Monday, December 27, 2010
Acts 6:8-7:2a, 51-60
Feast of St. Stephen
December 26th, 2010
“In His Footsteps”
The Christian Church today marks a special remembrance for the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen. Chosen as one of the 7 deacons to assist the 12 apostles in distributing food to the needy, we read how Stephen's bold proclamation of Christ leads to his untimely demise at the hands of angry Jewish opponents. After holding their ears and shouting so as not to hear his message, they stone him to death.
Perhaps because St. Stephen was a martyr whose main service was to help the poor – we have a more recent story about a Christian ruler around 900 A.D., King Wenceslas – who is also remembered for helping the poor. The Christmas hymn in his honor (from the late 1800s) begins:
Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
I won't sing the whole thing... but the hymn goes on to tell of a supposed miracle involving the king, when he went walking through the snow on his way to help a poor peasant. The king's servant found warmth as he followed the king through the snow. The legend tells that the king's footprints radiated heat and kept his servant warm in the bitter cold.
Tradition then tells us that Wenceslas was murdered by his brother, partly because Wenceslas was a proponent of Christianity, and did things like defending priests from persecution. So perhaps, one could say, by helping the poor and dying for his faith, King Wenceslas followed in St. Stephen's footsteps.
Stephen, for his part, is regarded as the first Christian martyr. His symbol – the one printed in our bulletin – includes three stones and a palm branch. Of course, because he was stoned to death, and a palm branch reminding us of how the martyrs are pictured in Revelation – waving palm branches – a symbol of victory even though their blood was shed.
Some might say that we too, should follow in the footsteps of Stephen and Wenceslas, and of course, of Jesus. That the lesson here is for us to feed the poor, do good for the kingdom, proclaim God's word, whatever – to follow in their footsteps. To learn from their example. And while certainly these are good things to do, there's a bit of a problem.
We're not so good at following in those kinds of footsteps. In fact, we more often fall on our faces. Rather than boldly proclaiming God's word, we more often find our foot in our mouth. Think about it.
You feel good about yourself because you made a point of saying Merry Christmas to a store cashier. But then you go home and gossip about your friend. You put a dollar in the red pot with the bell-ringer, but you speak unkindly and think in anger toward your own family. You may blame it on stress, or a long to-do list with little time to do it, but the real problem is that all of us are tripped up by our own sins. And rather than fancy ourselves graceful footstep followers, we should be honest about our clumsy and wandering ways.
What a wonder that Christ walks in OUR footsteps. His walk is graceful, and it is full of grace for us. He becomes a human, takes on human flesh, body, eyes, ears, hands, feet. He walks a perfect walk of the law, something we could never do. And he walks the way of the cross – a path to face God's wrath, so we don't have to. Whatever we do for him, imperfect as it may be, is only because of what he has done for us.
Stephen did follow in the footsteps of Christ, but by the power of the Holy Spirit. And if we do anything well or good, it is to God's credit and not to ours.
First of all, take Stephen's bold proclamation. No fear stood in the way of his witness. He plainly laid out his proclamation, no matter the consequences. And consequences there were. He followed Christ in this way – who paid the consequences for speaking truth to those same powerful men. Like Christ, Stephen commended his spirit to God, even with his dying breath – and so may we follow in those footsteps in our last hour.
But best of all for Stephen, he trusted in Christ. And here is the best example to follow. That even in the face of death at the hands of evil men, we belong to Christ. That nothing, not even death, can separate us from Christ's love. That our sins are forgiven. Our filthy feet, our guilty hands, indeed our whole body is washed in baptismal water and divine blood
For Stephen's prayer, following in the footsteps of Christ, is answered. “Do not hold this sin against them”. Jesus prayed, “Father forgive them.” Jesus makes that prayer a reality.
So it is for us. Forgive us our trespasses, Lord, as we forgive those who trespass against us. May we follow in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ. Forgive as we have been forgiven. Love as we have been loved. Give as we have received. And even carry our own crosses.
Following in his footsteps isn't always easy or without pain. Stephen and so many other martyrs found this out the hardest way. But Christ and his cross make even this suffering worthwhile. For we know where the path leads. Our forerunner went from cross to tomb to life again. And so shall we – from this world of sorrows, to a blessed death, commending ourselves to his care, to a resurrection in glory and life eternal with him.
December 24th, 2010
“A Great Light”
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shined
Grace and peace to you this holy night from Christ our Lord, the Light of the World. Amen.
Perhaps you saw the article earlier this week about the Lunar Eclipse that happened to fall on the Winter Solstice. December 21st is the shortest day of the year – the day with the most darkness. So to have a full moon darkened on that same night... is a notable coincidence. Something that doesn't happen too often. Some even called it the “darkest day in 456 years”.
We learn very early about darkness, and often we learn to fear it. Things that go bump in the night – you can't see them when it's dark. In the darkness is the unknown, and the unknown brings fear.
But even as adults darkness is a universal metaphor for uncertainty, hopelessness, and when you get down to it – death and sin. What is darker than the grave? What is darker than the sins that bring us there?
The people of Isaiah's day knew darkness – the Assyrians and Babylonians would wreak havoc on Israel and Judah. Terrible times that brought not only war and bloodshed, but also a great crisis of faith for God's people. Where was he in all this? Where were his promises? Didn't he say that Abraham's descendants would inherit this land? Didn't he promise that David's house would reign forever? Didn't he promise us a land flowing with milk and honey? But now we are stripped from our land, exiled far away, and living as aliens in a land of pagans and foreigners. Dark days for God's people, indeed.
It's that time of year now when we look back and reflect on the year gone by. We too, might wonder where God was in our lives, especially if 2010 brought more “darkness” than most years. Perhaps you've lost a job, or a loved one. Perhaps you've battled some illness or condition. Maybe you saw a relationship fall apart – or just become more and more strained. Certainly it wasn't the Assyrians and Babylonians that troubled you, but each life brings darkness.
Or maybe you continued to struggle with the darkness of your own soul. What dark deeds have haunted you? What sinful lusts or selfish desires? What bitterness do you carry? Or is your darkness a jaded cynicism? Nothing is good or worth bothering with. The darkness can have its way. The world is done for. I'm done for.
But God breaks into our darkness. The same God who hovered over the dark waters of his creation and said, “let there be light”. The same God who set the Sun and Moon and Stars in their places. The same God who spoke to Moses in a burning bush and led his people through the wilderness in a fiery pillar. He brings light. He brings light to people lost and wandering in the dark. He brings a dawn to those who believe the night will never end. He brings joy to those in misery, hope to those in despair. Even to the dead he brings life.
To the people of Isaiah's day, a promise was given. That a child would be born, a son would be given. This Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.... he would bring end to the warfare, release to the captive, and righteousness and justice for all. He, the promised deliverer, would bring light to the people who walked in darkness and dwelt in deep darkness.
We know him too. He is Christ, our Lord. He is the Light of the World. He is the Light of Light, God of God, Very God of Very God. He is the agent of creation – by him all things were made – even light itself. And now this Light from God has dawned upon our world. He shines through the darkness of the dark Judean night. He shines through the millenia and still brings us light today.
What better light for our darkness than the light of Christ? His dark day of suffering on the cross, and his bright morning of Easter resurrection bring wash us in the light of God's love and forgiveness. In Christ, a new day dawns for his people – the darkness has no more say in our lives. We need never wonder or worry or fear – for he has shined even into the darkness of hell itself – declaring his victory over the dark dreaded foe.
On this holy night – tune in, for a bit, to the darkness. Remember the darkness from whence he calls you – the darkness of this world, the darkness of your sins. And then look to the light. Bask in the Light of Light who brightens it . Christ dawns on your soul – in his word – in his true body and blood – by his Spirit. He enlightens and sanctifies you in his grace and truth.
And we share that light. As is our tradition here, we will use these candles to spread a flame – a light – from the Christ candle and to everyone here. Let this light remind you of the true Light that is Jesus Christ. The child born to us to bring us out of the darkness, now and forever. We receive him, and we share him with those around us, we share his light and love with family, friends, neighbors, even our enemies.
For he is the Son of God, Love's Pure light. Born for us, died for us, and lives for us forever. In His Name, Amen.
Monday, December 20, 2010
December 19th, 2010
“He will Save His People”
You will call his name Jesus, because he will teach his people how to live holy lives? No. You will call him Jesus, because he will be a great example of righteousness for people to follow? No. You will call him Jesus, because he will show you the way to please God and earn your salvation? No. You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sin. That's it!
We've heard from John the Baptist – proclaiming Christ in boldness, and questioning him from prison – We've seen Mary and Elizabeth and Zechariah – all part of the unfolding story of Jesus' birth. And now we hear what the angel said to Joseph.
You can imagine, perhaps, what Joseph was going through. He was just beginning this new phase of his life. He had been betrothed to Mary – a fellow descendant of David and a godly woman. Betrothal, in those days, was much more than what we know as being “engaged”. Joseph and Mary were legally married – but in this initial stage of marriage, there was no consummation. That would usually happen after about a year of betrothal.
So you can see why, when Joseph finds out she's pregnant, he naturally assumes the worst – that Mary was unfaithful and – and decides to divorce her. Quietly – because he was a righteous man – but divorce her nonetheless.
But God intervenes. He sends a messenger, an angel, with an important explanation. Joseph is convinced. Like Mary, he receives the word of the angel in faith. And the marriage is saved. And all is now ready for the birth of the Christ.
God always tends to the details. He either guides the events of history from behind the scenes, uses the happenings of this life for his purposes, or even steps in noticeably when he needs to – miraculously, even – to make sure his will is done. And the important part of that will has to do with Christ.
Since man's exile from Eden, God had promised a savior. He preserved that promise through wars and famines and calamities of all kinds. He used the twists and turns of his people's lives, their relationships, even their sins – to preserve his promise and bring about this day – when His own son would be born of a woman. Everything fell into place just as he promised, and just as he planned.
It must have seemed to Joseph that the rug was pulled out from under him. His exciting new endeavor of marriage was tainted. Mary wasn't who he thought she was. What was pure had been polluted. But oh, how God sees things differently.
In Mary, who was a sinner like Jospeh and like all of us, nonetheless in her womb now grew the sinless Son of God. Joseph's life wasn't being ruined here, it was being saved in a more profound way than he even knew. And the marriage of Joseph and Mary would be saved even as True Bridegroom was about to visit his Bride in person – yes, Christ would come to his people. Immanuel – God with us.
But best of all, this long-expected child would save his people from their sin. That's why Jesus is born. That's why he came. That's why we celebrate Christmas. It's not even so much that in Christ, God is with us – it's that God is with us to save us from sin!
Whatever Joseph thought his problems were, the angel set him straight. Sin is the problem. Sin is always the problem, for all people. And Jesus, this child of the virgin, is the only answer.
There's no shortage of opinions today on what the birth of Christ meant or means. For some it's as shallow as a Hallmark card, peace, love and goodwill. For others it's as fleeting as a warm fuzzy feeling that, even for a moment, brings back fond childhood memories. And for others its a sense of self-satisfaction about being kind and generous to others.
But the Angel says it best. He's Jesus. He's here to save us from our sins! That's it! That's the point!
Listen to that angelic message closely today. Whatever is going on in your life – don't miss out on what God has done, and is doing for you in Christ. Don't forget who this child is and what he has done and what it means for you. He's Jesus!
Joseph and Mary had a tough road ahead of them – and I don't just mean the trek to Bethlehem. Joseph would work as a carpenter and earn his daily bread. Mary would endure the questions to her character, and the inconvenience of raising a child on the run, even to Egypt. And later, after Joseph is gone, she would suffer the horror of watching her own son die, crucified as a criminal. But even here, especially here, he is Jesus. He is saving his people from their sin.
It's not pretty. It's not soft and warm and sanitized. Salvation comes in the blood and sweat and anguish of God's Son and Mary's Son. It's all the ugliness of sin wrapped up into one body – and that body bearing the full force of sin's wages for all.
There is no Christmas without Christ. And there is no Christ without the cross. There's no manger scene apart from a crucifix. No Bethlehem without Jerusalem. No savior born unless he is born to die. And there is no salvation for sinners like you and me, without Christ crucified for sinners like you and me.
And of course, the cross of Christ means nothing without the resurrection of Christ. So Christmas and Good Friday and Easter – all speak the same to us: Jesus. He who saves us, his people, from our sins. And here is our true Christmas joy. Here Joseph's Savior, Mary's Savior, everyone's Savior – in Jesus. Immanuel. God with us.
Advent now closes. Christmas is almost here. And we are prepared to celebrate his birth because we know who he is. He is Jesus. He's our Savior from sin. Believe in him always! Amen.
Monday, December 13, 2010
December 12th, 2010
Last week we saw John the Baptist at the peak of his ministry – baptizing crowds and calling out Pharisees. Today, we read a bit further in Matthew's Gospel, and John's in a much different place. Prison, in fact. He had criticized King Herod, who had taken his brother's wife, and didn't take kindly to John's finger-pointing. John's hopes for release were slim. And we all know what John's fate would soon be – beheaded at a grizzly birthday party for the king. In the valley of the shadow of death – John sends his followers to ask Jesus, “are you the one, or shall we look for another?”
Today, we light that pink candle in our Advent wreath. It's often called the “shepherds candle” or the candle of Joy. This season of preparation evokes in us many and varied responses – and joy should be one of them. For like the shepherds who first heard the news of Christ's birth, we too believe he is the one who is to come. The Savior who brings peace on earth and God's good will toward man. We have joy, even in our expectation of Christmas. But then there's John, sitting in prison....
John must have looked around his prison cell, and found it a rather joy-less place. We can only imagine what it was like. Probably not the clean and sterile institutional setting of today's prisons – you might imagine a rat scurrying here or there. It was probably a dark place without much sunlight – figurative or literal.
And if we think about what John might have heard in his prison, perhaps it was the moaning of other prisoners. The jingling of jailers' keys. The sharpening of their axes. Or even the silence of his own isolation. In any case, nothing to be joyful about. A man sitting, thinking, alone with his thoughts, and perhaps his doubts.
We can relate. As we look around, and listen – what do we hear this Advent season?
We might look around at the decorations, the bright lights and greenery. We might see the gleaming snow and the cheery red cheeks of well-wishers. We might see joy on the surface. But a closer look reveals that all is not right with this world. Sin doesn't stop for the holidays. People don't stop being people just because it's December. In some ways, the stress of the season makes us even more miserable – or makes us miserable to be around. We are busy and preoccupied. We are worried and harried. We'd like to take time to reflect on the deeper meaning of it all – but we're so easily distracted by the sights and sounds, or by the worries and cares.
Or perhaps you're more like John, sitting alone with his thoughts. Maybe loneliness or the grief of a lost loved one is your constant companion in this jingle-belled jailhouse. You sit there looking at everyone on the outside going on with life as usual – happy and cheerful it seems, but you're stuck in a place that seems hopeless and joyless.
Give John this. At least his unbelief still had some belief. In the depths of his doubt, in the dark hour of his coming demise, he reaches to Jesus through his disciples. He longs to hear a word of hope. He wants to be re-assured that Jesus really is the one.
And you can say, “What a doubter! Wasn't this the same John who boldly proclaimed Jesus the Lamb of God? Who baptized him and heard the voice and saw heaven open and the dove come down?” Yes. Isn't this the same John of whom Jesus said, “among those born of women, none is greater than John?” Yes. But even the greatest of us still needs the word of Christ. Even the most faithful, the most bold and the strongest Christians need the Gospel. We all face times of joy-less-ness in our messy prison of sin. We all need to be lifted up, to see and hear....
And Jesus delivers. He sends the message back. Not a promise of earthly deliverance. No get out of jail free card. But a better answer than John could have hoped for. “Look around, John. Listen, John”.
What you see – the signs of the Messiah. The miracles of Jesus point to who he is. Healings and wonders were his calling cards, meant to point to something even greater. Notice the climax of the answer isn't even the raising of the dead. It's that the good news is preached to the poor.
What do you see? What do you hear? When it comes to Jesus – what we see and hear is good news.
John must have found it hard to be joyful in prison, for what he saw and heard was so dismal. But take a look at Calvary. On that dark day, on a hill far away, with suffering and shame on display. Take a look at the bloody, beaten, humiliated man wearing a thorny crown and nailed to an instrument of death. And listen to them jeering and mocking and spitting. See his disciples deserting him, and the soldiers surrounding him, casting lots for his clothing. And hear the women weeping and the silence of God as his own Son suffers.
And then hear these words: “It is finished”.
And then look – and see what is not there. He has burst the bonds of death. The prison of his tomb is left, door wide open. And hear the words of angels, “He is risen!”.
If you're like John, stuck in the prison of your sins and the broken sinful prison of life around you. If you're looking for a word of encouragement – a word of joy. Look, and listen. Don't just look to the bright lights, and listen only to the carols piped into the shopping malls. Look to Jesus. Listen to Jesus. Look to his cross and empty tomb. Listen to his promising word, and hear his absolution.
You may not be set free from prison, healed, or granted a miracle. Indeed, like John, you may even face death. But you will know the good news of his truth. And even if you die, you will live. And even in your suffering, you will find joy in him.
For you will look and listen with the eyes and ears of faith – and see a whole different reality. He who has eyes to see, let him see Jesus. He who has ears, let him hear Jesus. In his name, Amen.
Friday, December 10, 2010
Recently, a Lutheran discussion forum mentioned this document by C.F.W. Walther:
"The Proper Form of an Evangelical Lutheran Congregation Independent of the State"
I set out to create an even shorter outline, or "checklist" for evaluating congregational practice according to Walther's "purpose and form". Here it is:
Adapted from, “The Proper Form of an Evangelical Lutheran Congregation” by C.F.W. Walther
A. Congregational Meetings
B. The Word of God dwells richly
C. Purity of Doctrine/Life and Discipline
D. Temporal Welfare of Members
E. Decently and in Good Order
F. Unity with other Local Congregations
G. The Church at Large
A. Congregational Meetings
4.Proper Business – Doctrine, Officers, Discipline, Good Order
5.All decisions in accord with the Word. Adiaphora by vote
6.No shows don't vote – Major decisions are confirmed later
7.Careful minutes recorded
8.Opened and closed with prayer
B. The Word of God dwells richly
1.Establish/Maintain Office of Holy Ministry
2.Proper Call (process) of Pastor
3.Public Services of Worship
4.Baptism, Communion, Pastoral Care, Funerals
5.Establish a School
C. Purity of Doctrine/Life and Discipline
1.All members strive to grow in the Word
2.Establish officers to assist the Pastor (Elders)
3.Use only pure books and ceremonies
4.Admits new members properly
5.Formal Church Discipline
6.Deposing Pastors – only properly!
7.No toleration of Syncretism or Unionism
D. Temporal Welfare of Members
1.Provide for the Pastor
2.Provide for the poor, widow, orphan, aged and infirm
3.Care for the sick
4.Bury the dead – even the poor
E. Decently and in Good Order
1.Pastor records membership and pastoral acts
2.Secretary keeps congregational documents
3.A Treasurer – monthly reports – auditing
4.Almoners appointed to care for poor
5.Acquire and maintain property
6.Items/Equipment necessary for Public Service
7.Meeting times strictly enforced
8.No precipitous votes
9.Majority should yield to minority in some cases
10.One speaker at a time
11.Proper voting procedures
13.Written description of congregational offices
14.Constitutions may be amended, except regarding Word of God
15.Each member contributes according to conscience
F. Unity with other Local Congregations
1.Pray for all the saints
2.Endeavor to be at one with other true Lutheran congregations
3.Agree with other congregations regarding “territory”
4.Honor and issue transfers
5.Do not receive excommunicated members from orthodox congregations
6.Receive those wrongfully excommunicated
7.Consent to calling of pastors between congregations
8.Seek advice from and advise sister congregations
9.Assist sister congregations in distress
10.Allow its pastor to serve a sister congregation in vacancy
G. The Church at Large
1.Encourage young men to become pastors
2.Provide support for Gospel work “Bread of Life”
3.Distribution of Bibles
4.Join in mission work
5.Unite with Lutherans in our country to build the Kingdom
Monday, December 06, 2010
December 5th, 2010
“Sticks and Stones”
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” So the parental wisdom goes. Most of us have been called names at some point in our lives, and maybe it's not so easy to brush it off. Part of the reason we call people names is because it does hurt – and it often contains bitter truth. Whether they called you four-eyes or shorty or fatso, whether the names were a schoolyard taunt or a calculated adult insult.... in some ways, sticks and stones would hurt less than the names that we are called, and that we call each other.
It's not very nice, is it, to call someone a name? It's not very Christian-like, is it? Would someone tell that to John the Baptist? In our Gospel reading today, he calls those pharisees a “brood of vipers”. You're a bunch of slithering snakes! And he implies that they are withered old trees that are good for nothing except to be chopped down and burned. Yes, John makes no bones about calling them names. Not very nice. Not very politically correct. But very, very Christian.
Even Jesus was a name-caller. He called those same pharisees “hypocrites” and “white-washed tombs”. He continually called them out in his parables and his teaching. He was just as fierce as John the Baptist in pointing the accusing finger. And if the names don't hurt enough, Jesus even fashioned a whip to clear out the temple from the “den of thieves” as he called them.
John, I think, gets a bad rap as a fire-and-brimstone preacher. He was really, essentially, no different than Jesus in this way. Jesus, too, taught a harsh word of law. He called people the names they deserved. And the truth hurts.
And your pastors do the same. Maybe we're a little less brazen about it, but every Sunday when you come here, we call you names. We call you “sinner”. Of course, we call ourselves that, too. But that shouldn't blunt the force of the blow.
Perhaps we've grown so accustomed to that name, “sinner” that it doesn't hurt anymore. Perhaps it doesn't even phase us. Some people outside the church would bristle at such an accusation. “I am NOT a sinner! I'm a good person! I do what I'm supposed to do. God knows I mean well. Don't you judge me, you Christian.”
Well if you think like that too, all I can say is what John said. “Repent! The kingdom of Heaven is at hand!”
The truth hurts, and it should. We are sinners. We're no better than the brood of vipers, the white-washed tombs, the den of thieves. Are you a liar, a gossiper, a drunk, a cheater? A lazy, mean, pride-filled so-and-so? Pick the name that fits you, or have a few. It's not just “sinner” in general – it's the specific sins, too. You have yours, and I have mine.
And they hurt us more than sticks and stones. They kill us. They bring suffering and death. For all the excuses and justifications we bring, we can't escape the wages of our sin. We know our name – and it is mud. Sin has our number.
But then.... then there's that other name. The name that Jesus calls us. The name that is foreign to us, a new - adopted name. Not the name of our birth, but of our second birth. The name we receive when our sins our washed away. A Triune name that is upon us, and into which we are baptized. A name that matters more than the name of “sinner”. A name that makes our old name irrelevant.
The sticks and stones of sinful names hurt us, but life and salvation come in Jesus' name. Forgiveness comes in that new name – the new birth in him.
For he conquered our sin with two sticks – fashioned in the shape of a cross. And he vanquished death with a stone, rolled away from his tomb. And in his resurrection, we see our future – and in his reign from heaven he prepares a place for us. An inheritance – waiting with our name on it. A book of life, in which our names are written.
John prepares the way by calling sinners what they are – sinners. And by calling them to repent. And by washing their sins away. Jesus is the way who called sinners what they were, called them to repent, and won for them a new name.
Today, you are a sinner, and the pastor is calling you to confess your sins and repent. But he's also calling you to believe. Believe in the Christ who came to win you back from sin. Believe in the Christ who died and rose for you. Believe in the Christ who gives you a new name in Baptism.
Names can hurt you, especially when they are true. Sticks and stones can break your bones, and even kill you. But his gracious word of promise brings you forgiveness, life and salvation. Thank God for calling us by His name, in Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.