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.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Sermon - Advent 2 - Isaiah 11:1-11

Isaiah 11:1-11
Advent 2
LCMS Singapore Mission

Once there was a tree, a mighty tree. It grew and thrived in the land. The tree was known amongst all the nations for its glory and majesty. The tree stood for its nation, and the people thrived in its shadow. It bore the fruit of peace, and they had rest from their enemies. And it was a godly tree, a tree after God's own heart. A tree that held so much promise. Indeed, the Lord promised that the house of this tree would be established forever.

But there was a rot in the tree. There was a sickness within that would bring death to the tree. Then the tree was cut down. Peace failed. The fruits and leaves withered. And all that was left was a stump. It seemed that all hope was dashed. It seemed that nothing was left but death. A lifeless, worthless stump.

The tree is the house and lineage of King David, the son of Jesse. David ruled around 1000 years before Christ's birth, and oversaw a time of peace and prosperity unparalleled for the Israelite people. Through David, God brought victory over the Philistines, Israel's old enemy. Through David, the borders of the land were expanded and Israel enjoyed national prominence like never before. And through David's son, Solomon, the world saw human wisdom like it had never seen, and the borders extended and the prosperity grew. Solomon even built a mighty temple, a house, for the Lord. The ark of the covenant would have a permanent home among God's people.

But there was trouble in David's house. Conflict among David's children. Solomon's heirs would divide the kingdom in two. Successive kings would follow, alternating in various degrees of faithfulness and unfaithfulness until finally each kingdom fell to an outside enemy. Assyrians. Babylonians. It all came crashing down. And when the remnant of the Jews finally returned to their land, they had no king. Their position was precarious, and more invaders, foreigners would come. The people languished in expectation that one day, David's throne would be restored. One day, a savior would come. One day, as Isaiah had prophesied, a shoot would come forth from the stump of Jesse.

And then this stump the Lord brought forth a shoot. A small green sprig, appearing at just the right time. A tender young growth, of the same nature as the stump but also somehow, something more. As the shoot from the stump of Jesse grew in knowledge and fear of the Lord, the crowds began to gather around in hopeful expectation that the tree had once been lost would stand tall in the land again. Peace, prosperity, hope – could it be that this new growth was the reversal of fortunes we have waited for?

It is Advent. We wait for Christ, much like the people standing at the stump of that ancient tree. Perhaps we, too, had our hopes up for something great, something wonderful, something God had promised... and it seems to have all come crashing down. Perhaps we are even the ones holding the axe, with a guilty look on our faces and a heavy heart weighed down by the rot within us. Things haven't turned out the way we planned, or hoped, or wanted. And truth be told, we bear the blame for what goes awry in our lives as much as anyone.

We are children of Adam and Eve, who stood at another tree and saw everything come crashing down. It was their prideful sin that did it. They lost their home in paradise. The saw death and suffering come into the world. Joyful things like work and childbirth became a burden. Their tree from here would show its rotten roots, as each generation was brought forth in Adam's image, fruit of the poisoned tree of his sin. And bearing sinful fruit of our own.

But then one came who was somehow unspoiled, untainted by this disease. He came from heaven above, though born one of us. The Son of God and Son of Man. He came to fulfill all hopes. To restore what was lost. To bring life to the lifeless, hope to the hopeless. He is the new shoot from the stump of the dead tree whose roots go far deeper than Jesse.

And Christ does all of this by another tree. A gnarled and grizzled old cross-bar to which his hands and feet were nailed. An instrument of death for the worst of the worst, thieves, murderers, rebels. And it probably seemed on that day that once again the hopes for salvation were being cut down once again, that another lifeless stump would be all that remained of Jesus the great teacher and miracle worker.

But it was not so. For on the third day far more than a stump remained, and far greater than just a mere shoot. A glorious resurrection followed that brought life and immortality to light for you and me. Christ by his tree of cursed suffering and his resurrection in glory – he becomes for us the tree of life. He restores what was lost in Eden and so much more. Peace, prosperity, honor, righteousness, even eternal life.

In him we have the Spirit of the Lord, the wisdom and counsel and knowledge and fear of the Lord.

He is our righteous judge who has rendered our verdict – not guilty, by his blood.

His word strikes the earth in judgment for the wicked and in eternal glory for the righteous. And though now we see in part, by faith, then we will see fully the restoration of paradise – as even the animals who were at odds are brought to terms of peace again in the new creation.

We wait for his coming. We wait in faith, in hope, with peace. We wait, knowing he who planted the garden of paradise is he who promises paradise to the thief on the cross, and to all of us thieves and murderers and tree choppers. His cross stands as signal to the nations – salvation is ours in Christ. So come, Lord Jesus, Amen.