Monday, February 13, 2017

Sermon - Matthew 5:21-37 - Epiphany 6

Epiphany 6
Matthew 5:21-37
“But I say to you...”

Our Lord Jesus Christ speaks with an authority of his own.  Ancient teachers would often appeal to the authority of those who have gone before them.  Even today, we pastors are taught that there really is nothing new when it comes to theology, but to lean heavily on the wisdom of those who have gone before.  We appeal to Walther, to Luther, to the early Church Fathers.  But Jesus Christ needed no such wisdom and guidance, for he was and is the very Word of God made flesh.  He precedes all of these other authorities, who really devolve their authority from him.

And so, in this section of his Sermon on the Mount, he begins to draw contrasts between the corrupt and insufficient human commentary on the law that had been handed down to the people of his day – and his own pure, divine, unadulterated expression of what adherence to the law of God actually looks like.  Again and again he repeats this construction... “You have heard it said...  But I say to you”.  Jesus' saying always trumps, always overshadows and outshines whatever human wisdom may have to offer.

And it is so often the case that in our human wisdom we want to make the law of God something less that it really is.  We focus on one aspect of it, we over-emphasize one of its prohibitions.  We rationalize and minimize, we come up with clever ways to avoid the full brunt of it.  The Old Adam is like a legal Houdini when it comes to the accusations of the law, well at least he fancies himself that way.  “Oh, that doesn't apply to me.”  “Oh, I'm not that bad.”  “Gee, at least I tried.”

But inasmuch as we would diminish the law and its seriousness, Jesus raises the bar.  Where we would look for a way out, he leaves us no escape from the full fury of the law.  We are, all of us, trapped in our own guilt.

“You've heard it said, do not murder...  But I say to you anyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.”  Yes, actual murder will get you in hot water with the justice systems of this world, but the kingdom of God concerns also the things of the heart.  And so the anger inside of us, welling up from the black heart of sin, is just as damnable.  Jesus leaves no out.  For even a harsh word, “you fool!” makes one worthy of Gehenna, the smoldering trash heap outside of Jerusalem that Jesus uses as a picture of eternal damnation.

I don't know about you, but I've had my share of angry moments and more, and I've called a brother far worse than a fool.  Jesus would have us see these sins, this law-breaking which we think is such a small thing, is really not.  We are no less than murderers in our hearts and words, destroying our neighbor in our daydreams and with our insults.  The same sinful self-righteousness drives all of it.  The same corruption of sin that spoils all good things.

But Jesus has a remedy for this – reconciliation.  If your brother has something against you, drop what you're doing, even if it's bringing an offering to God, and go be reconciled with your brother.  In other words, don't think that God is pleased with your sham holiness when you can't come to terms with your brother.  Repent – not only before God, but before man.  For God, who reconciles you to himself in Christ Jesus, would have his own people be reconciled to one another in Christ.  Put away the anger, the grudges, the outraged sense that you've been mistreated and the victim of so much injustice.  Take a look in the mirror at your own heart of stone.  And then turn from it all, turn to Christ in faith.  Be at peace with both God and your brother by the humility that confesses, “I have sinned” and by the gracious offer of forgiveness.  For so have we been forgiven in Christ.  So God's anger against us is put away in Jesus.

You have heard it said not to commit adultery.  Oh, yes.  You've heard it said that it's ok as long as you really love the person.  You've heard it said that you should be getting all the love you need.  You have heard it said that you can be friends with benefits.  You have heard it said that living together is a nice way to test run a marriage and see if it's a good fit.  You have heard it said that this marriage just isn't working out, we've grown apart, and it's better for everyone if we go our separate ways.  You've heard it said, “it doesn't hurt to look”.  You've heard a lot of things said about love and sex and marriage and adultery in our culture.  So much of what was said in Jesus' time was said for convenience and as a cover for lust.  And so it is today.

But again he leaves no out.  Thoughts and actions are the same.  Lust in the heart is like unto adultery in the bed.

And divorce – an all too common occurrence in this modern world – so it was even then.  Man made rules have twisted marriage in all sorts of knots, and provide for its easy dissolution.  But Jesus knows God's intention- that what God has joined together, let man not put asunder.

Adultery comes in many forms, and marriage is dragged through the mud every which way.  But even when society winks at all this, God's law does not.

And finally this business of oath-taking.  Apparently it was in vogue to swear oaths, not only on God's name, but on heaven, or to swear by earth, or by your own head. Oaths were sworn in all manner of foolish things, and often with false purposes.  And while it is permissible to swear a solemn oath to the glory of God and the good of your neighbor, such as a marriage vow or ordination vow, or in a court of law.... In everyday life Jesus calls us to simple honesty – let your yes be yes and your no be no.  Avoid all of this other evil foolishness.

Here we see that sin is often tied up not only in what we think and do, but also in what we say.  Our words can be duplicitous and self-serving.  We like to play around the edges of the truth, coloring reality by our words for our own benefit.  We besmirch our neighbor and hurt his reputation, so as to make ourselves look better.  We utter curses with the same lips that sing God's praises and call upon his holy name. And we seem to think that since the words evaporate as quickly as they are spoken, we bear little to no accountability for them.

Thanks be to God for the Word made flesh who speaks the word of the Gospel to us.  Thanks be to God that the oaths God swore of old, to Abraham, Issac and Jacob, to the people of Israel through the prophets, the promises of the Messiah – that he keeps his solemn oaths and sacred vows.  Our God speaks – and creation comes to be.  Our God speaks – and the Law is set before us.  He speaks and condemns sin and sinner alike, but also speaks a word of mercy.  And Jesus, whose blessed words bring life and salvation.  Whose words of forgiveness are spoken even as he is crucified, yes also because he is crucified and because, as he promises and declares, “it is finished”.

Jesus whose anger was just but whose mercy out-shined it.  Jesus who is always faithful to his bride, his holy church.  Jesus, who fulfills God's ancient oath by taking upon himself the word of God's just sentence – the wages of sin is death.  Jesus, who does all things well that we do so poorly, so sinfully.

It is, then, only in the light of this faith, and of his Gospel, that we begin to live up to this Sermon on the Mount, or to any of his holy laws.  Only by faith, and with the aid of his Holy Spirit, can we begin to walk in peace and not anger, faithfulness and not adultery, and to speak clear and true words and not duplicitous and empty promises.  Only by the Gospel, and in Christ, does the child of God find the power to please him and do what is right.

You have heard it said.... ah, but don't listen to the words you hear from mere man.  Jesus says, “but I say to you...”  And his words are always worth the listen.  For in them you find him, and in him is truth, light, and life.  Now live according to this faith, and his words.  In Jesus Christ,  Amen.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Sermon - Life Sunday 2017

Life Sunday
January 22, 2017
John 10:10-11
“Abundant Life in Christ”

10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. 11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

For some time, many of our churches have observed an annual “Life Sunday”.  We do this in January, with no small thought given to an infamous anniversary – that of January 22, 1973 – exactly 44 years ago today – when the Supreme Court of our land ruled on the landmark “Roe vs. Wade” abortion case.  Since then, we estimate somewhere around 58 million unborn children have been murdered with the blessing of our civil authorities.

To say this is tragic strains the word.  Even a term like holocaust seems insufficient.  Hitler and the Nazis killed some 6 million Jews, which is of course horrible.  But it pales in comparison to 58 million lives lost.  A number which eclipses the casualty count of even the bloodiest wars of history. And the fact that the unborn are the “least of these”, helpless, unable to speak or defend themselves, it makes the slaughter all the more deplorable.  To the extent that minimize it, fail to work against it, and perhaps even do things to encourage it – we bear guilt as well.  To the extent that we contribute to a culture of death, each of us must repent!

Let the word from this pulpit and this congregation be crystal clear:  abortion is the evil of our day, and an unmistakable sign of a culture that has lost its way and turned in no small degree to selfish evil.  It is sin.

But we are also people of the Gospel.  And so that word must be as loud and clear.  We are followers of Jesus Christ, and Jesus forgives sin.  If you happen to be one of those with this particular skeleton in your closet, then know this:  Jesus Christ forgives you.  There is no sin, not even the sin of abortion, for which he did not die and pay the price.  You stand just as forgiven and clean before God as the rest of the sinners who are washed in the blood of the Lamb.  Let this good news chase away grief and shame and guilt.  When Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them”, he means, you too.  And when Jesus says, “It is finished”, he means it.  Leave the heavy baggage of your guilt at the foot of his cross.  Be at peace.

And so it is “Life Sunday”.  But it is not only about abortion.  Let us take this day to ponder the words of the Lord of Life who lays down his life for us all.  Let us consider the gifts of life he has entrusted to us – in so many facets.  And Let us treasure and give thanks for this mystery, also caring for the lives of our neighbors.

In John 10, our text for Life Sunday, Jesus is in the midst of his remarks about himself as the door for the sheep and the good shepherd of the sheep.  He spins this metaphor marvelously, weaving in a number of important points about his person and work for us.  One key idea is that as the Good Shepherd, he lays down his life for the sheep.  He refers, of course, to the cross.  But the purpose and benefit of that cross is for us:  “that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

This Christian faith of ours, you see, really is a matter of life and death.  Death, which is the wages of our sin.  It first reared its head when Adam and Eve ate of the tree, but it's been rearing its head in ever sinner ever since.  Sin leads to death.  Sin deserves death.  And death is not just the ending of a heartbeat and brainwaves – it is the ultimate separation.  It separates body from soul, but more importantly sin and death separate us from God, the source of all life.  It's not that you cease to be, it's that you cease to be with him, and that's a frightful thought.

But it is not God's will and never has been his will that the sinner would perish.  And so he sends Jesus, that light of the world in whom is the life of all.  The one by whom everything, including all life, was made.  Jesus, who by his death on the cross destroyed death and brought life and immortality to life.  He who died but will never die again, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

To be sure, the thief is still out there – the devil himself, bent on stealing, destroying and killing.  And evil men follow suit with the prince of this world, stealing, destroying and killing.  Christians are persecuted more now, in the world, than ever before.  The ranks of the martyrs swell.  But for those who die in Christ, there remains life – eternal life – nonetheless.

Though is sure doesn't always seem that way.  How can the pastor stand over the very grave and dead body of your loved one and read the words, “Where, oh death, is your victory?  Where, oh death, is your sting?”  How can we be so sure that our loved ones who die in the faith are alive in Christ?  How can we even know that we, who so often trudge through what amounts to a living death, how can we say that we too are alive, or have life as God means it to be?

Paul helps to clarify (in Colossians 3):   For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

The life that we have in Christ is hidden.  We can see it only with the eyes of faith.  When it seems to all outward appearances that God is angry, that we're being punished, that there is no hope but only suffering...  faith sees the promise.  Faith trusts the word.  And we have life.  You have already died – in baptism, buried with Christ.  Now also raised with him, but in a way that is hidden behind the crosses of this fallen world.

But one day it will be crystal clear.  One day we will see it with our eyes – when he appears.  Then, we also will appear with him in glory.  Then the tension of the “now” and the “not yet” will be finally broken, as eternity comes, a blissful forever of life with him.

But let's circle back to the words of Jesus we started with.  “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly”.  We've said how Christ brings life by his death and resurrection.  We've shown that this life, for now, remains hidden to all but the eyes of faith.  But what about the abundance?  What does he mean by that?  “that they may have life, and have it abundantly?”

And abundance is more than you even need.  It's so much, such an overwhelming amount of life, that you'll never have to worry about having enough of it.  That's how God's grace is.  That's how his gifts are.  Always more than enough, more than sufficient to the need.  He is not a God to do just the minimum, but like the psalmist writes, “you prepare a table before me; my cup overflows”.

And that abundance of life flows over into our lives. That love, that mercy, that grace we have received must be reflected.  The life we draw from the true vine, Jesus Christ, bears fruit in our lives of service to our neighbor.

Life Sunday shouldn't only be about denouncing abortion, but also about acknowledging the life that we have in Christ, a precious gift.  But the abundance of that life also means that we care for and support the lives of others, and treat the life given to them as the precious gift it is.

Christians, therefore, respect life when it comes to thorny modern ethical questions of bioethics.  We may use certain technologies, but refuse others.  We respect our God as the Lord and giver of life.

Christians uphold and support life in the mundane work of caring for widows and orphans, the poor and needy.  It's not always glamorous, but this kind of service is commended by God.

Christians pray for, encourage, and lend a hand to young troubled mothers, swaddling them not just with clothes and diapers but with love and support.

Christians care for the aged, beginning with our own parents and grandparents, until God sees fit to bring their life to its conclusion.

Christians adopt and support the adoption of children, providing children with a loving home and a life of warmth and blessing.

We don't all do all these things all the time, of course, but as we are able, as we have opportunities, and out of love as the Spirit moves us. But we Christians do these things, and so many more, in support of God's gift of life, because we have abundant life in Christ.

“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says, “I lay down my life for the sheep”  “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  Thanks be to God, in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Sermon - Epiphany 2 - John 1:29-42

John 1:29-42a
January 15, 2017
“Behold the Lamb of God...”

You probably have that one friend or family member, who at Christmas, loves to give gifts – but doesn't just wrap them and move on – you know the type – where the wrapping paper itself is a work of art.  You might get calligraphy on the card, or a special ornament attached to the package.  It's not just paper and tape, but a fancy bow or some other foo-foo adornment.  You almost feel bad opening the gift, so much time has been put into it – and so you unwrap it slowly and carefully, appreciating the whole thing all the more.

That's kind of what Epiphany is like.  Of course, Jesus is the gift.  He's the Son of God sent into human flesh, God's gift to mankind – a savior.  And this gift is so precious that the Christian Church has set aside a whole season – the season of Epiphany – in which we take our time “unwrapping” the gift that is Christ.  And with each Sunday we will see another angle, another reality, another depiction of just who this Jesus really is:
The one baptized to fulfill all righteousness.
The one who makes fishers of men,
A Light dawning in the darkness,
The one who blesses the poor, the meek, and the persecuted, and finally, on Transfiguration day an echo of the heavenly voice heard at his Baptism:  “This is my Son”.

Today, we hear several important descriptions of Jesus spoken by John the Baptist and his disciples.  We'll touch on each of these shortly.  But for starters, let's take the famous statement of John, when he saw Jesus:  “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”.

By this moniker, “Lamb of God”, John was no doubt evoking in the people's minds the lamb that was sacrificed at the yearly Passover meal.  This lamb, which hearkened back to when God delivered the people from Egypt, was of course a foreshadowing of Christ.  This lamb, whose blood was shed to save the people, whose life was given to save the people from death.  This lamb, without spot or blemish.

But “Behold!” John says.  Look, and take note!  This one here, this Jesus is THE Lamb of God.  The lamb to which all other lambs pointed.  The lamb in which all other lambs find ultimate fulfillment.  Their sacrifices anticipated his.  Their blood looked forward to his blood.

So in this one little phrase, “Lamb of God”, John wraps a whole lot of Old Testament meaning.  But it gets better.  Because he's not just the Lamb of God, he's the Lamb of God “who takes away the sin of the world”.

Oh, those sacrifices of countless animals over the years were sacrifices for sin.  But they had no value in themselves. Instead, those sacrifices keyed in to the greater sacrifice to come, the once and for all sacrifice of the Lamb of God.  The sacrifice that Jesus finally offered, of himself, to take away the sin of the world.  One famous hymn puts it this way:

Not all the blood of beasts
on Jewish altars slain,
could give the guilty conscience peace
or wash away the stain,

But Christ, the heavenly Lamb,
Takes all our sins away;
A sacrifice of nobler name
And richer blood than they.

“The sin of the world”.  Ponder the freight of this phrase for a moment. The world has a lot of sin.  The people of the world are all sinners, from the least to the greatest of us.

But he “takes away the sin of the world”.  What an all-inclusive statement!  It's not just the sins of some people of some times and some places.  It's the whole world, all people, all times, all places.  And that means you, too.  It's not for some of the sins of the world, but for all of the sins, even the really bad sins that you have committed.  The ones you know about and bother you – and the ones that you don't even know you've committed.

This is not just any-old-lamb, mind you, this is the Lamb of God.  This is the Son of God.  This is a perfect man, who fulfilled the law and all righteousness.  This is the only one strong enough to stand toe-to-toe with sin and devil and death and come out alive and victorious.  This one, this Jesus, is the only one that could do it – but has he ever done it!  His sacrifice there for you and me and everyone – really is the greatest thing that ever happened in the whole history of the world.  Behold!  Look!  “Here he is” John says.

Today, your pastors say the same.  Behold!  The Lamb of God is here, the same Jesus who was once sacrificed for your sins.  Behold!  Look!  See him – not with your eyeballs, but with the eyes of faith.  Where is he?  Only where he promises to be:  in the bread and wine that are his true body and blood.  Given at the altar of the cross, and distributed from this altar before us today.  He's still taking away the sins of the world.  He's still giving himself for you.

“Behold the Lamb of God!” John would repeat it.  The next day he said it again, and John's own disciples begin to take it to heart.  They acknowledge Jesus first as rabbai, teacher – and then as Messiah.

They call him rabbai, which means teacher.  Certainly Jesus had much to teach them.  They would spend the next 3 years learning from him, following him, being prepared by him for witness to the ends of the earth, and for persecution and martyrdom.  They had little idea, I'm sure, that first day they began following the this teacher what they would be taught. The rabbai has much to teach you and me as well.  May we follow him faithfully, and tune our ears to his words.

And they also called him the Messiah, which means, the Christ.  Which means, the one anointed by God, set apart to bring about salvation.  John saw Jesus anointed by the Holy Spirit.  John declared Jesus to be the one he was looking for.  And so Andrew and the others confess him as Messiah, again probably having little idea what that actually meant.  Not a conquering king, but a sacrificial lamb, this Messiah.  No worldly glory but only a cross was before him.  It would take those disciples even longer to learn this.  But here they would also follow, as most of them also met a violent death.

But nonetheless, this Messiah, this Teacher, this Lamb of God – would show them all things in due time.  He would continue to reveal the riches of the mystery of his person and work – who he was, and what he really came to do.  And much like unwrapping a beautiful Christmas gift, we see the good news of Jesus unveiled for us in the Gospels.  We see God's word applied in our lives at various stages and in manifold ways – calling us to repentance, recalling us to his promises, guiding us in the darkness, enlightening us to greater thanks, deeper trust, and more fervent love for our neighbor.

For our faith is all about this Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and that includes your sin.  his Rabbai who teaches us by word and deed, this Messiah who is set apart for us – the only savior.

That's at least three names or titles for Jesus in this little reading alone.  But he's not the only name of note here.  Jesus meets Simon, Andrew's brother, and notice what happens to his name: Jesus changes it.  He calls him “Peter”, which means “Rocky”.

You, too, are given a new name in Holy Baptism.  There, you receive the very name of the Triune God.  There, you are made one with Christ, and a member of God's family.  Then and there your whole identity is renewed, as the old Adam is drowned and the new man comes forth.  There, each fallen son of man is recreated into a precious child of God.

Later Jesus remarks, when Peter makes the good confession that Jesus is the Christ, that “Upon this rock I will build my church”.  So even Peter's name – a new name – teaches us something of Christ, and of the confession of his name.

Friends, the Lord bless you richly this Epiphany season, as we continue to ponder and unwrap this great gift that is given in Jesus.  Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! Behold the Rabbai, the teacher of all men.  Behold the Messiah, the only one who can save.  Behold, he gives you a new name in baptism, and calls you to confess his strong name.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Sermon - Circumcision and Name of Jesus - Luke 2:21

Circumcision and Name of Jesus
January 2nd, 2017
Messiah Lutheran Church, Keller, TX
Luke 2:21
“He Was Called Jesus”

It's not every year that the 8th day of Christmas falls on a Sunday. But in observance of what actually happened to Jesus on his 8th day from birth, we take today to commemorate his circumcision and naming.

The Gospel reading is short, but it still gives us much to consider. We may notice, first of all, that Jesus being circumcised would have been very normal and expected for any newborn Jewish boy. It was a custom of the Jews from the time of Abraham. It was a visible sign of the covenant, and it marked you (irreversibly) as part of that covenant people. To be a Jew was to be circumcised. To be uncircumcised was to be a Gentile.

But you might say, “so what?” Why does the fact that Jesus underwent this odd Jewish ritual have anything to do with me? Why does the church bother celebrating it, and why does Luke even mention it?

Well remember this little aphorism: Everything Jesus does, he does for you. So too, his circumcision. By this event, mentioned by one short verse in Luke, Jesus begins fulfilling the law on our behalf. He goes through everything, every step, every stage of human life that we do – in order to redeem all of us. At every turn he kept the commandments. On every occasion he did what God expected. And he did all things well.

Furthermore, this event is the first time his newly-formed human body would shed his holy precious blood, but it wouldn't be the last. It was a foreshadowing of the suffering he would endure at the cross. There he would pour out his blood as a ransom for many, and for you. Even now, the shadow of his crucifixion destiny is beginning to fall upon him.

And don't pass over the significance of the 8th day. Christians have long understood the special significance of this number – 8. If 7 is the number of creation (for the world was made in 6 plus a day of rest), then 8 is the number of the new creation. It is the number of eternity, the number of heaven. It is what we inherit through Christ.

It is also the number of holy baptism, which Paul connects to circumcision. The number 8 seen on many octagonal shaped baptismal fonts. This connection is recalled in Luther's flood prayer in the baptismal rite - that on the ark God saved Noah and his family, 8 souls in all. Both circumcision (then) and baptism (now) are initiation rites for the people of God. But baptism is the circumcision of the heart, and a blessing given to both male and female Christians. Baptism even more clearly expresses the nature of God by using his Triune Name, place that name upon us.

God's been placing his name upon his people for a long time. It goes at least as far back as the Aaronic Benediction from our Old Testament reading in Numbers 6. “So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them”. Paul makes it even stronger in Galatians when he says, “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” To have his name upon us, then, is to be blessed by him. To have his name upon us is to be identified with him, to be united with him, to be accepted by him.

But perhaps most importantly, God places the name “Jesus” upon his son. Of course, it was through the angel Gabriel that this name was given, but as a messenger of God above. For the father typically has the naming rights. Speechless Zechariah had to confirm that his son would be named, “John”. Adam named the animals, and also his wife, as an exercise of his authority. Even today, children don't name themselves, but we all receive names from our parents, the ones who have the authority over us.

That Jesus was named “Jesus”, and not Joseph or something else entirely... it is a confession of his divine origin and lineage. He is the Son of God. So God alone has the naming rights.

And as we noted, not too long ago in the Advent season, the name “Jesus” also teaches us who he is, and what he does. It means, “God Saves”. And in this little child, God had come to save.

Implied in all of that, is that we need saving. Underlying the circumcision of God's people of old, and the Baptism of his people today is this universal truth: we are by nature apart from God in our sin. We are born outside of his kingdom. We are conceived in the rebellion that we inherit from our fathers, all the way up the rotten family tree back to the first man who was named - Adam.

But Jesus is the Second Adam. And he gives us a new name. His baptism makes us children of God, for in it, we “put on Christ”. No longer are we imprisoned under the law, held captive by its accusations. No longer are we bound to the hamster wheel of trying to justify ourselves by works, as if we ever could. No. Faith has come, and through faith we are all sons of God in the name of Jesus.

God saves. God saves, by his son Jesus. Jesus saves. Jesus saves by his death on the cross. And by that cross, God saves, Jesus saves... you. All that is wrapped up in the name, “Jesus”.

And when you talk about God's name, there's always that pesky Second Commandment: You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.

What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not curse, swear, use witchcraft, lie, or deceive by His name, but call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.

Leave it to sinful humans to abuse even the most precious gift. Leave it to us to find a way to corrupt what is holy, and try to use it for selfish gain. Even some thing like God's holy name. Jesus – the name of Jesus – even becomes a curse for some who would misuse it. May it never be so amongst us Christians!

Rather, let us not misuse, but properly use the name he has given us. Call on him in every trouble. Every trouble? Yes. None too large or small that he doesn't care to hear. Pray. Praise. Give thanks. Even when the going gets tough? Especially then. You have a precious hotline to heaven in the name of Jesus. Your prayers are acceptable to God in Jesus' name. Why not do as he desires, and call upon your merciful Father in the name of his beloved Son? Why not live according to that name that is on you in baptism? Why not shine forth a reflection of the blessings he speaks upon you? Don't neglect the name that God gave to him, a name he invites you to call.

And this is why we so often pray, “in Jesus' name”. As Christians, all our prayers are spoken, “in Jesus' name”. That is to say, none of our prayers are acceptable to God without Jesus. But through Jesus we not only have access to the Father, but he is favorably inclined to us. Jesus is our one true advocate with the Father, and so prayers in his name are precious to God. We don't pray in our own names, but in the name that is above every name. Could it get any better?

So this 8th day of Christmas, give thanks to God for the name of Jesus. A name he received from God. A name which he places upon us. A name which means what he does – God Saves. And remember that this savior, has come to save you.

In Jesus' Name, amen.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Sermon - Christmas Day - John 1:1-14

Christmas Day
December 25th, 2016
John 1:1-14
“A Very Wordy Christmas”

We wish you a Merry Christmas.  A Blessed Holiday Season.  Season's Greetings.  Happy Holidays.  Have yourself a Merry little Christmas.  There are so many ways people greet each other in honor of this day.  But what if I wished you a “Very Wordy Christmas”?

The Word.  That's the central idea of John's Christmas account.  Unlike Luke's detail-rich account of shepherds and angels, inn and manger.  Unlike Matthew's focus on Joseph's dilemma and the angelic dream.  Here, John goes right to the deep theological meaning of the event.  There's no possibility of sentimentalizing this.  But there is great fodder here for profound meditation and rumination.  Consider with me, this Christmas day, these words of John's Gospel, as “the Word became flesh and dwelled among us”.

John is already hitting the notes of Genesis with the first few words here.  “In the beginning”.  That's how Genesis starts, and that's what the word “genesis” literally means.  John is evoking for us the very beginning of Creation, in which God spoke everything into being by his word.  “Let there be light”.  “Let there be fish, birds, beasts...”.  “Let us make man in our image”.

No this world wasn't formed when some naughty mythological miscreant opened a forbidden box.  We aren't the byproducts of a war between Marduk and Tiamat.  Nor is this just another iteration of the unending circle of birth and rebirth.  Genesis points to a beginning.  A time when the earth was formless and void, and God gave it form – by his word, and filled the void – by his word.  The word of God is the agent of all creation.  By this word, all things were made.

John tells us even more about that word.  He was with God, and he was God.  The word is eternal, and the word is a person.  The word is identified with the God who speaks the word... they are, we confess, of the same substance.  And so this eternal word is a living word, a word in which is also life – and light.  Just how all this is so is a mystery as great as the Trinity itself.  A ponderous enigma not really to be understood, but confessed by faith.  The mystery of the Word, the Son of God.

And then another word was given.  “You can eat of any tree in this garden, but not the one at the center – for in the day that you eat of it, you shall die”.  But the serpent tempted, the woman was deceived, and her husband also ate.  All that had been orderly and good was now corrupt.  Death came.  And we've been living with it ever since.

Our words are small and selfish and corrupt and failing.  They are not reliable.  They are unclean words that proceed from unclean lips.  They are words that flow from unclean hearts, and are accompanied by sinful actions and sinful inaction.  We are no better than our first parents in the garden.  We are just as deceived, in our flesh, just as disobedient to God's word.  We are just as deserving of his word of condemnation.

But before God even addressed the brand-new sinners in the garden, he had a word, another word – a word of hope for them.  For the serpent's head would be crushed by the woman's offspring, though his heel would be bruised.

This word, a word of promise, would unfold and expand throughout the pages of the Old Testament.  The prophets declared the outlines of a savior and his work – a suffering servant, born of Bethlehem, born of a virgin, a son of David.  The events of history painted a picture – a system of sacrifices that pointed to a final sacrifice, a bronze serpent lifted up for healing, the sign of Jonah – in the belly of death for three days... and so many more.

All these words, woven together in a blessed tapestry of prophecy and promise, all driving toward the blessed incarnation of the Living Word from eternity, born as a humble Jewish baby.  The Word became flesh. And here another mystery impossible to comprehend.

How can “the Word” be God?  How can a word be alive?  How can a word become flesh?  How can God become man?  How can light and life have their being in a word?  How can the creator of all things, the eternal Son of God, whose glory and majesty we can't even begin to comprehend, who stretched out the heavens and called forth from nothing everything that is, how can this incomprehensible glory be revealed in a newborn child?  One of us?

But there it is.  The mystery of the incarnation.  The wonderful fulfillment of God's ancient word of promise.  Salvation unto us has come.

God's greatest gift to the world came wrapped not in ribbons and bows, but in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger.  God's plan of salvation was not accomplished with swords of steel or bolts of lightning, but with a word made flesh, and that flesh offered in sacrifice.  This living word was born to die, to give his life as a ransom for many.  This living word, in which was the light of men, would submit to the darkness of death to shine the bright beams of salvation upon us.  But this living word would never be silenced, even by death, for he rose and lives for all eternity.  And his word goes forth – from Jerusalem, to Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

The word, the word... the word that today proclaims your forgiveness – not a word “about” your forgiveness, but a word that actually forgives you your sins.  An absolution so strong that it even unlocks the gates of heaven!

The watery word of your baptism, the triune name of God – Father, Son and Spirit – a word that holds sway over you every day.  A promise of adoption that still stands.  A washing away of sin that still matters.  A word of hope that will never fail.

And the words with which Christ gives to us his body and blood – words of institution – words which promise forgiveness of sins.  Far more than symbol or metaphor, these words are “mysterion”, they are sacramental.  They put the eternal word of God, the person of Jesus Christ himself, in yet another form for us – under simple bread and wine.  And as his words invite us to take and eat, take and drink, they also promise forgiveness, life and salvation.

Where would we Christians be without the word?  We'd be without Jesus, and that is no place to be.

That's the way it is for the world.  The unbelieving world that does not receive him.  That has no ears to hear this word.  Even though he made them, they don't know him.  The same goes for his own people, the Jews.  Though some did receive and believe, as a whole, his own people rejected him.  We see the haters and scoffers around us, today, too.  Sometimes we cower before them.  Sometimes we are annoyed or even enraged by them. But ought we not also bear witness to the light?

But to us, who have received this word, by faith, he gives the right to become children of God.  And in this way – he whose birth was a mystery and a miracle – he gives us a mysterious and miraculous second birth.  Not by blood, or the will of man, or the flesh – but we are born of God.  Born of water and the word.  Born by the spirit.

As you ponder the Christmas story, remember John's Christmas.  And consider the Word.  The word who was with God, who still is God.  The Word by whom all things were made.  The Word who became flesh, in the person of Jesus Christ, born for you.  In him we have seen the glory of God.  In him we are born anew.  Abide in his word, dear Christians.  And have a very “wordy” Christmas.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Sermon - Matthew 1:18-25 - Advent 4

December 18th, 2016
“Matthew's Christmas Prepositions”

Today we have the Nativity of Christ according to St. Matthew. It's shorter than the Luke account. We don't have all the details that Luke tells here. Instead, Matthew focuses on the dilemma of Joseph, the appearance of the angel and the naming of the Savior – Jesus, also known as Immanuel. It serves as a complementary account to the more well-known nativity told by Luke. And so both help us by painting part of the picture of the events surrounding our Savior's birth. Today I'd like to take a slightly unusual approach to this familiar Christmas text....

Abraham Lincoln, in his famous Gettysburg Address, spoke of a government “of the people, by the people and for the people”. They are powerful words that are still quoted in political speeches even today. Those little words, “of”, “by” and “for” hold most of the meaning in the phrase – even though they are lowly prepositions.

Well we Christians know something about words, and we especially treasure the Word of God. We pay attention to the grammar, and even the smallest words amongst God's words can play an important role for our faith. So today, I'd like to look at a familiar Christmas passage from Matthew's Gospel, through the lens of some important prepositions.

Our first preposition helps Joseph solve the dilemma he faces. The problem is this: his betrothed, Mary, is found to be pregnant. She had been away for a few months visiting her cousin Elizabeth, and one way or another, Joseph comes to find out that she is with child. You can imagine the thoughts that ran through his head – assuming that Mary wasn't who she appeared to be, and had instead betrayed him and his trust. She had broken the marriage, it seems, before it really even got started. She had put Joseph in a very difficult position.

According to Jewish law, the penalty for all this could be quite harsh for Mary. Joseph could have not only divorced her, but he could have done so in a very public way – putting Mary to shame as an adulteress. Some suggest that if he pressed, could have had her punished – even perhaps put to death.

But Joseph was a righteous man, and wanted to divorce her quietly. He was a man of faith, a child of God. He resolved to do unto Mary as he would have done to himself. He was making the best of a bad situation in the most godly way he knew how. And in this way, he stands as a fine example for all of us. He was being, in his way, Christ-like.

But he didn't have all the information. So the angel appears and fills him in on some very important things. And here we come to our first Christmas preposition: From. “That which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” In other words, this isn't a case of adultery, Joseph. This child is from God.

From God. Or we might translate “by God”. In these two words is summed up the central doctrine of the scriptures. Everything good that happens to us and for us is from God. He is the source of all things, the creator of all this creation. He is the one who works salvation – it is a pure and free gift from him.

By contrast, we could look at what comes from man. From man comes sin and evil. From the heart of man come wicked desires. From the mouth of man's unclean lips come unclean words. We bring nothing good of ourselves. We have only shame.

But from God comes good, despite all of this. From God comes Jesus, the Savior. From the Holy Spirit is conceived in the womb of the virgin a miraculous child – sent from heaven above – from the Father – to us.
Completely outside of and beyond this creation, Christ comes from God, though he is God himself. From the highest throne to the lowly manger. From riches to rags if it ever were. He comes. From there, to here, for you.

This is the mystery of the incarnation. That God takes the initiative in our salvation, without any human work or effort. By his Spirit, he sends his Son into the womb of Mary. Just has he calls each of us to faith by that same Spirit, working in the word.

The next preposition is also a “from”. But it's an entirely different direction: “From their sins”. The sense is, “away from”

She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

And so we see that the significance of the birth of Christ is all wrapped up in the forgiveness of sins. Without this part – the forgiveness of sin, the saving FROM sin – none of this matters much at all. But this child from heaven is here to bring us away from sin, and back to the Father.

The name of this child is also from heaven, from God, through the angel. And the name “Jesus” is not just a favorite name popular in the Jewish mom and dad baby books of the day. Jesus means something. It means, literally, “God Saves”. Yah- Shua. And you will call him this, the angel commands, for a specific reason. FOR (there's another preposition) he will save his people from their sins. The name denotes his special role, calling, task. It tells us who he is and what he's here to do. Save us. From our sins. From our own sins. To save us first of all, from ourselves.

And he does it by a perfect life, and by a sacrificial death. He does it by doing everything well, and doing it in our place. He does it by earning what we couldn't, and paying what we can't. He suffers all, bears all, endures all – even death, FOR us.

And finally, he is not only FOR us, he is also WITH us.

“God with us”, the ancient prophecy gave this title to the Messiah, “Immanuel”. He is God with and among us. With us in the most intimate way possible – by becoming one of us. He's not just God in our midst, he's God made flesh, Creator becoming creature.

And he is God with us for us. That is, he comes in mercy, not in terror. He comes as savior, not as judge. He comes to bring us salvation. If God were angry with us and here to judge us, then his being with us would be terrifying. But this Immanuel is here for our good, our highest good.

And while we no longer see him, for his body is now ascended to the throne of heaven, still he remains Immanuel, God with us. He's with us by his word of promise - where two or three are gathered in his name. He's with us in baptism, by which we have “put on Christ”. And he is with us in the mystery of the meal – that bread and wine are divine body and blood – because he says so. Immanuel, God with us, even now, even here, even today. For our good, for our forgiveness, for our salvation.

As we mark one more Sunday of Advent, one week away from Christmas, rejoice in Matthew's Christmas account. And give thanks that this child, this Jesus, is FROM God. Rejoice that he saves you FROM your sin. And believe his promise, that he is WITH you always, even to the end of the age. Amen.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Sermon - Advent 2 - Matthew 3:1-12

Matthew 3:1-12
Advent 2
December 4th, 2016
“John's Call to Repent”

In much the same way that the holiday season brings visits from loved ones we may see once a year, today we have the annual Advent season appearance of John the Baptist.  And just as every family seems to have that one crazy uncle or aunt (and as they say, if you don't know who it is, it's probably you), so John the Baptist is a very strange character himself.

He must have looked kind of rough, living out in the Judean wilderness.  He won't be winning any fashion shows with his camel's hair outfit.  His cookbook full of locust and wild-honey recipes probably won't have a wide appeal.   And he's not going to write a book on how to win friends and make nice to pharisees – calling them out as a “brood of vipers”.

But for all of that, it wasn't John's oddity that gained all the attention.  And he was gaining quite a following, as, “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him”.  What was it about John that grabbed everyone and made then take notice?  It was his message:

“Repent!  For the kingdom of God is at hand”

It's Advent.  Jesus is coming.  And John the Baptist has appeared again with the same Advent message, even to you and me:  “Repent!  The kingdom of God is at hand!”

Repent!  Turn from your sin.  What a strange message it must be in the ears of a world that is more concerned with decorations and presents and baking and parties.  Repent!  The world, if it listens to that message at all, usually finds it offensive.  Imagine the accusations John would hear today!  Judgmental.  Harsh.  Close-minded.  Bible thumper.  But John's cry still rings out, down through history.  Repent!  This is how you REALLY prepare for Christmas, for the birth of the Christ, for the coming of his kingdom.

And who likes to be told they are wrong?  Who likes someone rubbing your nose in your sin?  That's what the call to repentance is, first of all.  The pointing finger of John jabs past the holly and garland, through the evergreen potpourri, past the neatly wrapped boxes under the tree, and it stabs at the heart of our sinful nature.  Poking, prodding, touching the sore spot of sin that we so often pretend isn't there.  John's call to repent is an uncomfortable reminder that you're not all right, you're not just fine, and you stand under the judgment of a Holy God.  You've broken his commandments.  You've rebelled against his word.  You didn't eat of the forbidden fruit in Eden, but you chow down on all sorts of other forbidden pleasures.  And as a tree, your fruit is rotten.

And because that word is so sharp – repent – there's no explaining away our sin.  There's now softening its edges.  We can't blunt the force of the accusation or shift the blame or rationalize it away.  “Repent” leaves us no “out”.  It is a crystal clear call to turn away from sin.

And the threats are real.  The axe is at the tree.  The fruitless trees are to be cut down and thrown into the fires of judgment.  This is not just some slap on the wrist, it is the condemnation, the very wrath of God.

John anticipates their argument, “But... but... we're children of Abraham!”  Spiritual resting on one's laurels is no excuse for sin.  Claiming you are something when you are really nothing is a fool's game.  John pulls the rug out from under them, and us.  There's no refuge we can devise. There's no escape we can formulate.  There's no merit or worthiness we can offer to shield ourselves from the force of the law.

And there's only one place to turn.  The same pointing finger of John that calls out sin, is the finger he would turn to Christ and say, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  He preached repentance, yes, but a preaching of repentance, and a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin!  And let's not forget that aspect of John's message.

Yes, John was a harsh preacher of the law, whose words cut us to the heart even today.  But he also held forth the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ.  The “greater One” who as soon to come.  John's not worthy to touch his sandals.  John's baptism is preparatory, fulfilled in the Baptism of Jesus Christ.  John is a prophet, and greatest among those born of women, but greater still is Jesus, the one who brings the kingdom of God to us all.

For his part, Jesus the “greater one” makes himself last and least in the kingdom.  He places himself under the axe of judgment.  And lays down his life on the tree of the cross.  But this tree does bear fruit – abundantly.  The fruits of the cross – the body and blood of Jesus – are offered here, to you, even today.  The forgiveness of sins Jesus procured for us there, is also freely given here.

John. Like any good preacher worth his salt, is really not about himself, but about pointing sinners to Jesus.  Calling sinners to repent, turn from sin, and turn TO Jesus Christ in faith.  

Really that's the other part of repentance.  It's not just turning from sin, it's turning TO Christ in faith.  If repentance was only feeling contrition, being sorry for our sin, then we would still be lost in despair, for there is no way to dig ourselves out of sin's pit.  But faith turns its eyes to the only one who can save.  And Jesus brings us out of the pit, even out of the grave, restoring us not just to neutrality – but to a place in the kingdom, even in his family.

You might be tempted to think that repentance is something you do – but it really isn't.  It's a change of mind and heart that is worked by the Holy Spirit.  It happens when he works through God's law to convict you of sin, and when he awakens and strengthens faith in you by the gospel.  We confess, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength, believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him...”.  And that goes for repentance, too.  Even this is a work of God, a gift from God.

Repent!  It's also a daily call for the Christian.  For each day, we return to our baptism:

For what does such baptizing with water indicate?  What does such baptizing with water signify?--Answer:

It signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

Where is this written?--Answer:

St. Paul says Romans, chapter 6: We are buried with Christ by Baptism into death, that, like as He was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

So say hello again this Advent season to John the Baptist.  He calls you to repent!  Turn away from your sins, and turn in faith to Christ.  And live in the daily repentance and faith of your baptism.  For one even greater than John has come – Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God.  And through him, the kingdom of God is yours.