Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sermon - Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion - Philippians 2:8

Sometimes I think God asks too much of me. I mean, really. What is he thinking? I can understand giving some general guidelines to follow, some flexible rules to kind of give me an idea of which way to go in life. But commandments are a different story. The law of God is just so... oppressive! What do you mean I can't have ANY other gods? What, you expect me to be kind and loving ALL THE TIME? I wouldn't argue too much if there were some qualifications on all of this. A sort of, “do unto others in the same way they do to you”. Or just, “be nice most of the time”. But he says, “Do as you would HAVE them do to you”. And “love your enemies, even pray for them”. And that's a whole lot harder to do. Sometimes it just doesn't seem fair.  Of course all this is my Old Adam talking.

And then there's Jesus. We know he was like us in every way, yet without sin. And I have to say, I can't imagine what that must be like. No sin of deed, or word, OR thought. I can't even roll out of bed for a couple of minutes without some sinful thought dumping out of this brain. I'm sure you are the same. But Jesus, though human, was also God. He was different, special, holy. He was the only one who could do this. Walk the walk, perfectly. Talk the talk, think the think – of one without sin.

And so he was perfectly obedient. As Paul says, right? Though he was God, he didn't think much of that. He listened when his Father sent him to take on human flesh and leave his heavenly throne behind. He obeyed perfectly, fulfilled the law – honored God, honored his name, his day, his parents. He loved his neighbor with a compassion you and I can only dream about having. It's like they said about Jesus, “he has done all things well!” He cast out demons, healed the sick, he even raised a man from the dead. But there was one more thing God would ask of his Son.

“He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

I want you to go to Jerusalem, and there you will die. You'll hand yourself over to those pompous hypocrites, and they will put you, the judge of all things, on trial. They, sinners from birth and sinners to this day – will judge you as a criminal, innocent though you are. And they, dead in their sins, will condemn you to death – by the shouting jeers of a bloodthirsty crowd, the cynical machinations of jealous and power-hungry men, and the cowardice of the one who was given authority from above.

Yes, all of this will happen, and it will all happen in spite of your holiness, my son, and you will die, and die a miserable death for them all. And I have to say one more thing, I can't even be with you at the darkest moment. When you take their place, I have to turn my back on you. I can't just wink at sin, you know, it must be condemned. And it will be condemned in your body, as you die, on that cursed tree. You'll bear the brunt of it, my condemnation for all sin, for all people of all time and place. This is your mission. This I ask of you. I am sending you to do it.

And Jesus said, “Thy will be done”. Even in the garden, with death so imminent it made him sweat blood, he prayed, “Thy will be done”.

Truly no greater love has someone than that he lay down his life for his friends. Jesus Christ laid his perfect life down not for friends, but for his enemies, to make us his friends, his people, God's children.

In this holy week, we will meditate on his sacrifice for us. In a way, it began even before he was born. But his passion puts a fine point on it, and crescendos to Calvary, where it is finished. Jesus takes the place of Barabbas. Jesus takes the place of all sinners – condemned to die – apart from God. Even in his tomb, he is our substitute. He goes in our place.

And you, forgiven sinner, go in his place. You go to resurrection. You go to an inheritance. You go to the throne room of the Father, and receive a crown of glory. You receive what Jesus has, what he deserves, what he gives freely, by grace, through faith in him. Trust in him all the more, for it is finished. In Jesus' Name.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Sermon - Lent 5 - Ezekiel 37:1-14

Lent 5
Zion Lutheran Church, Marengo, IL
Ezekiel 37:1-14

Lent is a good time to think about death. As good a time as any.
It's a topic every man must face sooner or later. A topic we like to put away, out of our sight, far from our minds. Try as we might.

One of my favorite songs by a group called the “Counting Crows” has this line,

“I got bones beneath my skin, and mister...
there's a skeleton in every man's house
Beneath the dust and love and sweat that hang on everybody
there's a dead man trying to get out”

Death is universal and unavoidable... like, well, death and taxes. No matter how we try to get out of it. For us Christians, in some ways it's the same, and in some ways it's different. Death is still an enemy. It still brings tears, even to the eyes of Jesus at the grave of Lazarus. Death is a separation from loved ones. And it is the great leveler of all men – after all, whatever wealth you have in this life, you can't take it with you.

But death for Christians is not the worst thing that can happen. For Christians, like Lazarus, there is Jesus with the answer to death. For us, death is not the end, nor is it to be feared. Where, oh death, is thy sting? Indeed, it is through his own death that Jesus brings salvation, and through his resurrection that he brings life. And so we grieve death, but not without hope.

Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones shows hopelessness turned into hope. It shows us the power of the word. And it points us toward the Christ, whose death destroys death and who will resurrect his people to eternal life.

Take a look at that valley with Ezekiel. A vast army of dead, very dead people. Not freshly slain soldiers, among whom you might find some living but injured survivors. No they are quite dead. Not merely dead, but really most sincerely dead. Dead and decayed, just bones left, and dry ones at that. They are not even close to alive.

Kind of like you, in your sins. In fact, just like you, in your sins. Sometimes visions like this paint an even truer picture of reality than our eyes do. Just like the Israelites of Ezekiel's day were a hopeless and defeated nation with no life left in them, exiled to Babylon, powerless, hopeless, as good as dead. So are you, and so is every sinner, who may look alive but is very much dead in sin.

That valley of dry bones is the human condition apart from God. Just as dead and hopeless. Just as far from life and breath as anything. Might as well be a rock or some dirt. Your everyday experience tells you you're alive and just fine. But God's word shows the true reality. Sin brings death. It clings to us. It infects every part of us. We are dead men and women walking. Because we are sinners who sin daily and sin much. And no matter how hard the skeleton tries, it can't come to life. No matter how hard, you, the sinner, try, you can't come to life. What we need is a miracle. A divine intervention.

And God is in the business of doing just that. From death he brings life. From the cross, first and foremost. There in the hopeless, helpless, death of Jesus on the cross, he brings help and hope and life to all people. There in the valley of the shadow of death, Jesus dies to bring the light that chases away death forever. And as his dead flesh would rise to life again, so does he bring life to dead sinners who die in him.

Ezekiel's vision wasn't without hope, because he had God's word. The prophet spoke, by God's command and promise, to the wind, that is, the Spirit. Who came and brought life to those lifeless bones. Just as the pastor speaks the word of God to lifeless sinners, and the Spirit works through that word to bring life to you again. The valley of dry bones is a vision of how God works in all times and places, bringing life to the dead, through word and spirit, because of the life from the dead won by his Son at the cross.

As pastors, we could look out on you, the people in our care, and see a pile of bones – sinners who are hopeless and struggling with all their own faults and failings, grieved by the sorrows of living in a world where death reigns. You tell us your troubles, and we listen, but usually can't do anything much about it. It's like Ezekiel looking at a femur and a skull. The troubles can be so much. And I am just a man.

But the pastor has one thing for you, and it is enough. Not a man's word, but Christ's. So now hear this, you dried up and dried out dead people: Jesus Christ has died and Jesus Christ lives and Jesus Christ promises you new life. So hear the Gospel, now, and live! Hear the life-giving word of the Spirit, who creates life where there was only death. Hear the life-renewing hope and the sin-forgiving declaration. You are not dead. You are not lost. You are forgiven. You are in Christ, and Christ is alive. So, too, do you live through him!

You are baptized. There you first rose from the death of sin to new life in Christ. And one day your flesh will die, only to rise again because of the promise of Christ. The fanciful picture of dry bones coming back together, and breathing the breath of life again – is not so fanciful compared to the promise of the last day. That at the trumpet call of God the dead in Christ will rise and meet him face to face, in a glorified body, and see him as he is, being like him. This is our hope. This is our destiny.

Son of man, can these bones live? Yes. Can Christ conquer death and live? Yes. Can he, does he, promise the same for you? Yes. So believe it, and live in him always. Amen.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Sermon - John 9:1-41

Lent 4
March 30th, 2014
John 9:1-41
Our Savior Lutheran Church, Whitefish Bay, WI

It is part and parcel of our sinful nature to get things wrong. Turned around. Backwards, even.

We make ourselves God, and try to make God answer to us. We tell ourselves that God somehow owes us, and we live in denial that we owe him everything and more. We think we please him with our good works, rather than trust that Christ has pleased God with his good work for us.

We have a keen sense of justice when we are wronged, but are quite lax and flexible with the law applied to ourselves. We selectively apply the rules of politeness, kindness, and regard for our neighbor. We know our neighbor's sins all too well, especially those sins against us. But when we sin, we are quick with excuses and rationalizations.

We think we know, when we are ignorant. We think we hear, when we are really deaf. We think we see, when we are truly blind.

The Pharisees were no different. Oh, their pride. “You were steeped in sin at birth, and you would teach us!” We are the teachers of Israel! We are the children of Abraham! We are the disciples of Moses! We are the ones who keep the 613 laws! We are the clean, and you are the unclean. We give to the temple treasury (didn't you hear the trumpets?) We aren't like those sinners – those prostitutes and tax collectors, those lepers and outcasts. We're not steeped in sin like this man born blind. And we would never do work on the Sabbath, like that sinner, Jesus.

And so such spiritual chest-thumping goes. But it is madness, and blindness. And it is us.

We are all the man born blind. We are all conceived and steeped in sin. We are all children of our father, Adam. We are sinners who sin, who can see only own spiritual navels, curved in on ourselves, who cannot see God. We are all the pharisees, blind to our blindness, but convinced we see it all, know it all. We think the good people prosper, or deserve to. And that the bad people suffer, and deserve to. And of course, we are good.

It is part and parcel of our sinful nature to get things wrong. Turned around. Backwards, even.

But God's way is different. Mysterious to us. But far better, in fact, divine.

One seminary professor, Dr. David Scaer, puts it this way:

...The divine economy is different from ours. You cannot come to a conclusion about the morality and sanctity of any person by the amount of suffering he has experienced. The suffering sinner turns out to be God’s saint and the hawkers of holiness are rejected by God…Human suffering is not only an opportunity for God to show that He is and remains the creator; human suffering is the place where God shows His glory. Jesus dies so that through the resurrection God might finally demonstrate to the world who He really is. The Son of Man is lifted up so that all men may be drawn to him, not in the magnificence of creation, but in the glory of the suffering of the cross…God approaches us through what we find reprehensible.”

It is in Jesus that all of this senselessness makes divine sense.

So Jesus is the light. Jesus came to take the darkness away. He makes night into day. He makes blind men see.

No one has seen God except He who came from God. But in Jesus Christ, we do see God. No one comes to the Father but by Jesus. But Jesus is the perfect image of the Father, the exact representation of God, for He is one with the Father, and He is True God from eternity.

Jesus came into the darkness, born under the law, to redeem us under the law. In the dark Judean night, the Light dawned. And on a dark, but good Friday, when the sun was blotted out and the Lord of Life hung on a cross, dying... salvation came to light. It was finished, then and there, for all, forever.

And so this one “Sent by God”, sends the blind man to the pool of Siloam, which means, “Sent by God”. No matter that it was the Sabbath, for Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath. Jesus is the Sabbath-rest of God, who gives us rest from our sins. He who washed the blindness away for that man, also washes us clean and new in Holy Baptism. And the scales fall from our spiritual eyes, as faith comes, and we see and believe.

The little pharisee in our heart finds it hard to believe. But the eyes of faith see it plainly. The Old Adam in us fights against it. But Christian baptism drowns that one daily, in repentance and faith. And so it goes – and so it goes, as the old and the new continue to struggle and muddle through this life, growing in faith toward God and love toward neighbor, but always in Christ, always looking to his light, the only way we can see.

You have seen him, but with the eyes of faith. You see him in his word. You see him at the font. You see him on the altar, under bread and wine. You see him who speaks to you, and faith says, “I believe.” So turn your eyes away from your neighbor's sin, and forgive freely. And turn to see your own sin, yes, but fix your eyes on Jesus, who takes that sin to the cross. In him, we see forgiveness, life, salvation, and the peace of God which passes all understanding. May it guard and keep your hearts and minds in Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Sermon - Epiphany 5 - Matthew 5:17-

Grace and Trinity Lutheran Churches
Bear Creek, WI
Epiphany 5
February 9th, 2014
Matthew 5:17-20
All Righteousness??”

17 pDo not think that I have come to abolish qthe Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but rto fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, suntil heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 tTherefore whoever relaxes uone of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least vin the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great vin the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds wthat of the scribes and Pharisees, you xwill never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus' Sermon on the Mount continues this week. I want to focus on the second portion of our reading today, in which Jesus explains more about his purpose. It seems an Epiphany question, as the unpacking of “Who is this Jesus?” continues. He's the bridegroom at the wedding of Cana. He's the Son of God at his baptism. He's the glory of Israel and light to the nations in the arms of Simeon. He's the one who comes to preach good news to the poor. And now we see more of why he came – not to abolish the Old Testament, but to fulfill it.

Starting out, Jesus puts away the silly idea that still persists today – that the New Testament somehow invalidates the Old. I heard a famous atheist scientist, Bill Nye, imply this just this past week. But the Christian church has struggled to stamp out this false idea. There was a false teacher named Marcion in the early church who believed the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament were essentially two different people. But the church, and the Lord of the church would disagree. Jesus himself says of the Old Testament scriptures, “These are they that testify to me”. It's a bold claim. “The whole Old Testament is about me. And I've come to fulfill, not abolish it.”

There's much to learn here for us. We can't set Christ against his own word. We can't cherry pick the verses we like and dismiss the rest. And we can't re-make God into our own image, or any old image we want. But even more specifically, Jesus gets to the laws and commandments of the Old Testament – which many would turn aside and disregard today, too.

Certainly, we don't perform the ceremonial laws anymore. The sacrifices culminated in Christ's once and for all sacrifice. The temple curtain was torn in two. Jesus is now our temple, our dwelling of God with man, and in Him we have access to the Father. We don't regard the clean and unclean food laws and such – Acts makes this much clear. Christ has fulfilled the ceremonial law.

What then of the moral law? The Ten Commandments, for instance? We can see that these are still in full force. And in this very Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instead of diminishing the moral law, raises the bar of its demands. Don't murder? I say don't even be angry. Don't commit adultery? If you do it in your heart, you're just as guilty.

And here's where it starts to get uncomfortable for us. Jesus didn't come to take the law away. He didn't come to make it OK for us to sin however we'd like. He didn't come to abolish the ten commandments. Instead, he is an extremist when it comes to the law. He says you can't even relax the least of the commandments. And if that's true, we sinners, even we Christians, have some explaining to do.

Do you relax his law? I know I do. Have NO other gods, oh but we have our other gods, don't we. We think maybe if we have God somewhere in the mix that's good enough. But the first commandment is all or nothing, and we fall on the side of nothing.

Do you disregard his holy name? Not just do you curse, swear, lie or deceive, but do you hold his teaching, his word about himself as dear as you should?

What about your neighbor? You know the commandment about our parents doesn't get easier when we are grown-ups, because all earthly authority comes in here. And which one of us hasn't balked at a boss, or disrespected our governing authorities as the representatives of God? Which sinner among us humbly submits to those who are over us in all aspects of life? Instead we instinctively rebel, “who are you to tell me what to do?” “Things would be so different if I was in charge around here”.

I'll leave the fifth and sixth commandments for next week's reading, but what about stealing? It's far broader than just taking something from someone else – but it goes to even trying to get things in a dishonest or deceptive way.

And when it comes to your neighbors good name – well there's a reason the Epistle of James compares the tongue to a fire and a wild beast. We are very good at cloaking our gossip in a facade of genuine concern. We are quick with a snarky taunt and slow with a kind, loving word. We fail to speak up when we should, and much of what we say is better left unsaid. There is little righteousness here, either.

And the commands not to covet leave us nowhere to hide. In the secret places of the heart, who hasn't sinfully desired something of his neighbors? Petty human jealousies, greed for goodies, and want of what's not mine.

We could go on... but to summarize, Jesus says you won't even enter the kingdom unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees. Again, he raises the bar. For the pharisees were the good Jews who followed all the laws, they were the most righteous, the most holy, the moral example par excellence' , or so one might think. It might be like Jesus saying to you today, that you can't enter his kingdom unless you are more holy than a saint, do more good works than Mother Theresa, and are a better theologian than Pastor Ruesch. Only the best of the best, the one without spot or blemish – the perfectly perfect – can do it. Which means only Christ can do it. Thanks be to God that he has, and has done it for us.

Christ fulfills the ceremonial law for us. He comes, not to take away the rules and laws we can't follow, but to be the perfect sacrifice for our sins. He comes, not to make help us help ourselves to be righteous, but to be our righteousness. He is the Lamb, not just of the passover, but the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. He is the priest, not just who sprinkles the blood of an animal, but the high priest who sheds his own blood. He is the presence of God, not just over the ark or in the cloudy pillar, but in the very human flesh he comes to make righteous. God with man in the God-man himself. He makes not just lepers clean, but he renews all creation. He is the one, the one, that God's people waited for those many, many years.

And he fulfills the moral law, too. He keeps the commandments that we cannot and do not. He has no other Gods. He keeps God's name holy. He is Lord of the Sabbath. He honors his Father and mother. He does not murder, but always helps. He is ever faithful to his bride the church. He never wants or take what isn't his, and always speaks well, speaks truth, speaks love. What would Jesus do? He would keep every law perfectly, every jot and tittle. He had only pure and holy thoughts, words, deeds. He didn't sin by what he did, or by leaving anything undone. He alone was not worthy of temporal and eternal punishment.

Therefore whoever relaxes uone of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least vin the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great vin the kingdom of heaven

Greatest in the kingdom is Christ – he who made himself least, servant of all, servant of yours. He who did not deserve death but submitted to the cross in your place. He who did not deserve his Father's wrath, but stepped in the way to shield you from being consumed by its wrath.

Jesus fulfills the law and the prophets for us. Jesus fulfills all righteousness for us. And his righteousness alone is sufficient for us to enter his kingdom. But it is sufficient, thanks be to God!

What a mystery Jesus lays out in this section of the Sermon on the Mount. A call for extreme righteousness, that at first might leave us all without hope, for we sinners sin much. But the one who demands it is the one who provides it, and in Christ, we see our righteousness – ALL righteousness – fulfilled. And through him we enter the kingdom. Through him, in him, we are righteous.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Sermon - The Epiphany of Our Lord - Matthew 2:1-12

Epiphany (Observed)
January 5th, 2014
Matthew 2:1-12

Grace and peace...

As we observe this Feast of the Epiphany of our Lord, what better time to have a missions emphasis? I understand there's a lot of support for foreign missions around here, as you pastor has already told me about some of the medical mercy work being done in Madagascar. Well, today I thank you for the invitation to come and share with you first of all the Word, and a little about my work in Singapore.

Epiphany – the Christmas of the Gentiles. Epiphany – the season of light, the word “epiphany” meaning “appearance” or “manifestation” or “revealing”. It is the “appearance of our Lord” or the “revealing of our Lord”. It is the third part of the larger Christmas season of the church – Advent, which anticipates his birth, Christmas proper, which marks it – and Epiphany, which unpacks the meaning and significance of the One born in Bethlehem.

And there is so much rich meaning in this text from Matthew alone. Bethlehem, for instance, which means “house of bread”. And it is here that the Bread of Life would make his appearance.

The star – a mystery – what was it? A comet? A supernova? An angel? Angels are symbolized as stars elsewhere in Scripture and here the star has the same function – as a messenger, leading people to Christ, the Word made flesh. Just as prophets and evangelists and pastors are “stars” and “angels” in the same way – leading you to, proclaiming to you the word of Christ, the good news of his salvation.

And then there's Herod. How God uses wicked men even in spite of themselves, as he works all things together for the good of those who love him. This king, and all earthly kings, must bow to the king of kings. Herod, who shed the blood of the Holy Innocents, but could not find Jesus. And Jesus would one day stand innocent and silent before another Herod on the day he was crucified for the sins of both Herods and for all wicked men, including you and me.

Wickedness and darkness go together. Light and life go together. For those of us born into sin and death, our old nature likes the darkness. Sin thrives in the darkness, where it thinks it can hide. Who wants the spotlight focused on his sins? Who wants his deep dark secrets dragged out into the light of day? Imagine if your worst offenses were read aloud here in church for all to hear? You did what? Gasp. Horror. No, we like our sins in the dark, where we can pretend they don't matter, and that no one will see. But God can see all. The perfect judge won't let us get away with it.

He could sentence us, for we are guilty. But instead he sends this babe. This innocent one. His own Son. And in this blessed child, the darkness is swallowed up in light, for he is indeed the Light of the World. This Light shines in the darkness and yet the darkness does not understand. This Light chases away the darkness, and puts to death all death lurking there. The Light of Christ brings life and immortality to light for all who trust in him, and so we are not lumped with wicked Herod but counted innocent in Christ.

And then of course, the wise men from the East. Not even necessarily just three of them, there may have been more! We only know the three gifts they brought. Probably not kings themselves, but more likely stargazers. How had they learned of this prophecy? Remember the Jews were captive in Babylon for 80 years. So perhaps they even knew their Old Testament. But no matter, what matters not is who they are and how they knew, but that they were called, and who they came to see. Just as they could never have found Jesus on their own, so are you and I lost on our own. I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in my Lord Jesus Christ or come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel and enlightened me with his gifts....

His gifts... not gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. Gifts of forgiveness and blessing. Gifts revealed and manifest in the Babe of Bethlehem and the Christ of the Cross. Gifts applied in the word spoken by heaven's highest angels and by Earth's lowliest preachers. Gifts for the Jews who waited millennia, and the Gentiles who sat in darkness all those years. Gifts more precious than gold, sweeter-smelling than frankincense, more valuable than myrrh. The blood of the lamb, holy and precious, shed for us all, to make us holy and precious.

In view of all of this, as a result of all of this, because of the gifts he gives so richly, we bow before him and bring ours in return. Paltry though they are, like the little drummer boy, even our gold pales in comparison. This is not an even swap, or quid-pro-quo. We are beggars made millionaires whose repayment isn't even a dime. But worship we must, and serve our neighbor we so desire. We have been so loved and served in Christ, how can we not love and serve as we are called?

One of the best ways we can serve our neighbor is by sharing the hope within us. By pointing like that guiding star to the manger and the cross. By doing what we can to further the work of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our world. And we can do it so many ways. We do it by our silent witness to the world – loving neighbors with no strings attached. Mercy shown to the lowly, for mercy has been shown to us. We do it by giving answer when asked the hope within us – “what is it that makes you tick?”, “ Why that's Jesus Christ, who saves me by grace.” And we love and serve our neighbor when we support the preaching of Christ here at home and to the ends of the earth.

Today, instead of wise men from the East, you have a simple pastor called to serve in the far east. I would bring you no other gift than that which I have received – the message of Christ crucified for sinners like you and me. It is the same message I am called to preach in Singapore – where the Christians are fewer and the need for Christ's gifts is great. A multi-ethnic city-state of 5.5 million souls, Singapore is another field ready for the Lord's harvest. As I have already begun to gather those who would hear, so we plan to establish a congregation there that will gather regularly to receive the gifts of Christ in Word and Washing and Meal. His appearance and manifestation will continue under these humble forms, just as it does here, week in and week out. And as it has throughout these latter days. And as it will until his Great Epiphany, his final appearance in glory on the last day.

As we enter the Epiphany season, let us join the wise men at Bethlehem, and receive the gift of Christ anew. As he is revealed to us, may his Spirit empower us to be faithful in all things, and to share the gifts and the Gift.   

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Sermon - Christmas Day - John 1:1-18

And the Word became flesh. 

Just let that sink in for a moment. 

The Word. The living Word of God. The eternal Word of God. The Word of creation, by whom all things were made. The Word that called light out of darkness, and ordered all things. The everlasting, all-transcendent, mysterious and holy Word of God... became flesh. And that word made flesh dwelled among us. We know him as Jesus Christ.

A merry and blessed Christmas to you all. It's a special joy for me to be home for the holidays. After my fall tour of duty in Singapore, laying the groundwork for our permanent move, it is good to dwell among you once again here at Grace. I want to thank you for your support so far in my mission work. It's been a joy and a challenge to build my support network and begin to get things going with our new congregation. I appreciate all your prayers and encouragement, and even as I'm mostly gone, Brenda and the girls keep me feeling connected here, and I still consider Grace my home.

I've preached on this text from John here before. I even recall one year having lost my voice, and whispering the entire sermon one Christmas day. And while the reading from Luke 2 is what we mostly associate with Christmas – the story of the angels and shepherds, the birth of the Christ in Bethlehem, this reading from John is really a more “theological” approach to the Christmas story. What does it mean that Christ was born? Mary treasured the events of the nativity in her heart. But John draws us to meditate on Christmas also with our head. The Word became flesh and dwelled among us. The light has dawned in the darkness. We have seen his glory. And in him, and only in him, we see God.

It's profound. Simple, in a way. These first words of John's gospel are the passage most new students of Biblical Greek learn to translate – en archa en ho logos, en ho logos ein theos. But in these simple words, so much depth, so much mystery. John begins his Gospel the same way Genesis begins the Bible - “In the beginning”. And he connects the Word of creation with the Word of redemption – the word that was and is God. The word that is Christ.

The Word of God. We say that phrase, and we usually mean a book – the Bible. 66 books, an Old and New Testament. The authoritative source and norm of all our doctrine and life. But the Bible itself is nothing without Christ. In fact it is Jesus that teaches us of the Scriptures, “These are they that testify to me”. So from the first “in the beginning” to the promise of one to crush the serpent's head. To the promise of blessing to Abraham and the patriarchs, to the Exodus from Egypt. The sacrificial system, the commandments, the ark, the manna in the wilderness. The conquest of the promised land, the rise and fall of Davidic kinds. The words of the prophets, and the expectations of the Messiah – all of it points us forward, drives us toward the one born in Bethlehem, the Savior, Christ the Lord.

And the Apostles and Evangelists, the Epistles and the Revelation also shine the light on the light of the world. They proclaim the good news of his kingdom, and unveil his salvation. They bring us to the cross, where the lamb of God shed his blood for the sins of the world. They direct us to his sacraments – where his word of promise also meets a physical form – water, bread, wine – and forgiveness of sins is realized and applied. The Word of God, the written word, is inseparable from the Living Word of God in the person of Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh.

That word is also two-fold. And Christ himself speaks a two-fold word to us. First, a word of law: repent. Be perfect. Love your neighbor. Love God with your whole heart, mind, soul. Lust and anger are adultery and murder. Take the log out of your own eye, sinner. It's a word that stings and cuts, a word that even kills. The letter kills, but the spirit gives life. The law shows our sin. But the Gospel shows our savior. The law comes through Moses, but grace and truth come through Christ.
The Gospel, that other word. The good word, the great good news. That in Jesus Christ, the word made flesh, our sins are forgiven. That his blood shed on the cross has paid the price, bridged the gulf, healed the gaping wound of gangrenous sin and festering death. Now, in Christ, there is only newness of life. A flesh that is healed and resurrected. As good as new, even better. A new life – better even that the newness of a newborn babe.

And as we celebrate the birth of a child, we give thanks for our becoming God's children. In Christ we become children of God, for he is the eternal Son of God. In him we are born anew, not by blood, but in his blood. Not by emerging from the womb again, but being brought forth from the waters of baptism. Born, not by the will of man, but by the will of God – his work, his doing, his grace upon grace poured out on is in Christ.

The word of God, the communication of God to man – is Christ. He is the form and fulness of God's grace to you, the sinner. And this is what Christmas is all about. It's far more than a silent night with cattle lowing, a poor humble baby laid in a manger. It's far more than joyous shepherds and heavenly choirs of angels. It's even more than peace on earth and good will toward man. Christmas is the Word of God becoming flesh, and dwelling among us. Christmas is the beginning of the fulfillment of all the ancient promises of God.

And it is a miracle of pure grace. God, holy God, comes completely of his own accord, from outside of us and far beyond us. He breaks in to our world as an uninvited guest, who is really the owner of the place. No choice or decision or act of man brought him here. He was even born of a virgin, after all. None of us can take any credit for his appearance, any more than we can claim we had a hand in the sun coming up this morning. But quite apart from us, and even in spite of our sins, the light of the world has dawned in Jesus Christ.

Word and light of creation that he is, yet his own creation didn't know him. Corrupt as we were and are, we can't even see the light – apart from his grace. So not only does he break into our darkness, but he gives us eyes to see him. He opens our ears to hear his word, and by his Spirit, faith to believe it. We could no more choose him than we could choose to be born – but this too, he brings and gives and delivers by his grace upon grace. Light to those who sit in darkness and sin. Faith to those who would receive him not. Forgiveness to us, who can only do evil apart from him. And a word to rely on, to believe in, to find hope.

Baby Jesus, born in Bethlehem. Born for you. Born to live for you, born to die for you, born to be resurrected for you, and to reign eternally for you. Even now, he remains the Word of God made flesh – divine, but also human, now glorified, and yet to come in glory.

Jesus is not only the reason for the season, he is the fulness of all seasons, the reason for all rejoicing. He is the content and source of our life, the author and perfecter of our faith. He is the agent of creation, and the one for redeems it and makes all things new. He is the crux of history, and his cross the cross-roads of all existence. And Bethlehem is the first step on the way to Calvary.

The word became flesh and dwelled among us. Thanks be to God - for grace upon grace received, and God the Father made the incarnation of Christ. For the light that has dawned upon us who sat in darkness, that even we should be called children of God. In Christ our Lord, Amen.

Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding, but is revealed in the incarnation of Christ our Lord, guard and keep your hearts and minds in Christ – now and always. Amen.  

Monday, December 16, 2013

Lutheran Antinomian Debate - Taking Our Cues from the Text

I don't get as bent out of shape about the vigorous debates amongst some in our circles, but actual enjoy following from the sidelines.  I particularly appreciated Pastor Paul Beisel's recent summary piece here.

But I thought I'd throw my own two cents into the mix, too, finally.  One aspect of this question I haven't often seen emphasized is how we take our cues from the text in question:

I believe this has been mostly a debate about preaching.  How does a preacher best set forth God's Law and Gospel in the course of his sermon, and over the course of many sermons?  Is the old "three point" model still the standard, or should it be used at all?  Can you end a sermon on a "law" note?  And which use of the law and how, or do we "preach a use of the law at all"? I don't have comprehensive answers to these sticky questions, but I do think it helpful to take some cues from the text when considering it all.

For instance, this past Sunday's Gospel reading ended on a "Gospel" note.  There wasn't a lot of (or any, really) paranaesis.  The whole reading was about John's seeming doubts and Christ's merciful action, culminating in the preaching of the good news.  Jesus says, "He who has ears, let him hear".  This is faith talk.  So with a text like this, is it wrong to let the text "lead the way", and if there isn't an emphasis on sanctified living, why shoe-horn it into your sermon?

Likewise, when preaching texts that do emphasize what the Christian life looks like, don't we do better to address those texts fully?  In a careful, Lutheran, Gospel-motivated way, of course.  I suppose those who preach on the Epistles more often would get more practice at this sort of thing.  But even some Gospel readings beg us to address the question, "how then shall we live?"

I suppose it does happen from time to time that the "Gospel" in a text is scant, and the preacher must mine for it or even "import" it.  I appreciate the "Gospel Handles" approach of Rossow on this.  But I don't think we are as compelled to "import" paranaesis into a text.  I'm thinking this has to do with Walther's "letting the Gospel predominate".

Preaching is hard.  I claim no expertise.  In fact I am amazed that God does anything good through me at all.  I appreciate the careful study and intensive discussion of these issues, as I continually seek to get a better "handle" on the task before me each week.

Sermon - Matthew 11:2-15 - Advent 3

Matthew 11:2-15
Advent 3
LCMS Singapore Mission
December 15th, 2013

Theologians have debated just what is going on with John the Baptist in this passage. On the one hand, here is a great prophet, the last of the prophets, and more than a prophet as Jesus himself testifies. John is the voice crying in the wilderness, the Elijah who was to come, the herald of the Messiah – sent ahead to prepare the way for Christ. John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, baptized many, and pointed to Christ, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (which we sing to this day in our liturgy, when we are about to “behold the lamb of God” in the Sacrament of the Altar). Jesus heaps high praise on John as one of the greatest men ever born. John is surely important, and we naturally remember him during Advent, as we prepare the way for the celebration of Jesus' birth.

But on the other hand, it seems here that John was having a bit of a crisis of faith. And who wouldn't, in his shoes? John sat, rotting in the dungeon of a Herod, locked up for an ancient version of “hate speech” which was really just pointing out the sins of powerful people. In earthly terms, John had little hope, and of course we know how the story goes – John would soon lose his head to the wickedness of spiteful Herodias and cowardly Herod. Evil would seem to triumph. And what was Jesus going to do about it?

Did John waver in his faith? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. So often the Bible doesn't let us in to the inner thoughts of a person's heart, we read only the words and actions. Here John's actions, whatever their motivation, fit well with his whole persona. Whether purposely or in spite of himself, he points people to Christ. He sends his disciples to Christ. He directs them again to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

But is he the one? Or should we look for another? You and I are tempted to look for another Christ, too. And we certainly waver in our faith. We know who the true Christ is, but the sinful nature within us would have us running after other christs – other saviors. A religious leader? A wise mentor? Perhaps.

Or perhaps your Christ is less a person, and more a thing. Do you falsely seek your salvation in the pleasures and distractions of life? Do you deaden the accusation of the law with the club of a twisted rationalization, explaining away your sins to utter irrelevance? Or do you salve your throbbing conscience with the balm of good works, and a full dose of works-righteousness?

All of these false Christs fail us in the end, for they do not solve our problems, for they do not solve our problem... of sin. They are false Christs with a false Gospel. Only the true Christ brings good news to the poor. All those other things- the healings and wonders- are signs, calling cards the Messiah would drop. But the true mark of the true Christ is he brings good news. He is the good news.

True, some are offended because of him. But those who are not, those who have ears to hear this good news – are blessed. For the good news is that he was offended on account of our offenses. He faced death for our murderous lies. He was shamed for our scandalous adulteries. He was crucified by wicked men for our evil ways and humiliated on account of our selfishness and prideful puffery. He is the Christ – seek no other – he brings good news to the poor sinner like you.

Yes, John was quite a spectacle. Funny clothes, a diet that would make for a good cable tv show. An odd fellow living out in the wilderness all alone. But what did all the people go out to see in John? A prophet. What did they go out to hear from John? A message – message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. A message that would find its fulfillment in the one John wasn't even worthy to untie his sandals.

Like the prophets before him, and like so many witnesses to the Gospel after – John faced foes. The world hates the Christ. They reject his message and kill his messengers. They persecute his church. But do not despair. If you feel trapped in a dungeon of your sins, and know that death is looming, let John point you again to Christ. If you are blind or lame or leprous or deaf, look to Christ for healing more profound than an earthly miracle. If you face death, take courage, for in Christ there is life stronger than death. And if you are poor, a beggar, bringing nothing of value to the king – come and hear the good news from the only one who has it, but gives it freely to the likes of even you and me. 

Christ has come. Christ has died. Christ lives, and Christ will come again! What good news! Believe it for Jesus' sake, amen.