Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Sermon - Mark 1:4-11 - The Baptism of Our Lord

“Heaven Torn Open”

Mark 1:4-11

This First Sunday after the Epiphany (January 6th) is traditionally an observation of the Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ, in the Jordan, by John.  Some have argued that apart from his death and resurrection, Jesus’ baptism is his most important work for us.  And you can argue that or not if you want, but since everything Jesus does is for us, everything he does is important.

But it’s also something that puzzles Christians.  Why did he do it?  Did he have to do it?  What does it mean?  Even John objected to it at first, “wait a minute, Jesus, this is backwards.  You should be baptizing me!”

But it is fitting for them to do so, just this once.  It is proper and it is vitally important to Jesus’ mission.

There is much we could say about Jesus’ baptism:  For starters, it begins his public ministry.  Up until now, he was the Messiah, but did not take center stage in his preaching and teaching.  He had been a dutiful son.  He had been growing in wisdom and favor with God and man.  But now at 30 years of age – the traditional minimum age for a Jewish Rabbi, he comes out of obscurity.  His baptism marks this shift.

His baptism is also a recognition and proclamation of his identity.  “This is my son”, or here in Mark, “You are my son, with whom I am well pleased”.  What other human has ever had that happen?  What other human can claim the favor of the Father like this?  Surely none, for all sin.  Surely none, for only Jesus is the eternal Son of the Father, the Living Word made flesh.  Of course he knew it, but now the voice of God proclaims it for us to hear.  God testifies of his Son so that we would know him, listen to him, and believe in him.

The Spirit also testifies.  By coming bodily – he whose very name “Spirit” denotes he does not exist in bodily form – but now he comes in the form of a dove.  A bird of peace, not war.  Evoking the peace of God that followed the flood of Noah.  Now the Spirit comes at the flood of Jesus’ baptism in the same form.  And this, too, testifies that he, Jesus is the one, the anointed one, the singular savior who would bring peace between God and man.  The one, who in bodily form, in the flesh, would suffer and die to make it so.

But there’s more.  Jesus has no sin.  So why should he be baptized?  That is the heart of the matter here.  That is John’s objection, really.  That is what puzzles so many Christians.  But Jesus knows what he’s doing.

He’s taking our place.  He’s taking our sin.  He’s ushering in the great exchange.  Here at the Jordan Jesus takes his first step toward the cross.  Here he shoulders up, not the wooden beams, but the load of sin.  Here he identifies with sinners, so that sinners would be identified with God.  Here the Father declares his favor, so that in Christ, we may enjoy that same favor, and God would consider us also his children. 

In his baptism, Jesus is identifying with us sinners.  He’s uniting himself with us.  He’s not just showing us a good example of what we Christians should do (though there is that, too).  But he’s powerfully stepping into that water to become our substitute.  He’s doing it to fulfill all righteousness – to win for us the righteousness of God.

Soon, he would be our substitute in the wilderness, fasting and battling sin and devil alike, and coming out victorious.  He did what we couldn’t do – resist temptation, defeat the devil.  The Second Adam to succeed where the First Adam failed.

Then, he would minister.  In the course of his preaching he would heal all manner of disease and affliction, cast out demons, even raise the dead.  Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.  But these signs and wonders were rooted in the ultimate sign and wonder of the cross, where he would take all our griefs and sorrows in full, and leave them in the dust of death.

And when Jesus rises from the dead, he also does it for us, in our place, and as our fore-runner.  His resurrection is part and parcel of our own resurrection.  He’s the first fruits of the dead, we’re the rest of the fruit.  He’s the firstborn of the dead, we are the little brothers and sisters of the dead who will follow.  By his death he has destroyed death – not just for himself, but for all who are in him.

Paul explains this part of the great baptismal mystery in our Epistle reading.  Romans 6 shows how in our baptism we are united with Christ, buried with Christ, raised with Christ.  Whatever Jesus has, he gives to you – his righteousness, death, and his resurrection.  And whatever you have – only your sins – go to him, he takes them away, all the way to the cross. But this only happens because of Christ’s baptism, by which he unites himself with us.

And finally, concerning Jesus’ baptism, we observe this detail in Mark’s telling of it – heaven is “torn open”.  Not just a crack or a peek into heaven, but heaven is torn open.  With reckless abandon, the place of God becomes open in the baptism of Jesus.  Not just so that the voice of God may speak, and not just so that the Spirit may descend as a dove, but also that we may have access to God once again.

The door to paradise was slammed shut long ago, after Adam and Eve sinned.  They were cast out of the Garden and an angel with a flaming sword barred the gate.  What a bitter day when sin exiled our first parents and all their children to the wilds of a world now broken.  What a harsh reality they faced, as the effects of sin continued to grow and spread like a kudzu through their family, through the generations, and death reigned ever more fully.

But not anymore.  The Second Adam is on the scene.  The exile is over.  Heaven is open again in him.  Even better than the Garden of Eden.  Now by baptism and Spirit, by the promise of the Father and the cleansing blood of the Son, heaven is torn open once again.  Like the temple curtain that is torn from top to bottom, inviting redeemed sinners into the holy of holies.  Now the dwelling of God is with man, and the man who is in Christ will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Now, what can we say about our own baptism?

Heaven is torn open in your own baptism, too.  The blessings shower down like rain. The Almighty Triune God comes down to the font and places his name on your in those waters. Therefore your baptism isn’t a one-time-deal, a historical footnote, just a nice ceremony to remember but something you really outgrow and move past.  No!  Heaven is torn open and it remains open to you. God’s name is placed upon your and remains upon you.  The blessings of baptism shower down in a never-ending flood, overflowing your whole life through, so that even when you face death, your baptism is a great comfort to you.   

There, God says of you, this is my son, my daughter, with whom I am well pleased.  It is the seal of God’s approval on you.  You are marked as one redeemed by Christ the crucified, and that mark doesn’t rub off.  All new-born soldiers of the crucified bear on their brows the seal of him who died.  And that’s us – all new-borns, reborn in the waters, brought forth from death to life in Christ. In that blessed sacrament, you receive faith and life and righteousness.  You go into those waters with your sin, but come through them a new creation in Christ Jesus. 

And in Christ, heaven is now open to you.  No angel with a flaming sword can bar the way.  No sin or shame or guilt disqualifies you any longer.  You are in Christ, and Christ is in you.  He took your place to give you a place in the Father’s house.  Thanks be to God that Jesus was baptized for you.  And thanks be to God that you are baptized, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Sermon - Christmas 1 - Luke 2:22-40

The Fullness of Time

Galatians 4:4-7

Luke 2:22-40

The long wait is over, and here we are on the other side of Christmas.  I’ve always found it a bit easier, once we are past the actual day – once the gifts are unwrapped, the company has come and gone, and the dust settles… to be less distracted and more thoughtful about the true meaning of Christmas.  We can stand a little more apart from the busy-ness and sentimentality now that the world has moved on to Valentines Day decorating.  The church continues to reflect on the meaning of this holy birth, this precious child born to save.

Today, I’d like to start with our reading from Galatians.  Here Paul reflects a bit on the meaning of Christmas with his commentary on Christ’s birth.  He explains that it happened “when the fullness of time had come”.  And there is a phrase worth examining.  The fullness of time.  We don’t usually think of time as being “full”, but rather as running out.  Or frittering away our wasted time.  It’s something we never seem to have enough of.  But here, the image is quite the opposite.  As a measuring cup filling up to the line.  Or as an hourglass or a container of some sort, that God is filling, filling, until it comes to the brim and spills over.  A cup of blessings, perhaps, ready to spill over.

You look at the Old Testament and see God working.  He builds one man into a family, and then into a nation.  He plants that nation in a homeland.  They fend off enemies, rise and fall, are exiled and return.  A temple is built and rebuilt.  And a world empire takes over – bringing a tense peace.  The conditions, in hindsight, were right.  Of course God was not just waiting for the right time, but preparing the world.  Working through all the ups and downs of history to pull the trigger, when the time is just right, to send forth his Son.

Even now, with all the hindsight of thousands of years of history, it is difficult to see God’s hand moving through the rise and fall of nations, the challenges and triumphs of his people.  But we trust that the Almighty knows what he is doing, and always works for the good of those who love him. It’s not as if God is sitting helplessly on the sidelines, waiting for his chance, his big moment.  Nor was he ever.  He knows his plan laid from the foundation of the world, and nothing will hinder him from accomplishing it.  So when the fullness of time had come, God acted, sent forth his Son. 

Born of a woman, and born under the law.  Yes, it might appear that he came into the world in the usual way, but we know the backstory.  Son of a woman, born under the law, but also Son of God, and giver of the Law.  And with his two natures our Savior would both fulfill that law and impute his righteousness to the world, so that all who believe would be saved.

So that we might be adopted as sons, heirs, and have the right to call on the Father as dear children do.  The Father always knows when the time is right.  And we see that in our reading from Luke as well.

“And when the time came…” he begins, that is, the time for Mary and Joseph to bring Jesus to the temple for the prescribed rituals.  Purification for Mary and the redemption of the firstborn for Jesus.  Joseph and Mary were faithful and pious, they seem to have done everything a good Jew was expected to do.  They knew the times and seasons God had appointed, and they observed them.

And then we meet Simeon.  An unusual character, perhaps a priest himself.  Righteous and devout, and had been given a special revelation by the Holy Spirit.  He would not see death until he saw the Christ.  He had a “fullness of time” of his own.  A plan God had laid out for him, a blessed appointment for which he eagerly looked forward.

How long had Simeon waited and waited?  It’s interesting that we are not told.  There is a tradition in the Orthodox church that claims Simeon was one of the 72 scholars who translated the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament).  The story goes that he was translating Isaiah 7:14 “A virgin shall conceive…” and that just as his pen hovered over the word “virgin” in order to change it to “woman”, the Spirit stopped him, an angel appeared to him, and gave him this special revelation that he wouldn’t die until meeting the Christ.  If this is true it would make Simeon somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 years old. 

Now we don’t rest our faith on a pious tradition such as this.  It could well have been that Simeon was no older than a usual old man.  What matters isn’t the details of this unusual sign (or we would have been told them).  What matters is that God fulfills his promises whenever the time is right. 

However old you are when you meet the Christ, it is the right time.  Whatever you are doing, whatever stage of life, whether part of your plans or not.  In the fullness of time God acts, in time, to save you.  He sent Jesus at just the right time.  He brought the good news of Christ to you at just the right time.  You are baptized at just the right time – buried and raised with Christ.  And when God calls you home, and your time in this vale of tears is ended – it is also just the right time, the time of his choosing.  So it was for Simeon, so it will be for you.

And don’t forget Anna – who we are told her age – I guess Scripture doesn’t abide by the rules of politely never mentioning a woman’s age.  She joins Simeon in this strange and wonderful meeting with the Christ, also at just the right time, blessing him and confirming the blessing from God that this child is and will be

Simeon and Anna, in a way, these two elderly saints, stand as a sort of Adam and Eve.  They who in earliest days stood before Yahweh to hear the results of their sin, who first tasted the fruit of sin and death.  They, also who first heard the promise of salvation through the seed of the woman.  Now this old man and old woman, who appear as if out of nowhere, who represent to us the ravages of time and sin, and for whom death hovers ever near – they remind us of our first parents in the Garden.  But they also represent to us the fullness of time, the completion of the plan, the long-awaited closing of the loop of God’s promises.  The seed of the woman is here!  The Christ is born!  The tears of Eden give way to the joy of Simeon and Anna who have seen the salvation of Yahweh, even the glory of Israel.

And Simeon even sings about it.  What joy that we have this Nunc Dimittis, “Now let your servant depart in peace, in accordance with your word”.  Simeon sings with joy that he can finally die in peace, for he has met the Christ.  He can go from this sorrow-filled world.  His long life has now reached its fullness, in Christ.  And for Simeon, all is now well.

It is no accident that we sing the song of Simeon when we too have met the Christ.  We meet him not at the temple, but at the altar.  We receive him, not wrapped in swaddling clothes, but hidden under bread and wine.  We receive him with the same joy that sees his salvation.  And we, like Simeon, can depart in peace from this blessed meeting, in accordance with God’s word.  Sins forgiven, we can even die in peace, ready at any time – whatever God’s plan for us may be.

Think of this, dear Christian, any time you come to God’s house, hear the Gospel, receive the Sacrament, it could be the last.  God could call you home tonight or tomorrow morning.  Your days are at his discretion.  Your days are numbered.

But in faith we don’t fear death any more than old Simeon.  For he was in Christ, and he could depart in peace.  What a joy and peace to know that whatever the appointed time of your departure, your sins are forgiven, and you can depart in peace, according to the will of him who holds all the times and seasons and years and days in his hand.

In the fullness of time, God sent forth his son, born to die, also at the appointed time.  A child, appointed for the rising and fall of many.  A son, who would be pierced – crushed – and who would by his death bring the consolation of Israel, and of you.  Trust in the One who acts – in the fullness of time – and always at the right time – even Jesus Christ our Lord. 

Monday, December 21, 2020

Sermon - Luke 1:26-38 - Advent 4

The last reading set before us in Advent, as we wait in expectation and eagerly look toward our Christmas celebration – the final story we hear from Scripture before Christmas begins - is the Annunciation.  The angel Gabriel comes to see the virgin Mary, and proclaims to her the good news that she will be the mother of the Messiah, the Christ.

It is no small event in its own right. It’s part of our creeds – that Jesus was conceived by Holy Spirit… Usually celebrated by the church on March 25th, exactly 9 months before Christmas, the Annunciation marks the real beginning of the incarnation.  Jesus’ earthly life as a human being begins, we notice, in the womb.  He didn’t come from heaven as a man, fully matured and ready to do whatever.  He didn’t even appear simply as a baby.  But he undergoes the full extent of our human experience in order to redeem all of our humanity – not just cradle to grave, but womb to tomb.

And so, just 5 days before Christmas, we mark the conception of Jesus, by the Holy Spirit, in the womb of the virgin Mary.

Let’s take a closer look at this account from St. Luke, who carefully researched all these events and likely interviewed Mary herself who then relayed this story for us to hear. 

Mary was betrothed.  That means she was already spoken for, in a sense.  It’s a little more legally binding than engaged, but still not quite married.  She and Joseph had their plans.  They were faithful and observant Jews, we can see, from how they often even traveled to Jerusalem for the appointed festivals.  They were probably planning to have a family, and raise their children in the fear of the Lord.  Maybe they’d already registered at Bed Bath and Beyond, or whatever the 1st century equivalent was.  And the appearance of the angel here, and the words of the angel, and the implications of his message – threatened all of that.  But let’s see what happens.

But she was betrothed to a man named Joseph.  Luke mentions that Joseph was of the house of David.  And this is no small detail.  This rather intentional reference lays the groundwork for what is about to happen.  We know that the Messiah who was promised was to be a Son of David.  And Jesus would qualify both through the bloodline of his mother, and through membership in the household of his legal guardian, Joseph.

And so the angel appears, and greets her.  And what has always amazed me about this is that Mary is not puzzled by the appearance of an angel, that an angel should appear, I think, would be a most troubling, puzzling, and shocking event for any of us.  But Mary almost seems to blow past that – and is troubled instead at the greeting.  She focuses on the message, not the messenger, even when it’s a heavenly messenger.

We do well to follow her example, too.  Pastors may come and pastors may go.  You may change churches or move here and there.  You may hear the word of God from faithful parents, grandparents, teachers, and other Christians.  God uses multiple and varied channels to speak to us, his people.  But in the end what matters more than these, even more than an angel from heaven, is the word of God itself, the message of the Gospel.  We think of how St. Paul speaks to the Galatians – if anyone, if anyone preaches to you a message contrary to what you have heard from me – even if it’s an angel from heaven – let them be anathema (accursed).  So important is the message of the gospel.  Let us ever listen to the voice of the Shepherd, no matter who is speaking it.  And let us never be lead astray from the truth of his word, no matter how impressive or slick or convincing the false preacher.  Hold fast to the word.  Believe the gospel!

And the beginning of the gospel is here – with the incarnation of Christ.  What an appropriate way to begin it – with an annunciation – a word!  As the angel speaks to Mary the word of God’s promise, so does it become reality.  Mary conceives.  And the light comes into the world.  Sure, that light is not revealed until Mary gives birth, and our incarnate Lord remains for a time hidden in the womb, but even there he is recognized by the unborn baby John the Baptist, who leaps for joy as the two expectant mothers visit.

But even Mary has to admit this is all rather strange.  It is, in fact, unique in all of human history.  We know the way of it – how conception and procreation work.  But the God who designed it all breaks the usual pattern with this miracle child, this singular incarnation of his Son.  And Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit.  Thus no man can claim credit for bringing the Savior into the world, but just as our salvation is accomplished by God alone, so is Christ’s manifestation among us also a pure work of God, and of no other.  It is entirely an act of grace. 

But back to the greeting that troubled Mary so.  “Greetings, you who are highly favored”.  And the angel repeats it later, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”  That Greek word, charis, means favor or grace, or a special honor.  It, too, denotes a blessing or a gift that is undeserved – but flows freely from the grace of God.

Perhaps this greeting troubled Mary because she, like all of us, knew her status as a sinner.  Someone unworthy of such favor.  As she later would sing, “You have regarded the lowliness of your handmaiden”.  Mary knew she didn’t deserve a special place of honor any more than the next sinner, and yet an angel appears and calls her “highly favored”!  It is a strange message indeed. 

But so also is the Gospel.  I could greet you in the same way.  Greetings, you who are highly favored!  You, like Mary, have received the grace of God.  Grace, not to be the mother of the Lord, but grace to be the brother of the Lord, and a child of the Heavenly Father.  In Jesus’ incarnation you, too, are highly favored, sinner that you are, that your race, your human family, should be so honored to have among its ranks the eternal Son of the Father.  And more.  This child now conceived and soon to be born, would grow to a man who would preach and teach and heal and serve and finally die for the sins of the world, and for Mary’s sins, and for yours.  There is no greater favor or grace we could hope for than that!  There is no better greeting than the one that points to God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

The angel gives a few more details to Mary – that the child should be named Jesus.  That name (Yeshua in Hebrew) means, “God Saves”.  And here again we see that we are highly favored.  For it is not man who saves.  It is not we who save ourselves.  And yet along with Mary we now we need saving.  But so simple is the truth:  God saves.  And he does it through Yeshua, the fruit of Mary’s womb. 

And there’s more.  The child will be the Son of the Most High.  He is divine.  He is the eternal Son of the Father.  Before there was, he was.  He may be your son, too, Mary, but he is also much, much more.

And he’ll even occupy the throne of his father David.  He will fulfill the ancient promise that David’s son would reign forever.  Here the angel makes it clear to Mary, and to us, that this child is the Messiah.  He is the fulfillment of God’s promises of old.  He is the seed of the woman sent to crush the serpent.  He is the Prophet like Moses that God raises up, a new and better Joshua to lead his people.  He is the offspring of Abraham by whom all nations are blessed.  He is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah who will bear our griefs and sorrows.  He is the one to whom all the Scriptures testify, as he himself would claim.  Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.

One day Mary would stand at the foot of the cross.  There she would see this child that God granted her put to death in gruesome fashion.  There she would see the word made flesh accomplishing salvation for us all, the truest expression of God’s favor.  And if the greeting of the angel was strange, the cross of Christ is even stranger.  That God would save his people in such a way.  But that’s just what he does.  Nothing is impossible with God.

Mary’s response to this word of God through the angel, the strange greeting and all the other strange things that would come of it, is an example of faith for us to follow.  She speaks this beautiful confession:  “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

You and I could, and should, say the same.  We are servants of the Lord.  Let it be to us according to God’s word.  That word which shows our sin – let it be to me as you have said, Oh Lord.  I am a sinner, and I deserve nothing.  That word which shows God’s grace.  Let it be to me as you have said, Oh Lord.  In Christ I am highly favored, though I deserve nothing but punishment.  That word of Christ himself, by which he proclaims his mission accomplished, his sacrifice complete, and our sins atoned for:  It is finished!  Let it be to me, according to your word, Oh, Christ.

And as we prepare ourselves for Christmas, let us join with humble Mary in receiving the word of God in faith, strange as it ever may be, for in Jesus Christ we see that indeed, God Saves.  Amen.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Sermon - 2nd Sunday in Advent - Mark 1:1-8

Mark 1:1-8

“Comfort, Comfort”

Mark begins his Gospel as abruptly as you might expect.  The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

As it is written is Isaiah….

Behold, I send my messenger before your face,

who will prepare your way,

the voice of one crying in the wilderness:

Prepare the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight,’ ”

And then John appears.  As if out of nowhere.  And John starts preaching – a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  This is what the voice says.  This is how the way is prepared.  This is how Isaiah is fulfilled:  Repent, be baptized, and get your sins forgiven.  For the Lord is coming.

Yes, every year, during Advent, John the Baptist makes his visit.  We’ll hear about him next week, too, in John’s Gospel.  Today, we see him especially in connection with the prophecy of Isaiah, a prophecy about the one who prepares the way.

That Isaiah passage begins with the words, “Comfort, comfort, my people”, After Israel had been taken captive and banished from her homeland by invading armies, the voice of God healed her wounds, because the prophet proclaimed “comfort” to God’s people, because “her warfare is ended…her iniquity is pardoned.”

If there’s ever been a time we need comfort, it’s these days.  Anxieties are high.  People are more on edge.  I’m sure you’ve noticed it too, even here in our church family.  Fears about our health, our mental health, our spiritual health swirl around us.  People are testy – quicker than usual to snip at each other.  We are suspicious – not always putting the best construction on our neighbor’s actions.  We feel frustrated with a world that seems so out of control, and we pine for a return to normal and wonder if it will ever come.

We need comfort.  We could use a nice healthy portion of it these days.

But in many ways John is an uncomfortable fellow. I mean, even his manner of dress makes for discomfort – camel’s hair – sounds itchy and scratchy.  John’s a bit of a wild man – living out in the wilderness – eating bugs and probably hasn’t had a haircut for far longer than you’ve been away from your favorite salon.  He’s rough and tumble, this Old Testament character, this scruffy prophet.  But his message is also un-comfortable.

Repent!  Turn from your sins!  John’s message is as abrupt as his appearance at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel.  He just shows up on your doorstep and cries out.  Repent!  No soft-pedaling political smoothery.  No gentle socractic leading to get you to realize your problem on your own.  John lays it out there – rubs your nose in it.  Repent!  You’re a sinner.  Turn from your sins.  This isn’t polite dinner conversation or light-hearted banter.  This is hard-hitting, stark-reality, un-comfortable law.  You’re a sinner and you better shape up, cut it out, be sorry for your sins, and turn from them in disgust.

It’s uncomfortable because we know what the wages of sin are.  Death.  It’s uncomfortable because we know that God hates sin and condemns sinners.  It should make us spiritually squirmy for the law to work us over. The prophet’s simple and direct call to repentance leaves no one out, leaves no excuses, and gives us nothing but shame and despair.

But that’s not all John says.

Just as quickly, he moves from repentance to forgiveness.  Just as quickly as he rips off the bandaid, he applies the healing balm.  John the Baptist does bring the comfort, the comfort of the gospel.  And he does it even in the same breath.

“Repent and be baptized,” John preached, “for the forgiveness of your sins”  Let us remember in this time of pandemic, fear, frustration, uncertainty, and generalized malaise – that the real problem we face is and always has been sin.  And therefore the only real solution we can hope for is exactly the solution our God has prepared for us – the forgiveness of sins.

You are baptized, Christian!  And that’s far from nothing.  It is a great comfort.  It’s a place you can take comfort, there, the font.  There, where God made you his own, washed your sin away, and you became an heir of all the blessings of heaven.  Not a historical footnote on a page of your life long forgotten.  Your baptism is a present reality, a daily renewal, a rebirth that keeps on giving you blessings.  John’s baptism prepared the way for Jesus’ baptism, a fuller expression of this blessed washing that you now enjoy.  A great comfort for God’s people.

And John also preached a word of comfort.  The good news that the Lord is coming – that it’s time to get ready for his appearance.  Make his paths straight.  Prepare a royal highway.  It’s a terror if you’re stuck in your sins, to know that the Lord is coming.  That means judgment is coming, punishment you well deserve.  But in faith, the coming of the Lord is a comfort, and only comfort.  It’s better than the arrival of your best friend, or a beloved family member, a long-lost loved one.

A dear Christian recently reminisced with me about the loved ones she had lost in her long life, and how she looked forward to seeing them again in the kingdom to come.  But then, I heard the voice of faith, as she added, “But I’m so much more looking forward to meeting Jesus.”  To know that Christ is coming, and that you get to meet him face to face, what a comfort for his people!

Yes, John preached comfort because he didn’t preach himself.  In fact, he humbly confessed he was not the Christ.  He pointed forward to one far greater than himself.  The one who is greater than me because he was before me.  The one of whom I’m not worthy to undo his sandal.  I baptize with water, but he will baptize with the Spirit and with Fire. 

John brought a baptism and a word of repentance and forgiveness, but it was a word of comfort from Jesus.  John preached the word, Jesus is the living word.  John prepared the way.  Jesus is the way, the truth, the life.  John brought the comfort a baptism and hope.  Jesus delivered that very salvation, in his person, by his life and death.

What comfort we Christians find in the cross.  There, in the crucified Christ, we see the depth and breadth of God’s love for us sinners.  There, in Jesus, the perfect sacrifice for all sins that ever were or would be.  There in the Son of God made flesh and offered as a substitute for you, is the cure for all that ails you, for all the troubles of a broken world, for all the aches of heart and mind and soul.  If you are afraid, look to the cross.  If you are in sorrow, look to the cross.  If you carry the weight of your sins, the burdens and cares of this life, of your loved ones, seemingly of the world, look to Jesus – the one greater than John – the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  And there find your peace, your hope, your joy, your comfort.

This Advent season, we prepare again for Christmas, for a joyous celebration of the only true and lasting comfort we Christians have.  But oh, what comfort he brings.  So prepare your hearts by repentance and faith.  Let John preach it to you again – make straight the paths of the Lord.  Remember your baptism.  And with Isaiah, and all the prophets, and all the believers who anticipate his coming.  Find your comfort in Christ.  Amen.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Sermon - 24th Sunday after Pentecost - Matthew 25:14-30

November 15, 2020

“Making Use of the Gifts”

Last week we heard an end-times parable of Jesus about the 10 virgins, and the theme was “watchfulness”.  Next Sunday, the last Sunday of the church year, we will hear from Jesus about the Sheep and the Goats – and how at the end he will separate believer from unbeliever.  Today’s end-times parable is that of the Talents.  Jesus sets these three one right after another in Matthew’s Gospel, and so we do the same in the church year.  You might read them in summary as follows.  Christ is coming back.  Be watchful.  Make good use of your gifts.  And at the end he will bring you into his fold.

In that context we come to this parable.  A man, a master, a king, is going on a long journey.  But he will surely come back – sometime.  This, of course is Jesus.  And he gives to his servants, before he leaves, talents.  Now here we have to clarify what a talent is.  In Jesus’ day a talent was a large sum of money – like thousands of dollars’ worth.  Not the day’s wage like a denarius, or even the 30 pieces of silver – the price of a slave. A talent was more money than most people would see in their lives.  And for a master to hand it over for safe keeping to his servants while he goes away – without any seeming checks or balances, without any seeming rules or instructions, makes us stop and think.  Who does such a thing?

Jesus, of course.  He’s the master.  He knew he was going away, and yet someday returning.  It’s the whole topic of this chapter.  And so he teaches them as he does with a parable about it.  He is leaving his servants, at least in a sense, though he will return again to settle accounts.  Now the focus shifts to what happens in the meantime.

But before we get to ourselves in the parable, let’s take a moment and consider the character of the Master.  That he would entrust something so valuable to mere servants is itself a striking thing.  But this is Jesus, after all, the giver of good gifts.  And he, along with his Father and the Spirit, graciously gives us all good things.  So what exactly is the talent?

Perhaps the best understanding is that the talent is “all the gifts of God”.  Every good thing.  But certainly not just our money and possessions.  As we sing “All that we have is thine alone, a trust oh Lord, from thee”.

When we speak of Christian Stewardship – which is a common topic for churches in these last Sundays of the church year – we might define stewardship just this way.  That we aren’t owners, but simply managers, trustees of the gifts of God.  He gives us this life and everything in it – on loan – but he will someday settle accounts.  Life will end.  The world will end.  And we want to make sure that we’ve done well with God’s stuff.

But the character of the master is an important point in this parable.  What kind of man is he?  Generous or hard?  Kind to his servants, or harsh?  Well it seems you’d get a different answer from the first two servants than the third.  And so it is with the spiritual reality.  You might say that we see here two different approaches to God himself – a gospel based faith, and a law-based works righteousness. 

The Christian sees God not as harsh and stern but as loving, kind, generous, gracious.  We seem him first as the giver of all good things.  We are thankful for the blessings he’s entrusted to our care.  And this, in turn motivates us to use the gifts for his glory and the benefit of our neighbor.  To invest with confidence, knowing that we rest secure in his good graces, and to do our good works not out of fear, but faith.  This is how it ought to be.

But if you see the master as a hard man, reaping where he did not sow, gathering where he scattered no seed – then perhaps you’re not seeing the seed he has in fact sown!  Perhaps you’re misjudging the character of the master – and seeing him only as a judge and not as a loving provider.  This view of the master can only lead us a place of fear.  And fear does not lend itself to good works, self-sacrifice, and love of neighbor.  For the man in the parable his gift was no good to him or the master – he buried it.  And such a faith that is buried and not exercised is no faith at all – it is dead.  And people bury things that are considered dead. Gifts of God that aren’t used for his good purposes become rather a curse. 

Take money, for example.  A good gift of God.  Something he gives us to use and manage well.  But if we don’t order this part of our lives in faith, we can only fail.  We will never give enough, or be selfless enough, or be able to remain free of greed and covetousness and misuse of money.  The law won’t let us off the hook.  But according to faith – we have great freedom to use the gifts he freely gives us without fear.  We are free to give generously, with a clean conscience, knowing the true character of the giver – and thus reflecting that character in how we manage the gifts.  Free to give to support his work, free to give to help our neighbor in need.

But money is just one kind of gift.  Even faith itself is a gift to be managed and exercised for his good purposes.  A gift to be shared, not buried.  A gift to be invested and grown. 

The unbeliever, much like the third man, he doesn’t see God clearly.  He might even criticize a view of God that demands something of us – as if God is an unjust god.  As if it’s unfair of him to expect us to be perfect as he is perfect, to follow his commandments, to avoid and remain free of sin.  And holy can a just God expect me to be free of sin when each of us is born into sin?  Or, the person thinks they ARE a good person, they HAVE done good works, they DO deserve God’s favor, when their talent is covered with dirt and doesn’t impress the master at all.  It’s really not about the talent, then, is it, after all?

But with the faithful, the master isn’t so concerned with the amount of growth, or the talents at all, but with the servant’s faithfulness.  He’s not concerned about the good works, except that they are evidence of faith.  For these servants, like all servants of the master, like you and me too – are saved only by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and not in any good works of our own.  No amount of generosity or kindness is enough.  No shrewd dealings or careful investment of our resources will avail.  No keeping of the rules, following the commands, fulfilling of the law will cause the master to finally judge us worthy.  Instead, we can only stand before his final judgment cleansed and pardoned by the blood of Jesus Christ, crucified for sinners.

As Jesus turns his eye toward his return in glory, he knows he goes away, and he knows he will return. So he prepares his disciples, and also us.  He encourages us to be faithful, mindful of his gifts and goodness, and to do all that we do out of love and not fear.

And here’s a wonderful promise, too.  The faithful servants will hear these wonderful words:  “You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.”

For the faithful, there awaits joy.  The joy of an eternity with the master.  For the faithful over little, they are set over much.  The best this world has to offer pales in comparison to the glory that is to be revealed.  The wonders of a blessed eternity that Christ is even now preparing in the mansions of heaven.

So be watchful, Christian, yes.  But also be faithful.  Trust the good master who will return to settle his accounts.  Trust his promises to all who are in him.  And you will be commended by him, and invited into the joy of the master.


Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Sermon - 23rd Sunday after Pentecost - Matthew 25:1-13

Amos 5:18-24
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13
"The Day of the Lord"

Welcome to the last three Sundays of the church calendar, in which our attention is turned to the last things, the end times, the second coming of Christ and the kingdom to come.  We know that history has an end.  There is a day on God’s calendar – circled in red.  We don’t know when it will be, but he has promised us this sinful, fallen, broken-down world will not go on like this forever. 

Our readings for today each take a different look at that day.  Let’s take a look at each of them for a better picture of just what’s in store on that day, that final day, the Day of the Lord.

But the Day of the Lord can mean not only the Last Day (as in, THE Last Day).  It can also mean the day in which the Lord acts, decisively, in judgment and mercy.  In some sense Good Friday was the Day of the Lord – the day in which Christ acted to secure and guarantee the victory for us all by his cross.  The Day of the Lord, the day in which God acts, might be the day in which he comes again in glory.  It’s similar to the way John the Baptist and Jesus himself speak about the “Kingdom of God” being at hand.  The reign and rule of God is about to happen – God’s about to do something.  So sit up and pay attention!

The Day of the Lord, in this sense, can be different depending on the hearer.  And certainly, also, in a sense, it can mean, for each of us, the day of our death.  The day in which we meet our Maker.  And the Day of the Lord was the same day – but it was certainly experienced as a very different day, but the wise and the foolish virgins in our Gospel reading.  We’ll get there in a just a few moments.

First, let’s take Amos, then.  The prophet Amos was a bearer of bad news during the time of the divided kingdom, a prophet from the south, with a message of doom and gloom for the people of the north. 

Amos comes to disabuse them of a false sense of security.  They were looking forward to a day – a day of deliverance – a day of victory – the Day of the Lord.  Their enemies the Assyrians were looming large, a wicked and brutal empire that threatened destruction.  But they felt quite secure, because, hey – they were doing all the right things.  Outwardly, anyway, their religion was tip-top.  All the right sacrifices.  All the right festivals.  All the important observances.  But there was a problem.  Their heart wasn’t in it.  It was all for show.  They worshipped in vain.  They didn’t truly believe.

We are tempted to the same, aren’t we?  A great church with a brand new organ and reverent ceremonies and no-nonsense liturgical worship.  A beautiful sanctuary and regular services every Sunday.  Outwardly, it might look like we too are doing all the right things.  But then we could look a little closer.  We could peer inside the heart.  Take a look inside your own.

The first table of God’s law accuses us here.  We do have other gods, don’t we, that take the place of the true God.  We let other things take his place in our life.  Maybe it’s money or possessions.  Maybe it’s our own status or our creature comforts.  Maybe it’s even our politics.  Where do we truly place our fear, love, and trust?  And if those other things should be taken away – those false gods ripped from us – what is left for us but despair?

And so Amos says to the Israelites, “oh, you’re looking forward to the Day of the Lord, are you? Well you shouldn’t!  Because it’s not going to turn out the way you think it will!”  You may escape the lion, only to run into the bear.  You may make it out of the frying pan, only to fall into the fire.  You can’t escape God’s judgment.  The wages of sin is death.

And sure enough, the prophet knows best.  History bears out.  The Assyrians do come, and they do destroy, pillage, murder and disperse the Israelites.  The land is laid waste. God’s day of judgment for them could not be avoided, any more than an sinner can avoid the final day of wrath – apart from Christ.

Far better to heed the prophetic word and repent.  Far better to rend our hearts and be disabused of complacency and false comfort.  For then the healing balm of the Gospel is applied.  Then the soothing comfort of Christ’s mercy does its work.  Then the true problem is addressed, the sin is forgiven, and death and despair give way to life and hope.

The Day of the Lord.  We shouldn’t rest in our own merits and look forward to that day with a false sense of security.  Nor should we grow complacent and neglectful of the true worship of repentance and faith in Christ.  We ought not despair of that day as if we are stuck in our sins with no recourse.  But in Christ we can look forward to the day – the final Day of the Lord in joy and hope and peace. 

That’s how Paul describes the end in his letter to the Thessalonians.  Paul gives us words to “encourage one another”.  And boy do they.  He especially teaches us that the Christians who have fallen asleep are not gone forever – but that their death is like a sleep – in that they will awake, arise, and live.  When Christ comes again in glory with the angelic shout and trumpet call of God – the dead in Christ will rise, and we also will be changed.  Our bodies will be glorified and made ready for eternity, ready to meet Christ.  And so we will meet him in the air, and be with him forever.

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?  Could it be any more stark a contrast between Amos’ view of the Day of the Lord?  For the ancient Israelites – the Day of the Lord was a death they should dread.  For Christians who receive the comfort of Paul – the Day of the Lord couldn’t be pictured any better!  We get to be with our loved ones who have fallen asleep in Christ.  And even better, we all get to be with Jesus.  Now there is some encouragement.

And Jesus himself both encourages and warns us about that day – with his parable of the 10 virgins.  They are all waiting, waiting for the bridegroom to arrive – and when he does, the party will begin!  They are waiting – but it seems like forever, the hour grows late, and so they fall asleep.  But then he comes – suddenly – and only some are found ready – ready with their oil, ready to go in and join the feast.  The foolish virgins have to go on a wild goose chase for oil, and then never get in to the banquet anyway – the door is shut.  The bridegroom doesn’t know them.  They’re left out, shut out, and so they miss out on all the fun.

Now, we could try and peg every element of this parable down – and some have – to one extent or another.  What does the oil stand for?  Who are the wise and the unwise virgins?  Where do they buy the oil?  (and if oil is faith can you really purchase it?)  Who are the oil-dealers?  And what does it mean that all fell asleep but only some had oil?  Instead of getting bogged down in all the details, this kind of parable is better understood with particular attention to the main point of Jesus:  the greater point which he provides at the end of his story – “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

Watchfulness.  A key quality for the wise Christian.  Watching for the bridegroom, Jesus Christ, who has promised to return – but unexpectedly.  Like a thief in the night.  Watching, for he can come at any time, on any day.  Watching and waiting and being prepared for his second advent.

But how do we watch and prepare?  By doing lots of church?  No, that didn’t work for the Old Testament people – at least not in and of itself.  Religious rites and ceremonies themselves are nothing if they are only outward.  The God who desires mercy, not sacrifice is the Bridegroom who comes looking for repentance and faith!  Now there’s the true readiness, watchfulness, preparedness.  Believing in Jesus.  Now there’s a full lamp – that’ll get you to the party.  The Word of God and the Sacraments prepare us, too – they are the means of grace that create faith in us, that faith by which Christ saves us.  Watchfulness, then, means, particular attention to these things- hearing the word, receiving the gifts.  Not only outwardly, but in true faith.

And then, when the Bridegroom comes, he knows you.  Just as the Good Shepherd knows his sheep and his sheep know him.  So the bridegroom will say to the unwise, “depart from here I don’t even know you” and to the wise, the faithful, the watchful – “come on in, join the party”.

Watch and pray, Christian.  Be faithful, Christian.  Avail yourself of the gifts he gives, Christian.  And so be wise, we watchful, and be ready.

In Jesus’ Name.  Amen.

Wednesday, November 04, 2020

Sermon - All Saints' Day - Matthew 5:1-12

“Blessed Saints”

Matthew 5:1-12

A blessed All Saints Day to you.  This is a very old Christian observance, dating back to at least the 700s AD.  It is marked in different ways by different denominations and in different countries around the world.  But the common theme is the recognition of the saints of God – all the holy people who have gone before us, especially, into glory.  We Lutherans, in particular, take note that saints are not just the most holy Christians, the cream of the crop – but that every Christian is a saint – a sinner and a saint, simultaneously – and we wonder at such a great tension and mystery.

Our readings for today show forth different perspectives on all the saints.  In the book of Revelation, we see several pictures of the saints, and here in chapter 7, the church is pictured in her final glory.  A gathering from every nation, victorious, waving palm branches, singing God’s praise (in a song we echo today), and clothed in white robes washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. We might point out that this is a timeless picture of an eternal reality.  Therefore in that crowd is every Christian, including you. 

Then of course you have 1 John 3.  The All Saints connection there is in John’s description of Christians as beloved children of God.  They are also the ones who are purified in Christ – much like the robes of the multitude in the Revelation reading.  Loved by God are all the saints.  Children of God are all the saints, purified by Christ.

But today let’s focus on the Gospel reading, from Matthew 5.  The beginning of the Sermon on the Mount.  The well-loved passage of Christians everywhere – the beatitudes.  Here, the key descriptor of God’s people, the key word that applies to all Christians is:  Blessed.

It may strike us as strange.  For the conditions Jesus describes, at least in some of these verses, we might not think of those sorts of people has having a blessing.  The poor in spirit?  That doesn’t sound so good.  Those who mourn?  Who wants to do that?  The meek?  No, we admire the bold, the brave, the proud.  And hungering and thirsting for something surely means a lack, not a blessing.  And let’s not even bring up those who are persecuted.  That’s more of a curse than a blessing, at least according to our way of thinking.

As for the merciful, pure in heart and peacemakers – well those seem like things that we should be – but things that we don’t always live up to.  These blessings seem more like accusations, standards to meet that remind us of our failures.  Blessed are those – sure – if we could be them.  We’re not as merciful and peace-making as we ought to be.  And we’re surely not pure in heart.

No, at first blush, these beatitudes don’t make sense for a number of reasons.  Jesus seems to be on an entirely different page – disconnected from reality.  The people who are blessed or bless-ed are supposed to be the people who are happy, have everything, the rich and famous, the powerful and the good.  The people we admire, who have it all.  “They’ve been so blessed”.  The super-Christians or the super-happy Christians or the super-successful Christians and what have you.  Not us miserable, wretched, sin-plagues people who have nothing to offer but our own neediness. 

But here is the beauty of his kingdom.  Here is the wonder of his grace.  Here is the true blessing of Jesus, that he doesn’t see it that way. 

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Poor in spirit.  While being poor doesn’t sounds desirable to us, Jesus says spiritual poverty is a blessing.  But he doesn’t mean in and of itself.  Rather, this is the Jesus who came as a physician for the sick, not the healthy.  He came to save sinners, not the righteous.  So if you are rich in spirit, if you have it all (or think you do), then you don’t need Jesus.  But blessed are you if you recognize your poverty and need.  Blessed are you because Christ Jesus comes with blessings for just such beggars. 

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

In a similar way, no one aspires to be a mourner.  Mourning supposes death.  And no one likes to face that.  Not the death of a loved one.  Not my own death either.  But death means sin, the wages and the cause, the horse and the cart.  And only those who bring their sins to Jesus, who mourn their sins, despise their sins, repent of their sins – only those receive his comfort.  If you celebrate your sin, if you embrace it, if you find comfort in your sin – then he has no comfort for you.  But blessed are those who mourn, for no one has better comfort than Jesus.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

The meek, not the proud, shall inherit the earth.  It’s the opposite of how we see it now – when arrogant men with huge egos and prideful boldness tend to win the day.  Alpha dogs who don’t let anyone stand in their way and who “get things done!” 

But the meek?  Who are they, even?  They are the humble, the lowly, those who don’t make much of themselves.  Not the Pharisee who prays for all to see but the tax collector who beats his breast and prays hiding in the closet.  The meek shall inherit the earth – the new heaven and new earth will dawn, and the proud will be left outside.  The humble and lowly will enter the eternal kingdom. 

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

We know little, these days, of hunger or thirst.  About the closest we have gotten may have been in the early part of the coronavirus panic this year, when store shelves had a hard time keeping up with demand.  Thanks be to God he spared us from a famine on top of disease. 

But Jesus speaks here of a hunger and thirst for righteousness.  A deep yearning for that which we don’t have and which we desperately need.  If you hunger and thirst for righteousness, that means you admit you don’t have it of yourself.  It means you can only hope to receive it from the one who feeds and gives drink to his people.

Ah, and he satisfies.  He gives us the food and drink of his word – the rich diet of law and gospel that trains and equips us for righteousness.  And just as much – he gives an actual meal of heavenly fare, a feast for the body and soul, the bread and wine that is Christ’s body and blood, given and shed for you – for forgiveness.  What could be better?

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

These next three hold out some ideals for us Christians.  So far the beatitudes have described what we truly lack, if we can only see it.  Now we hear what we ought to do and be, if we could only attain it.  We want to be merciful, but are we?  Rather, do we find ourselves holding out on mercy, looking instead for just desserts?  Wanting the person who wronged us to pay, and pay dearly? 

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Pure in heart.  There’s a standard we’ll never attain on our own.  Jesus says out of the heart come sinful thoughts, desires, and all kinds of evil.  Our hearts are corrupt, not pure.  But we would pray with David, “Create in me a clean heart, Oh God, and renew a right spirit within me.”  Jesus comes to restore and renew even the heart, the very innermost source of our corruption is cleansed, purified, made holy in him.  It’s as complete as the death and rebirth of our baptism.  It’s as sure as his promise and declaration on the cross, “it is finished”. 
Thus purified by him, we are fit to stand before God, in his presence, to see God.  As Job said, “with my own eyes…” even “after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will stand”

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

Again, we would attain to be peacemakers and see ourselves fail.  We can make conflict fairly well.  We can join in the fray with ease.  We can sit on our high horse of pride and let the conflict fester, because I didn’t start it and he or she is in the wrong, and they need to come crawling to me…. But peacemaking is not so easy.

Unless you’re Jesus, who makes peace between us and God.  Who brings a peace which passes all understanding.  Peace not as the world gives, does he give to you.  A peace that is rooted in the gospel, the rest for your soul.  A peace that empowers you to make peace with your brothers and sisters and with all.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Now finally, persecution.  Not a very blessed state of being, most of us would say, especially when you find yourself in it.  Not something we aspire to.  But also not something that shows a lack in us.  Rather, according to Jesus, a cause for rejoicing.  What?

Yes, because it puts you in good company.  So they persecuted the prophets before you. Rejoice.  Great is your reward in heaven.  Rejoice.  When they revile you Christian, when they say nasty things about you, Christian, when they speak all kinds of evil against you, Christian – it’s really because of Christ.  It’s for the sake of righteousness – the righteousness that he earned, that he has, and that he gives to you freely as a blessing. 

None of these beatitudes make sense from a worldly point of view.  But in Christ, it all comes together.  We are blessed saints of God in Jesus Christ.  Though we lack our own merit and work, our own good works surely fail to measure up, and though we find ourselves even persecuted and hated…  blessed are we, blessed are you, in Jesus Christ, here and now, and there in eternity.  Blessed, with all the saints in glory, blessed forever and ever amen.  In Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.