Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Sermon - The Baptism of Our Lord - Romans 6:1-11

Romans 6:1-11
“Baptism:  Death and Life”

There are many things that we share in common with other Christians.  Depending on the denominations – most recognize the Trinity.  Most believe the Bible is, at least in some sense, God’s word.  Most still believe in heaven, some still believe in hell.  And many would share our beliefs about creation, Jesus’ birth to a virgin, and his resurrection.

But one of the doctrines of Scripture that seems to be a real dividing line for many Christians, a real watershed, if you’ll pardon the pun, is Holy Baptism.  Just what is it, and what does it do?  What does it mean?

For starters, we deny the idea that baptism is merely symbolic.  That it is an empty and outward act which simply recognizes or signifies some spiritual change within us.  Scripture never speaks of it this way, but rather, always talks of baptism as actually DOING something.  You just have to look at the verbs.  Moreover, close attention to the language shows us that baptism is not something that we do, a human act or work – but rather, it is something that we receive – a gift from God.  Look at the passive language about “being baptized” not, “baptizing yourself”.  And if baptism is a gift from God, that means that babies, too, can receive it. 

On this day in which we honor and recall the Baptism of our Lord, we also have one of the most important Epistle passages about Baptism from St. Paul – in Romans 6.  Let’s focus on Paul’s explanation of Baptism today as sort of a sideways treatment of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan.
Anytime you have a statement like, “therefore”, or “in light of this” or “what shall we say, then?”  You should ask what the author was talking about right before this passage – the near context.  And to answer, in the first 5 chapters, Paul has been discussing first our predicament of sin, and then the righteousness of God that comes through faith, apart from the law.  He shows how we are freed from the law, or by trying to be righteous according to the law.  It’s the very Gospel itself – salvation is by grace through faith in Christ, and not in any works of our own.

But such a pure and free no-strings-attached gospel has led many to the question, “well, then can I just go on sinning?  If salvation is free, if I don’t have to DO anything to get to heaven or be in God’s good graces, then I can do what I want, right?  I can sin and not worry about it!”  And so some have even accused us Lutherans of teaching.  But Paul makes it clear that the Christian response to the gospel is not to go on sinning that grace may abound.  And he proves his point with baptism.
You have died to sin.  You’ve been baptized into Christ Jesus, and that means that you are baptized into his death.  You are not the same as you once were.  Something is different about you, Christian, something big.

One of the most important details about someone is whether they are alive or not.  We just had another New Year’s observance, and one of the lists you often see about this time is all the famous people that have died in the last year.  It’s one thing with celebrities, but quite another with people in your life, your loved ones.  Their life and death matters much more to us.  Nothing changes your life quite as much as when a child is born into the family, or when a loved one dies and is no longer with you.  Birth and death are firm markers, bright lines in the course of time, turning points beyond which nothing is quite the same.

So too with baptism.  It’s a life and death matter.  Dead to sin, but very much alive in Christ. 
Of course, it is only seen spiritually, for now.  You can’t tell, outwardly, if a person is baptized.  You can’t see it like a mark on their forehead or a tattoo on their arm.  But the name of God is upon you.  The seal of God is upon your brow.  You are marked and redeemed by Christ the crucified.  You know it, and more importantly, God knows it.

And so, according to the spirit, you have already died and been made alive in Christ.  You’ve been drowned and resurrected.  But since this is a spiritual reality, it didn’t only happen then, it happens every day.  Our catechism puts it this way:

What does such baptizing with water indicate?

It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

Where is this written?

Saint Paul writes in Romans chapter six: “We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”  Romans 6:4

The other aspect of baptism that Paul highlights here, is our being united with Christ.  Here’s is how Christ’s baptism and our own are sort of two sides of a coin.

In our baptism, we are united with Christ.  We get what Christ gets.  We get his death, but also his life.  Our Old Adam is drowned, and our New Adam arises – and that New Adam is the one who is united with Christ, the Second Adam.  Just as Jesus is without sin, we are cleansed of sin.  Just as he is righteous, so we are made righteous.  What God says of Jesus, he now says of you, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”.

We are so united with Christ that elsewhere Paul speaks of baptism as being “clothed” with Christ.  And so also where Jesus goes, we go, not just to death, but to life.  Therefore even the grave has no hold over us, for it didn’t over Jesus.  He rose on the third day, and we will rise, bodily, on the last day.  In so many ways baptism unites us with Christ, identifies us with him, as one of his people, even the very body of Christ, the church.

But in Jesus’ baptism we see the other side of the coin.  In Jesus’ baptism he is united with us.  He identifies with us.  John was right, in a way, to balk when Jesus came to be baptized.  He said, “wait a minute, Jesus, I’m the one who needs to be baptized by you!  You don’t need any cleansing.  You don’t need any washing away of your sins – you don’t have any!  You’re the Lamb of God, spotless and blameless.  You take away the sins of the world.  What are you doing here, asking to be baptized?  This is all backwards”

And in a way, Jesus acknowledges this, by saying, “let it be so, now…”  As if to say, “Normally, John, you’d be exactly right, but now, just this one time, let it be so – for there is a special purpose here – to fulfill all righteousness”.  You see, by submitting to baptism, Jesus was uniting himself with us sinners, in order to save us sinners.  He was initiating the great exchange – giving us what he has – his righteousness – and taking what we had – our sin, our guilt, and eventually, our death.  “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Corinthians 5:21

Of course Jesus would complete this process at the cross.  There he would, in his body, put to death all sin.  There, he would, by his death, literally take our place.  And then, by his resurrection, burst open the grave not just for himself, but for all of us who have been united with him, he, with us, in his baptism, we, with him, in ours.

And so Paul winds up by exhorting us:  “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus”.  Just as we can’t see our baptism, but trust in its power and promise, so also we must consider what we can’t see to be true:  we are dead to sin.  Sin has no power over us.  We are slaves no more.  We have, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the ability to fight temptation, to flee from wickedness, and begin to live a life worthy of our calling.  The paradoxical mystery is that we will fall and fail, but the comfort of the cross of Christ is always at hand to restore us.  For even as we consider and regard ourselves as dead to sin, we must also trust that we are, even now, alive to God in Christ Jesus. 

The Christian life is different.  It is as different as life and death.  It is a life lived in the daily flood of baptismal blessings that flow from Christ and his cross.  It is for young and old, rich and poor, slave and free, and for sinners of all nations.  All who are subject to death and the tyranny of the Old Adam.

And when this body of sin is finally placed in the ground, when our flesh and breath give up the ghost, then we will see the full measure of our baptism’s power, when Christ returns to raise the dead and bring his people to eternal glory.  Then, and there, death will finally and fully be undone.  There and then, we will know only life, united with Christ forever. 

Baptism is death – and life – Thanks be to God.  In Jesus’ Name.  Amen.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Sermon - 2nd Sunday after Christmas - Luke 2:40-52

“The Things of My Father”

Not two weeks from Christmas and we already see Jesus as a boy of 12 years old.  It is a precious passage which gives the only real glimpse into his childhood.  Luke’s account of the boy Jesus in the Temple is fascinating, instructive, and engaging.

We may identify with Mary and Joseph, and the anxiety of a parent who’s every temporarily lost a child.  We may wonder about the reaction of the Jewish teachers, and imagine the kinds of questions and answers Jesus shared with them.  We mind find ourselves in awe as we “sit at the feet of Jesus” and as he teaches us, even today, from his word.  We may even see in Jesus himself, the example of learning and growing in our faith.  Let’s take each of these in turn as we pay attention, with Jesus, to the “Things of the Father”.

One of the moves Martin Luther made with this passage was the idea that Mary and Joseph had “lost” Jesus.  Imagine if we would ever “lose” Jesus.  Luther says, “This is a striking, poignant Gospel lesson for us to consider… Just think what it would mean if we lost the child Jesus from our hearts!”  Of course, we know it is possible for the believer to deny the faith, shipwreck one’s faith, fall away from salvation.  We don’t believe “once saved always saved”.  There’s too many passages which warn us from falling, that we know it’s possible.  But on the flip side we have numerous promises that God will never leave or forsake us, and that no one can snatch us out of his hand.  You can’t “lose Jesus” like you misplace your car keys.  You can’t “lose Jesus” like you can lose a loved one, or be abandoned by a spouse.

But what is the best way for us to make sure that we don’t ever become so weak and feeble of faith that we would ever fall away from him?  Simply, be in the Father’s house.  Be rooted firmly in the gifts of God – the Word and the Sacraments.  Receive them regularly.  Follow the pious example of Mary and Joseph who made their usual pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  Only you don’t have to go so far.  Don’t be a stranger to God’s house, but rather be about it, be here, make and keep it your habit.  And you will be strengthened in faith and held close in Christ.

Just look at these learned men with whom Jesus converses for three days.  Luke tells us “And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”  These were men who, in their day, were teachers and experts in theology, the things of God.  They were the teachers of Israel, all over 30 – the customary minimum age for a public teacher.  And with a generation’s head start on Jesus, still they found amazement with his understanding and answers.  For while he was listening and asking them questions, as he was a humble and avid student of the word, so too they also must have learned from him, for he surely mastered that word like no 12 year old ever before or since. 

Doesn’t Jesus also teach us here, by example, of the value of catechesis?  A simple question and answer method of teaching and learning God’s word.  Luther picked up this idea and gave us a wonderful tool for doing just that – with all of its good questions, “What does this mean?” and it’s sure answers  - “This is most certainly true”.  Therefore let us not only teach our children but remain rooted in these catechism truths all our days, being constantly amazed as we encounter Jesus through his word.

Maybe you remember hearing this passage, even many years ago, from the King James Version.  There, Jesus’ words are translated, “How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?”  But most modern translations take the Greek to mean, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?”  The problem is that the way the Greek is written, the object of the sentence is a bit ambiguous.  It’s more like, “it is necessary that in the things of my Father, I must be”  The “things” really has to be supplied.  So here we have it translated as either “business” or “house”.

You can see how either makes sense.  Jesus is about the Father’s business, always.  He is taking care of business, you might say.  And so tending to the Word of God, asking, answering, learning, teaching it – this is always proper business for the Son of Man who is the Son of God.  And where, but the temple, does this business most properly take place?  Where, but with the teachers of the law and the learned men of God?  Surely Jesus was taught by his parents and other teachers back in Nazareth.  But he also valued that place that was set apart – the holy place of God – where the word was central.  We too can both read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Word in our personal devotions and home reading and study, but let us not neglect doing so with other Christians in the place where God has given us to gather – now, the congregation.  Shouldn’t you, also, Christian, be about the Father’s business, and in the Father’s house? 

Of course, also at the temple would many other items of business been on the agenda. Of course you would have had the priests there, busily saying prayers on behalf of the people.  Jesus, the Great High Priest, certainly knew a thing or two about that.  He prayed then, even as he prays now, the one ultimate intercessor between God and man, between the Father and the children.

Then you would have also had the sacrifices of the temple.  All the blood of beasts on Jewish altars slain.  The sights and sounds and smells of the temple must have been quite something.  And all the more on high festivals, like the one that was just ending as Jesus’ family headed home.  But this business of the temple would soon cease, as the once-and-for-all sacrifice would be made.  The Lamb of God was in the house, his Father’s house, his own house.  And he is the one who would soon take away the sins of the world.  The one to whom all sacrifices pointed forward, and in whom all sacrifices are fulfilled.

And this, perhaps even more than anything, is the “Father’s business”.  The cross was Jesus’ mission impossible, issued from his Father from eternity, the Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world.  The cross is why the Babe of Bethlehem was born.  The cross is where this 12 year old boy was headed.  The cross is where the great teacher, the man Jesus, would die.

Wouldn’t it be nice to know exactly what Jesus was talking about as he discussed the Scriptures with those learned men?  Since we don’t have the conversation recorded, we would have to speculate.  But a reasonable assumption is this:  that Jesus was directing them to think on the subject of the promised Messiah.  After all, later on, Jesus would make the claim that the Scriptures these kinds of men searched for salvation are the same Scriptures that testified of him (John 5:39).  And so the Living Word, the Incarnate Word himself would have shown them in the written Word, what it was all about.  And perhaps even the heart of it, as he would one day teach Nicodemus:  “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14)

And so Jesus shows us, by this one brief glimpse into his childhood growing years, the only one recorded in all of Scripture, that he is both human and divine.  His divinity peeks through to the amazement of the Jews who were astounded by his understanding of Scripture.  And his humanity also shows in his obedience to his parents, and in Luke’s comments about him increasing in wisdom and stature.  He grew and learned, just as we do – he was a human.  But he did so without sin, for he was not only a human, but also the Son of God. 

And at the end, Jesus returns and is submissive to his parents.  So in his state of humility, he continues to fulfill the law for us – including the 4th commandment, honoring father and mother.  He does what we can’t and don’t, and fulfills all righteousness for us.  But he’s also preparing for the day when the temple will be destroyed and rebuilt in 3 days.  He will return to Jerusalem, not to learn in humility, but to die in humility, and rise in victory.  Here, as a boy, we see one more step along the way.

Thanks be to God that Jesus was about his Father’s business for us all.  And thanks be to God for the privilege and joy, even today, that we have, to be in the Father’s house, to learn from his word, and to treasure up all these things like Mary – pondering in our hearts – the mystery and blessing of the Word made flesh, the Son of Man and Son of God, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Sermon - New Year's Eve - Luke 12:35-40

Sermon – New Year’s Eve – Luke 12:35-40
"The Master Knows the Times"

You can spend time, you can waste time or you can even kill time.  We say “time is money”, “time waits for no one” and “a stitch in time saves nine” (whatever that means!).
It is only natural that at this time of the year, the very end of the year, people’s thoughts turn to time itself.  All the more at the closing of a decade, as the 2020’s are about to begin.  We look back, and we look forward – in fact the Roman god “Janus”, from which we get “January” had two faces – one looking forward, one looking back.

We Christians are not immune to thoughts of time.  We live in the world, even though in some ways we are not of it.  We have a set number of days, a limited amount of time in this world.  We mark the days, the seasons, the years of our life with various calendars and systems.  And yet time is still somewhat of a mystery to us.  We can’t control it, stop it or reverse it.  It comes and goes and is gone.  But like all things, our Triune God is its master.  He created time after all.

Creation itself occurred in time.  God spent 6 days, morning and evening, making everything that is – and then set aside an entire day of rest – not because he was tired, but really for us!  He set the sun, moon and stars in the sky to serve as signs for the times and seasons.  And he set all of it in perfect motion, so that it literally runs like clockwork.  All of this is a gift to us, even before the fall into sin.  Time itself is part of the order of his creation.

But of course, we sin.  We misuse the time he gives us.  We spend it doing things that are not helpful, kind or loving.  We don’t occupy our time in love for God and neighbor.  We use it selfishly.  We’ve even coined the term, “me – time”.  That’s the way the sinner views everything, in terms of “me”.  It’s my life, leave me alone.

But the God who created time also redeems it, along with all things.  He sends his Son, born of a woman, born in time, to live a human life just like ours yet without sin.  That means he, the Lord of time, placed himself under it.  The eternal, immortal God becomes subject to the tick tock of minutes, days, and years.  He learned and grew, just like us.  He worked and rested, just like us.  He observed the festivals and celebrations of the people of his day, just like us.

And when the time was right, he went to the cross.  Jesus knew the plan.  He even said things like, “This is the hour of the power of darkness”.  And so he would suffer and die.  But he also knew his time in the grave was limited, and that on the third day the Son of Man would rise from the dead.  And so he did.  Right on time.  Death held his body not a second longer than he allowed it to.
After 40 days of appearing to many witnesses, alive, the time was fulfilled and he resumed his rightful throne in heaven.  And he reigns and rules all things there, with the earth itself as his footstool, until that day, that hour, that time appointed, when he will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Our Gospel reading today is just one of those times in which Jesus warns and promises about that appointed time.  He uses to parables, really, to illustrate his point.

First, a comparison to a group of servants waiting for their master to come home from a wedding feast.  They know he’s coming home, but they don’t know when.  And so they could goof off or lollygag, become complacent and fall asleep.  But who would want to miss the return of this master?  He sounds like quite a guy.  Not a cruel taskmaster, a mean old slave owner, but kind and humble.  A blessing to his servants!  Yes, he even dresses himself for service, and serves THEM!

What a fitting picture of the servant-king Jesus!  The master who came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.  But his character doesn’t change.  When he comes again in glory, it will also be for the good of his people – to bring us to the victory celebration.  To serve us in a new way, ushering in the feast in his kingdom which will have no end.

The second parable begins, “But know this…”.  Here Jesus shifts to another perspective – now you are the “master”.  The master of a house who is perhaps caught unawares when the thief comes.  This fits with Jesus’ other teaching about his return being sudden – at a time when no one expects.  But here, also, the implication is that one who is not ready will see that arrival as a curse, not a blessing.  So be awake! Be ready!  He may come at any time!

And while we are not given to know the day or the hour of Christ’s return, or the day or the hour of our own departure via the passage of death – the Master knows the times!  Our Lord Jesus Christ, who reigns over all things, is in complete charge of history on the grand scale, and of the number of your days on the smallest scale.  And this ought to comfort us.

For instance, in Romans 8 St. Paul lists a long series of possible forces or situations we might face – death, life, angels, rulers, height, depth, etc.  But among those things we need not fear he mentions:  things present nor things to come.

One of the most anxiety-laden thoughts for many people is fear of the future.  What will tomorrow bring?  What will I have to face in the new year?  What problems and challenges, what sickness and sorrow is just waiting for me around the corner?  Tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger or sword? 

Or even if it’s nothing in particular, just a general fear of the future – a sense of malaise with no specific target – maybe just a sense that things are never quite as good as you hope, that bad things happen, that moth and rust destroy and chaos ultimately wins the day.  Such could well be the despair we arrive at, the nihilism that has embraced so many today.  In a way, it’s indicative of an eyes-open view of this fallen and corrupt word in which we live.  “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:19.

But this world, this life, this present time and all things to come within it – are but a breath.  This life is short.  This world is coming to an end.  There is an appointed hour at which the clocks will stop, and eternity will begin.  And this, for the Christian, is good news!

This means the return of our Master!  This means the coming of the king.  It means the raising of the dead into bodies built for eternity, glorified like Christ’s own glorified flesh.  When he comes he will judge the living and the dead, and those who are alive in him by faith will live forevermore!  We will see him face to face.  We will reunite with those we love who have died in the faith.  We will join in the feast of victory for our God, for the Lamb who was slain has begun his reign.  And God himself will wipe every tear from our eyes.

That’s your future, Christian.  That’s your hope.  Beyond the bounds of this time of decay – into the ages of ages in his eternal courts of joy! 

So come have a foretaste of it all today.  Come, while we wait for the master to return, for even now he prepares us a feast.  Even now he comes under bread and wine, though one day he will come riding the clouds.  Even now he comes with forgiveness of sins, though one day sin will be no more.
So spend your days and hours wisely, servants of the master.  And look forward to the future with hope and expectation.  For our master holds all things, even time itself, in his care.  And he rules all things for your good.  And one day he will come to bring even history to a close.  Thanks be to God that the Master knows the times, and holds them all, and us, in his loving hands.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Sermon - 1st Sunday after Christmas - Matthew 2:13-23

In general, I think that the person unfamiliar with the Bible might be surprised to find out some of what is in it.  There are all manner of stories of abuse and deceit, betrayals and conspiracies, family dysfunction and plot lines that would be rated R if they were in a modern movie.  Many times, these things are even perpetrated by believers!  And so we can see that the Scriptures do not paint some lily-white, idyllic version of reality, but because they are entirely trustworthy and true, you can find even some of the darkest deeds of human nature in those pages.  You can find some of the most sinister and malevolent characters.  The Bible doesn’t sugar coat a thing.

One of those bad guys is Herod.  Herod the Great, here, the one in charge during the days of Christ’s nativity.  This Herod was called great because of his many building projects and worldly accomplishments.  But he was also great – at being bad.  His paranoia and lust for power led him to some of the most wicked deeds recorded.  Sources outside of the Bible describe some of these.  For instance he had his own two sons and a wife put to death for fear they would threaten his power.  There was a saying that it was safer to be one of Herod’s dogs than one of his sons.  One secular historian said of Herod, he was “above all prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition”.

And so, when he hears of a child that is born and being called “King of the Jews”, his reaction is sadly predictable.  The threat must be eliminated.  There is only one King of the Jews, and that’s me.
His first attempt to destroy this possible usurper was to co-opt the wise men themselves through deceit.  But they outfoxed the fox, with the help of God’s warning in a dream, and his plan fell through.  Now enraged, Herod loosed a terrible vengeance upon the children of Bethlehem, and destroyed all of babies up to 2 years old.  Some have suggested that this wicked deed of Herod’s isn’t recorded in the secular history books because it didn’t happen.  But biblical scholars will answer that it certainly did, and it just might not be mentioned because on the scale of Herod’s many foul deeds, it didn’t rank as noteworthy to the historians.  Bethlehem, a small village, not a large metropolis, may have seen only a few dozen of these children die.  Not enough to be noticed by history, but certainly enough to be noticed by the Lord and his church.

We commemorate this event and called it the day of the “Holy Innocents”, it even has a date on the church calendar – December 28th.  They were the first Christian martyrs, in a way, the first ones to shed their blood for the sake of Christ.  And they were a foreshadowing of Christ as well – who would one day shed his holy, precious, innocent blood.

But what do we do with such a terrible story and such a bloodthirsty scoundrel as Herod?  How does a Christian answer for all of the Herods and Hitlers and Stalins and other villains and devils of the world?  Or even the fact that senseless violence, whether intentional or accidental, sometimes takes those we love?  Doesn’t this get us back to the question at the bottom line of many a skeptic’s line of reason…, “How can a good God allow such evil?”  Perhaps even we Christians are tempted to try these doubts on for size here and there.

And as an aside, but not really an aside… because I don’t see how anyone treating this text in our context could leave mention out – don’t we see similarities here with the slaughter of the innocents in our own day, in the rampant practice of abortion?  I’ll not quote statistics, but they surely dwarf the numbers of the murdered children of Bethlehem.  We don’t have to look far to see the same sort of evil, the same destruction of the weakest among us.  If we think about it too much, or too long, it becomes unbearable.

So what does a Christian do with all of this?  How do we answer for all of the evil and violence and darkness in this world?  The answer might surprise people.

The first thing to do is repent.  You might say, “What?  We’re talking about other people’s sins here.  How did we get to me?”  Ah, but this is just what Jesus does.  He directs you away from other people’s sins, and other people’s victimhood, and calls you to, first of all, repent.  Here’s how Jesus answered a question regarding some similar circumstances:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”  (Luke 13:1-5)

For the Christian, repentance is always in order.  Because we are always grappling with sin.  And we are always tempted to look out at the other sinners, and the evil of the world outside of us, and not first and foremost at ourselves.

Consider, how have you, by your own sins, joined hands with the Herods of the world?  What evil deeds have you been a party to?  Perhaps it’s not so obvious.  Perhaps it’s more in the realm of sins of omission.  Could you be doing more to love and serve your neighbor? How often do you pray for your enemies or bless those who curse you?  Probably not enough.  I know, because I don’t either.
Perhaps you’ve given tacit approval to sin, or even rationalized it as not that bad.  And if someone else’s sin doesn’t seem that bad then maybe my sin is even less of a problem.  Live and let live, don’t be too judgey.  I’m ok, you’re ok. And sooner or later the slippery slope sees us slide not only from the moral high ground (as if we were ever there), but right off of the narrow road and into destruction.
No the Christian need not find the answer to the problem of evil.  Some questions will keep the philosophers grappling until judgment day, because God has not given us those answers.
But the Christian needs to do as Jesus commands, and repent.  Turn from your own sin. Take the log out of your eye.  Flee from wickedness.  Confess your sins, believe his word of absolution, and have life.

While our God doesn’t fully explain the origins of evil, or clue us in on his secret counsel of why he ever let Adam and Eve be tempted, or why he allows wicked Herods to run rampant in this world.  But he does better than explain it all to us – rather, he saves us.  He sends a Savior into the darkness of this dungeon of a broken creation.  And he bursts us out of its prison of sin and death.  He shines a light in the darkest corners of our sin, and chases away its darkness forever. 

And he does it, by becoming the victim of violence himself.  Yes, Jesus was spared the destruction of Herod, was kept safe in Egypt by the Lord’s design.  But he would not always be spared.  He was being kept safe until the proper time, the appointed hour for when he would stand before another Herod, and finally drink the cup. Out of Egypt God would call his Son, call him toward his true purpose, his one goal.

Jesus Christ bears the violence, suffering, shame, agony and bitter death of the cross.  He does it to make all things new.  He does it to overturn the Devil’s kingdom.  To drain the venom from death’s sting.  He does it to heal all who are wounded by violence and even to raise those whose blood is shed by the wicked.  The cross is the ultimate antidote to evil.  It is the only real hope that things will be made right again – but what a hope it is!

Matthew sees, inspired by the Holy Spirit, the slaughter of the Holy Innocents as a fulfillment of prophecy – quoting Jeremiah 31:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they care no more

It all sounds so hopeless and sad.  But the very next verse in Jeremiah reads:

Thus says the Lord:
“Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears,
for there is a reward for your work,
declares the Lord,
and they shall come back from the land of the enemy.
 There is hope for your future,
declares the Lord,
and your children shall come back to their own country.

When we consider the Herods of the world, the slaughter of so many innocents – a river of blood throughout history – we may be perplexed and depressed, driven even to despair.  When our own little corner of history falls under the crashing tower, under the boot of oppression, or beneath the shadow of death…  we may mourn and weep like Rachel, but we too have a hope.  We have the cross of Jesus, the blood of the Innocent One.  And one day our weeping will be no more, as God wipes every tear from our eyes.  This is our hope, in the Babe of Bethlehem, the Christ of the cross.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Sermon - Midweek Advent 3 - Bathsheba and Mary

Week 3 -  Bathsheba and Mary – Mothers of the Son of David

We’ve looked at Eve and Sarah, mothers of promise, as well as Rahab and Ruth, mothers from the nations.  Tonight we consider two women who share a common distinction, but otherwise might at first seem very different – Bathsheba and Mary.  But as we look closer, we’ll see that they maybe aren’t that different at all.  Nor are we, who are also in Christ, the Son of David.

Bathsheba’s tale is a sordid story of adultery, unplanned pregnancy, conspiracy and murder, followed by a cover-up.  We didn’t hear all of the gory details this evening, but even Scripture doesn’t spell out every last detail – but leaves some to our imagination.

One debate that continues to run is what was Bathsheba’s culpability in the whole affair?  How much of a victim was she?  How much of a seductress?  Did she act out of fear before a powerful man, or did she play the game for her own ends, willingly participating in the sin (or at least, not protesting as she might have)?  Maybe one day in heaven we will know.

But one thing is for sure, she was caught up in this web of sin.  And she, like all of us, was a sinner.  Whether a #metoo victim of toxic masculinity or a woman who worked it all to her advantage (or, perhaps even some of each of these), the fact is that Bathsheba was part of a big mess of sin.

Sometimes we are responsible, directly, for the messes we find ourselves in.  Sometimes we truly are the victim, for evil also comes from the devil and the sinful world around us.

If it’s your own sin that got you into trouble, then there’s only one thing to do – repent!  We should pray to see our own sin clearly, to have the word which shows it to us (that word of law), and also that our pride would not hinder us from confession.  For yes, even we Christians can willfully participate in evil deeds of the flesh.  Sins of lust and greed and lies and even murder, if only in our hearts.  And often enough, those sins don’t seem to have consequences.  We seem to get away with it.  No harm, no foul, right?  No, for the Lord sees even the secret sins of the heart.

And then sometimes, often when you least expect it, that secret sin is laid bare.  It’s not so secret anymore.  Judging eyes can now see what a scoundrel you are.  The cat’s out of the bag.  The fig leaf didn’t do its job.  And what do you have left but excuses and equivocations, rationalizations and blame.  But none of that really works.  The only rescue is repentance, confession, forgiveness.

But then there are other times when you find yourself knee-deep in a quagmire of sin and its consequences, and none of it is yours!  You are the victim of some other sinner.  You are the target of some satanic plan.  Or perhaps you simply fall, for whatever reason, under some aspect of this broken world of chaos – and disaster, disease, or even death comes to visit.  Here, too, the Christian is not without hope!  Here too, we have good news from Christ.  For he is with us, working for the good of his people in all things – all things!  Even that which seems so ugly, and may well be. 

Whether she was complicit or not, Bathsheba knew the bitterness of sin’s consequences, when on the 7th day after birth, the child she had with David died.  Not even old enough to be baptized, just a day shy.  And while scripture records David’s grief leading up to the child’s death, we can imagine Bathsheba grieved it too, like only a mother can.

And yet, God brought them blessing.  He brought forth good from this whole mess.  For Bathsheba would bear David another son, the boy Solomon.  And Solomon would reign in superlative wisdom, and build the temple, the house of God, and be a great king in his own right.  But even more – Solomon, this first surviving Son of David would continue the line of promise that culminated with THE Son of David, even Christ our Lord.

The Christ, who by his own death would destroy death.  The Christ, who with a wisdom greater than Solomon and a faith stronger than David, would turn this sinful world order on its head, and deal with sin like only he could. Thanks be to God for the son of Bathsheba, the Son of David, Jesus Christ our Lord.

And then, Mary.  Dear Mary, the God-bearer.  Beloved and honored by Christians from the beginning, for as she herself sang, “all generations will call me blessed”.

Hard to think of any woman who stands in greater contrast to Bathsheba than Mary.  The adulteress (willing or not) versus the virgin pure and mild.  The woman who rose to a seat of power, and became mother of an of the king’s child – or the humble maiden from Nazareth.  We don’t see Mary as sinless, though many Christians wrongly make that claim.  But we do see in her a great faith that is worthy of imitation, a humility that we can aspire to.  When Mary was told the news that she would bear the Lord Jesus, she gave no objection or argument, only, “Let it be to me as you have said.  I am the servant of the Lord!”

And we sing, even tonight, the song of Mary – the Magnificat!   A joyous response of praise and thanks to the God who remembers his mercy.  The God of our fathers, who raises the lowly and brings down the mighty.  A God of tender mercy who remembers his promises.  And of course, there is no greater promise than the seed of the woman who comes to crush the serpent.  God was bringing this promise to fulfillment, and it would begin here, with faithful Mary.

But Mary wasn’t all good and Bathsheba wasn’t all bad.  Both of these sinner/saints had a role in the salvation story.  Both were mothers of the Son of David.  Bathsheba, in the most mundane and earthly way.  Mary, in the most blessed and miraculous way.  Bathsheba’s Son of David was a great man, but Mary’s Son of David was the God-man.

Son of David.  What a loaded term.  Of course David was the king of Israel’s glory days.  Even today with the modern nation of Israel, we see the “Star of David” on their flag.  David was king over a united kingdom which saw wealth and success, victory over enemies, and had the respect of the nations.  This only grew under Solomon, until his two sons tore the kingdom apart.

But God had made a promise – that the throne of David would be forever.  That a Son of David would reign forever.  And if you only looked outwardly at history, you’d have to say that promise failed when the last Davidic king of Judah was deposed in 587 BC.  But God’s promise was not for an earthly king, but for much more.

When Jesus came to Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, on that Sunday when they spread their palms – they also welcomed him with the accolade, “Son of David!  Hosanna!  Save us now!”  A shot across the bow to the established rulers, for this “Son of David” talk was the moniker of a king.

But Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world.  And yes, he would rule on David’s throne, but not some paltry earthly kingdom.  He would be enthroned on the cross, crowned with thorns, buried with the rich in death.  But then he would retake his true power and majesty, returning to the throne of heaven, where he now rules all things for us, his people.  Now, he can and truly does answer the Hosannas of all his people.  Now, and forever, the true and ultimate Son of David will save us.

But he had to be both God and man to do all this.  And so God made provision, that in the womb of the Virgin Mary, heaven and earth would meet, and a Divine Nature would become one with a lowly human nature.  So David’s son is David’s Lord.  And he is Bathsheba’s lord, and Mary’s savior, and ours.

You see the one common thread the truly connects all these women, Eve and Sarah, Rahab and Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary – is their offspring Jesus Christ.  Christ who shared his human bloodline with them, but in whose holy precious blood they and all who share Adam’s blood are saved.  Jesus the fulfillment of promise, the savior of the nations, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Thanks be to God for his long-awaited promises that informed the faith of the Old Testament saints.  Thanks be to God for bringing those promise to fruition through the fruit of Mary’s womb.  Thanks be to God for the Son of David who brings us into his everlasting kingdom.  And Thanks be to God that the Jesus who has come will come again to bring us final victory, resurrection, and a place in eternal glory.

A blessed Advent and Christmas to you all.  In Jesus Christ, Amen.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Sermon - Midweek Advent 2 - Rahab and Ruth

The Mothers of Jesus – Midweek Advent Series 2019
“Mothers from the Nations”

We’re continuing our series on the “Mothers of Jesus” which began last week with the “Mothers of Promise”, Eve and Sarah, who shared a common thread.  They both received promises about their offspring and looked to God in faith for fulfillment.  Through these women, God would move forward his plan of salvation,that would culminate with the birth of his own son in Bethlehem.
Today we are focusing on two other mothers from Jesus’ family tree, Rahab and Ruth.  Let’s call them, “Mothers from the nations”, since both of these women had their origins outside of 12 tribes of Israel.  Rahab was a Canaanite, a resident of Jericho.  And Ruth was from Moab, one of the neighboring nations.

We know the central place the Israelites, and especially the tribe of Judah had in salvation history.  We know who they grew from a large family to small nation during their time of bondage in Egypt.  We see God bring them through the 40 years of wilderness sojourn, miracles along the way.  And finally they come to the River Jordan and the promised land, the land sworn to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  The land flowing with milk and honey.

It was here, Canaan, that God would plant them.  It was here, through them and their descendants, that God would raise up the long-promised Messiah, the savior of the nations.  At a certain time and place, through a certain people of a certain nation and tribe and even descended from a certain king, David.

You can see why the Jews were tempted to think they were something special.  Well, they were!  They were the chosen people, chosen by God, chosen for a great purpose.  But sometimes this caused sinful pride rather than grateful humility. Sometimes “salvation is from the Jews” became a way to look down on others, aliens, outsiders.  The great unwashed masses. The gentiles.

We, today, are not immune to such temptation.  Insider/outsider, us and them scenarios, divisions and distinctions among men that lead us to treat our fellow man as somehow less, and us, my group, me, as somehow something more.  Maybe we consider ourselves smarter, more loving, more politically astute, or more theologically pure.  It’s part of our sinful, fallen, human nature to adhere to a party spirit.  Something about it makes us feel good, right, and even justified.  Better than that group, or that guy over there.  And not so concerned or worried about my own faults, failings, and sin.

But justification comes from God alone.  To the extent that we are good, or have anything good, it is a gift from God alone.  So boasting is excluded, says Paul.  Boast, rather, in the Lord!
“But, but…we are children of Abraham”, some might have said.  Well isn’t that fancy?  God can raise up children of Abraham from the stones, says John the Baptist.

Take Jonah, who was sent to preach to Nineveh, but ran the other way, not in fear, but in hatred.  For he did not want to see THOSE people given the gospel, given second chance, or to receive God’s mercy.  And when God forgave them, Jonah was mad!

So take Rahab and Ruth – two women from the outside.  Pagans, raised worshipping other gods, false gods.  And yet God chooses them, blesses them, includes them not only in his kingdom, but in the very line of blood that would bear the Messiah.

Rahab:  Joshua 2:1-22

Rahab came first, chronologically.  She lived in Jericho, the first city the Israelites would conquer in their campaign to take possession of the land.  But Jericho was not just some small hamlet, it had mighty walls.  And as it happened, Rahab and her family lived in one of these walls.  The Scripture casually mentions that she is a prostitute. And so this adds to the reasons a good and pious Hebrew would want to avoid someone like her.

But for whatever reason, she shows hospitality to these two Hebrew spies.  She takes them into her home, at risk to herself.  She even draws attention from the King of Jericho, who knows they are spies!  But she hides them and lies to the king and saves them.  And then she who showed them mercy asks for mercy.

She says to the spies, “I know that the Lord has given you this land…”  Rahab confesses her faith in Yahweh.  This pagan prostitute, by some means, somehow, has heard the word of God and believed.  And it creates in her, however small it may be, a faith that can move mountains.  Or in this case, at least has a part in bringing down a city wall.  She let the spies down through the window by means of a scarlet cord, and that same cord was to serve as a sign – when the Israelites did come to conquer, they would pass by her house and not destroy her and her family.

The sign of red – it has to remind you of the Passover, when the blood of the lamb on the Israelite doors marked them safe from the destroyer.  And that blood of the Lamb itself was a sign also pointing to a greater blood and a mightier salvation – the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ.  In Jesus, God passes over our sins, and does not destroy us.

Rahab is remembered in the New Testament, in Hebrews as an example of faith, and in James as an example of good works.  She is part of the genealogy of Jesus.  She is an example of God working his salvation even for the outsider, the castaway, the most unlikely people.  And of using those redeemed sinners for the benefit of others in his kingdom, and to further his plan.

1500 years later, a great-grandson of Rahab’s named Jesus would be criticized for associating with prostitutes and other sinners.  But the same God who had mercy on Rahab had mercy on them, and has mercy big enough for you, whatever your sins and whoever you are.

Ruth:  Ruth 1:1-18

Then let’s consider Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite, a foreigner with foreign, false gods.  But when a Jewish family came to Moab to live because of a famine, Ruth married one of the young men.  Later the father and the two sons died, and Mother in Law Naomi decided it was time to go back home to Bethlehem.  The poignant moment comes when the other widowed daughter-in-law returns home to Moab, but Ruth pledges her loyalty and remains with Naomi.  She leaves behind her land and people, and notably also her foreign Gods.  Ruth, you see, has also come to faith in the true God.

Here it’s perhaps a bit easier to see how it happened.  Certainly she heard the word of God through her family.  How many of us, also, have been brought to faith by the word we received through our family?  Either being raised in the church and hearing and learning from our parents, who also brought us to God’s house.  Or by meeting and marrying a faithful spouse who brought us along- or how many other examples of God working through the family to bring people to encounter the Gospel of Jesus Christ and then come to faith in him.

Ruth’s story would continue in Bethlehem, where she eventually marries Boaz and becomes the great-grandmother of King David.  Which also makes her an ancestor of the Son of David, our Lord Jesus Christ.

That God would again use a foreigner, a woman, as part of the lineage of his Son, we can see by now is not really so out of character.  For Jesus called disciples who were fishermen and zealots, tax collectors and nobodies.  Our God is not a respecter of persons, in that he treats all the same – offering grace and mercy to all through Christ, making disciples, even today, of all nations.

That means there is also always a place for you.  No matter how checkered your past, no matter your lack of credentials.  Whatever your family of origin, God has called you into his family, the church.  Jesus says, “who are my mother and my brothers?  Those who do the will of God”.  And what is the will of God but that sinners repent and believe in Christ.  The blood of the crucified Christ covers all.

Thanks be to God for Rahab and Ruth.  Mothers of Christ from the nations, who show us God’s mercy and plan of salvation working in various ways.  Let us learn from their examples of faith and works, as we continue to prepare for Christmas by repentance and faith.

Monday, December 09, 2019

Sermon - Advent 2 - Matthew 3:1-12

Matthew 3:1-12
"Vipers and Fruit, Sandals and Fire"

Our annual Advent visit with John the Baptist comes almost like that odd relative that we see at the holiday family gathering.  We know and love him, but we aren’t always sure what to make of him and his odd ways.  Strange clothing, strange diet, strange living arrangement – but all of that seems designed to get your attention.  What’s really notable about John is his message.  He’s the voice, after all, of one crying in the wilderness ‘Prepare the way of the Lord…’

And at the heart of John’s message is a call to repentance.  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”.

Repent.  It’s a hard word.  An unpopular word, perhaps even in the church.

Did you know that Advent, as a season, is meant to be a penitential time, a season of repentance?  Sorrow for sin, and renewal of faith – that’s how the church prepares for its major celebrations.  Advent is, in this way, of a similar tone to Lent. 

Preparing means repenting.  Preparing for Christmas means repentance.  Just as Christmas isn’t about gifts and good feelings, the preparation for Christmas isn’t about shopping and cleaning and cards and cooking.  The one who prepared the way is the one who comes and says, “Repent”.  We do well to listen.

John makes us uncomfortable, not just because he’s an odd character, but more importantly because he points to our sin.  He reminds us we are a brood of vipers – the venom of sin running through our veins, tracing all the way back to the lies of the serpent that our first parents bit into.  It’s a deadly poison, this sin of ours, and our condition is terminal.  John minces no words, pulls no punches, but straight up calls out sin and sinners and boom, wow, does he!

Sometimes we need that verbal shock to the system.  Sometimes we need a John to slap us with a stark call to repentance.  Sin is serious business.  It’s not just a problem, it’s a disaster.  Even your little sins are deadly.  Even your secret sins make you filthy.  By nature sinful and unclean.
And so what do we do with dirt?  Wash it.  John brings a baptism, a baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  Our annual encounter with John should remind us of our own baptism.  Every day you wash your face you should remember your baptism.  For there in those waters, all your sins went down the drain.  There in that blessed flood, the Old Adam was drowned.  You are prepared, through repentance and faith, for the kingdom.  You are prepared, through your baptism, to receive the one who comes, the one greater than John.

So just what are the “fruits in keeping with repentance”?  Certainly not good works that make up for our sins or blot out our bad works.  It’s not like we can balance the ledger book ourselves, or even help the process.  The fruits in keeping with repentance are first of all, genuine sorrow for sin.  Not taking it lightly or minimizing its deadliness.  But rather confessing our sins to the one who is faithful and just, and who will forgive our sins. 

But the fruits of repentance are more than that – for confession and forgiveness bring change.  They bring renewal of life.  And so by the power of the Spirit we are different.

One example close to John’s sermon here is that of humility.  Fruit in keeping with repentance would lead people not to rely on their own credentials, “Hey don’t you know who I am? Who we are?  We’re children of Abraham!”  John is not impressed with that.  God can bring children of Abraham from stones.  And he does, in a way.  For we are children of Abraham by faith, and he brings us out of nothing, even from death, as from an inert and lifeless stone.  Glory be to God!  Not glory be to me.

And the fruits of faith are the natural outcome.  They are just what good and healthy trees do.  So the works of love for God and neighbor are the fruits of Christian faith.  They are just what Christians do.  And the new man doesn’t need to be told to do good than a tree needs to be told to bear fruit.  And a tree that has no fruit is cut down because it is dead.  So too the fruitless, faithfulness, unrepentant sinners have a fate in the fires of judgment.

The axe is already at the root of the tree.  The lumberjack is winding up and about to swing.  Judgment is ever at hand.  Repent!  Believe.

But don’t believe in John. Don’t repent for the sake of John. Even he would tell you all this is not about John.  He’s preparing the way for another.  He’s making way for someone far greater than he. 

And John confesses this in another marvelous word picture.
“I’m not worthy to carry his sandals” John says.  Or in another passage, “to undo the thong of his sandals”.  Either way, a likely reference to the slave’s job of washing feet.  John uses strong language to show that he’s not even worthy to be his slave, wash his feet, carry his sandal.  He’s not in the same league as this one who is mightier.  Even John’s baptism isn’t as great or as full.  It is preparatory.  John’s paving the way, but another one is coming, a greater one, a mightier one.

And of course we know that it’s Jesus.  The shoot from the stump of Jesse.  The one on whom the Spirit of the Lord rests (as it would do at his own baptism).  Jesus – the Christ – the servant of all.  He comes not just to undo sandals and wash feet, but to lay down his life as a ransom for many.  To go to the cross as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

Jesus is certainly greater than John, but he makes himself last and least in the kingdom, which is why we regard him as the greatest.  Jesus, by his death becomes the fount and source of all baptism, by his blood and in his death.  Jesus, the one who makes us clean first by becoming sin and dying. And then in our baptism he distributes and applies the work of the cross to each of us.  And there we are buried and raised with him.

Jesus comes to baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.  It’s not that Jesus’ baptism is entirely different than John’s.  But John’s was preparatory, and Christ’s baptism is in all its fullness.  And in Jesus, the true and final division will be seen between the repentant and unrepentant, between the believer and unbeliever.  The believer will be baptized in the Holy Spirit, that is, cleansed and made righteous unto life with Christ forever.  But the unbeliever, the one who’d rather slither with the vipers, the dead tree without fruit, that one is burned in the baptism of fire – that is a different sort of cleansing, if you will, by destruction and judgment. 

It’s similar to Jesus separating the wheat from the chaff with his winnowing fork – that’s how they separated the edible kernel of wheat from the dead outer husk or shell, by tossing it in the wind and watching the chaff blow away.  So will the Christ separate the believer from the unbeliever.  It’s the same idea that he will separate the sheep from the goats when he comes to judge the living and the dead.

John would prepare us to receive Jesus.  And receiving Jesus is always best done in repentance and faith, and so do we receive him today under the forms of bread and wine.  Sorry for our sins, wanting to do better, and believing his words of promise attached to these humble earthly things.  Here, in the sacrament, the kingdom is at hand.  Here, according to Christ’s promise, he gathers you in again – with the faithful who are forgiven.

And soon he will come in glory to judge the living and the dead, and to gather us into his eternal garner.  Then will his kingdom be seen in glory forever.  Then will we, and John, and all the faithful receive the fulfillment of baptismal promises, even resurrection from the dead and life in the world to come.

Be prepared for that day, and for this meal, and for the celebration of Christmas – be prepared as John would have you – in repentance and faith, always in Jesus Christ our Savior.  Amen.