not with glorious power to overcome every obstacle, but with His crucified and risen Body and Blood.  All this so that His power might be perfected in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).
 
Indeed, the Day is coming when He will come in power, but now is the day for His Kingdom to grow.  We might grow impatient with His ways, but He who knows the hearts of all also knows what things truly “work” to extend His reign.  When we’re surrounded by businesses and churches-modeled-after-consumerism that seem to thrive we grow envious of their visible success.  But if we are to be faithful to our Lord, we too remain humble servants, waiting to be exalted by our God.
 
Why He Comes
Lastly, we consider why He comes.  It might occur to us that we get by just fine without a King.  But who is able to face the judgment day without fear?  King Jesus intercedes for you.  Who is able to face the spiritual warfare that would deceive us, make us complacent in our sins, and drag us ignorantly to hell?  King Jesus is able to loose our chains and fight for us.  Which one of us can do battle with death and overcome?  We might think we’re doing well to reach 90, but in fact the day comes for each of us to breathe our last.  King Jesus comes to give you His victory over the grave!
 
He did all this before even asking you if you’d like it.  He purchased and won you from sin, death, and the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy precious blood and innocent suffering and death.  He knew your great spiritual need, and He has loved you from eternity.  This is the sort of King He is for you.
 
He did all this so that you would belong to Him and live with Him and serve Him in His Kingdom.  In this life, that Kingdom may not look like much—it might be hard, painful, take sacrifice, even cost you your life—but it is a Kingdom which endures beyond time, gives victory over death, and promises you eternal prosperity and blessing from God.
 
Behold, daughter of Zion, faithful of God in this place, your King is coming to you, and God grant you a heart to receive Him.  Amen!
[1] Lutheran Service Book, p 184