Monday, January 19, 2015

Sermon - John 1:43-51 - Epiphany 2

Gloria Dei Lutheran Church
Chicago, IL
January 18th, 2014
Epiphany 2
John 1:43-51

The Epiphany Season gives us a chance to delve deep into the revelation of who Jesus Christ really is. This Christmas, we celebrated his birth, and wondered, “What child is this?” Now in Epiphany, the questions (and answers) keep on coming. Who do men say that I am? You are the Christ. Who does God say that he is? This is my beloved Son.

Well, what would these would-be-disciples say that Jesus is? Phillip tells Nathanael about him. He seems to not know exactly what to call him, but he knows Jesus is someone special. He doesn't use the word Messiah, but the idea wasn't too far from his mind. Phillip knows Jesus is some kind of leader, for he answers his call to follow him. And he tells Nathanael he should follow too. Because this is “him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

How did he know? What did he really know about Jesus? And yet, somehow, faith had taken root. He had heard, to some extent, the word of God concerning this Jesus. And he had heard the call to faith, and the call to follow. Phillip didn't come to this through superior study, through extreme spirituality, or some other exertion of effort. Like you and I, called to faith by the Spirit, through the word.

Then there's Nathanael. Not at the same point in his faith as Phillip. When he hears of Jesus, he is skeptical. “Nazareth! Can anything good come from Nazareth!?” A rhetorical question, but a good theological question. We could change the names and places and ask the same question. Chicago! Can anything good come from Chicago?! Wisconsin! Certainly nothing good can come from there. Baltimore? New York? Fargo? Singapore? Take your pick, throw out your own rhetorical question. The answer will be the same. No.

Nothing good can come from any of these places, because the men and women that come from these places are sinners. You and I are sinners. You and I have nothing good to bring. Even our best works are as filthy rags, and who would be interested in that?

No, by nature, Nathanael isn't all that impressed with the idea of this messiah from Nazareth. And by nature, neither are we. A humble Jesus who suffers and dies for our sins just doesn't impress our Old Adams very much.

So Nathanael comments on Jesus, and he gives him far less credit than he should. But then Jesus comments on Nathanael, and he gives him far more credit than you'd expect. “Here is a true Israelite in whom there is no deception!” Wait just a minute, now, Jesus.

Are you saying that Nathanael is free of deception? That he's never lied to his parents, to his friends, to himself? That he's somehow immune to this form (or any form) of sin? Is he the fabled George Washington of the disciples, who “cannot tell a lie?” Or is Jesus here just trying to ingratiate himself to Nathanael, because, you know, he needs disciples and compliments are one way to win friends and influence people?

Or is Jesus simply recognizing that Nathanael is already a man of faith? That he knew Moses and the Prophets had been pointing forward to the messiah, and Nathanael trusted in those words of God. And Jesus knew that Nathanael would also belong to him, be one of his own, that Christ's true nature would be revealed to him along with the other apostles and so many other disciples.

Beyond all that, Jesus would take away all deceit, lies, slander, gossip and every false witness – through his saving work, his death on the cross. This is why Jesus can look at you, too, sinner though you are, liar though you are, and see nothing false. Because he has made it so. And what Jesus says about you is far more important than what you or the world or the devil say about yourself.

Can anything good come from Jerusalem? No. But Jesus doesn't come, ultimately, from Jerusalem. He comes from heaven's high through, a noble guest indeed. Can anything good come from man, let alone a man from a backwater place like Nazareth? No, but here is no mere man, but the God-man, like us in every way yet without sin.

But also with a divine nature – so that he knows all and can do all. He saw Nathanael under the fig tree long before Nathanael was in sight. The divine eye knows no limits. He knew Nathanael's heart, and he accepted him despite the fact that he was a sinner after all.

And he promised Nathanael he would see even greater things yet. What's he talking about, “angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man”?

Well assuming Nathanael, this true Israelite, knew his Old Testament Scriptures, he'd have caught the reference to “Jacob's Ladder”. In Genesis 28, Jacob (the one whose name was changed to Israel) had a dream – in which he saw a stairway or ladder, reaching from heaven to earth, and angels “ascending and descending on it”. God was making a connection between sinful man and the holiness of his heaven. The eternal separation of sin would be bridged.

And that ladder is Christ. One day, Nathanael would see it so clearly. That Jesus is the bridge, the touchstone, the very stairway between earth and heaven. He's the only point of connection, the only way (and truth and life). He, and only he, can and does transport us from the miseries below to the eternal joys above.

And he does it, suspended between heaven and earth on a cross. Nathanael who once sat under a fig tree, would come to live under the tree of Christ's cross. There this true Israelite would find God's ultimate truth – that Christ is crucified for sinners like you and me.

Today we too confess with Nathanael that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the King of Israel. He is the stairway to heaven, and the one Israelite who takes our falsehood away. The truth of his word endures, and his calling to follow is for you, too. Receive him with joy today as he comes in his body and blood. For nothing good can come out of you, but everything good comes from him, for you.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Sermon - Baptism of Our Lord - Matthew 3:13-17

Lamb of God Lutheran Church
Pleasant Prarie, WI
January 11th, 2014
The Baptism of Our Lord
Matthew 3:13-17

I really have two topics for you today, first on the occasion of my visit, this missionary has some words of report and encouragement. And then as we observe today the Baptism of Our Lord, a proper message of law and gospel, and Christ crucified, but first baptized, for sinners.

You know, St. Paul, the greatest missionary (apart from Jesus himself), would often write to the churches he had visited or even founded, the churches that supported him and the work of God's kingdom. And he would commend them and even sometimes correct them, report to them and encourage them. Sometimes he even wrote personal messages like, “don't forget to send Timothy with my chasuble”.

I feel a bit like that today with you, Lamb of God. As I started out with my work as missionary to Singapore, you were the first congregation to welcome me into your pulpit to share about this work, and you have been a faithful supporter all along. As a former mission congregation yourselves, you seemed to know the importance of this kind of work, and even though you've had your own struggles along the way, you've continued to stay the course. So I thank and commend you, glory be to God for it all.

And I also want to offer you a word of encouragement as a congregation that has faced some difficult times of late, and as you find yourself with an uncertain future. Pastor Smallwood has been keeping me abreast of the events here, the sale of the building, this temporary arrangement at Good Shepherd, the options for moving forward. I certainly don't have easy answers for you.

But I would encourage you to remain faithful. Our Lord doesn't give a promise regarding the fate of any particular congregation, but he does promise that the gates of hell will not prevail against His church. Lamb of God may disband, or Lamb of God may thrive. Lamb of God may continue on in some other form or manner, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ is always the same. We are still sinners, saved by Christ, fed by Christ, washed in the baptismal water of His grace.

As for me, I've also dealt with the uncertainties of life, and I can't say without sin. But hindsight is far clearer in which to see God's merciful hand at work. No, we didn't get a visa to move to Singapore. But yes, God remained faithful. A new congregation was established, and meets even this very Sunday (although, 12 hours ahead of us they are already on to Sunday night). And they are served now by a faithful pastor who is based in Indonesia, who can be there more frequently and consistently than I. They still face many challenges, but they are the church – gathered around God's word and sacraments, hearing the gospel preached faithfully. To God be the glory.

I'll tell you more about my new work as a domestic missionary after church, but needless to say, even more challenges lay ahead. But God is faithful in all things, and so we trust in him.

Today, we observe and commemorate the Baptism of our Lord. It falls at the beginning of the Epiphany season, appropriately, as it is Jesus' public inauguration as our Savior. The beginning of his public ministry for us, his ordination if you will.

Isaiah saw it coming,
“Behold! My Servant whom I uphold,
My Elect One in whom My soul delights!
I have put My Spirit upon Him”

And so Jesus is anointed with the Holy Spirit, set apart and proclaimed as the Son of the Father, with whom God is well pleased. But it also marks him as the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world. John had already said so. Now it's even more official. Jesus who has no sin, enters those waters for us, not to be washed of his own sin, but to take on our sins.

Some have suggested it's as if all the sins of the people that were washing off into the Jordan with John's baptism, Jesus waded in and took upon himself, like a giant holy sponge, taking even more – the sins of the world on his shoulders, or into his own body. And with his eye on the cross, where he would take all those sins to die.

You and I are baptized into Christ, who was baptized for us, to fulfill all righteousness. The whole Trinity was in action in his Baptism, the Father's voice, the Spirit's descent as a dove. And so in yours – the whole Triune God places his name on you by those waters. The Father's words of Jesus are spoken as much to you – you are now his beloved child. With you he is well pleased. The same Spirit has sanctified you, and continues to make you holy, continues to point you to Christ, continues the good work begun in you, bringing it to completion on the day of Jesus Christ.

Who can say enough about the gift of Christian baptism? It works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare. It creates faith, drowns the Old Adam and raises the New Man in Christ. It is a daily renewal. It is a lifelong blessing. It is the seal of God's approval and the sign that you too will be part of the final resurrection. It's not just a symbol, though, it actually does what God promises. It is the means of God's grace in Christ for the making of disciples of all nations, Jews and Gentiles alike.

But when we speak of Jesus' Baptism, we can't only mention the one in the Jordan by John. There's another baptism. Hear his words to his disciples from Luke 12: “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!” and Mark 10 to James and John, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”

You see for Jesus, his real baptism, the one that mattered even more, was the cross. For Jesus the baptism in the Jordan was part and parcel of, and led directly to the baptism of Golgotha. There the sins of the world were washed away, not in ritual water, but in the real sweat and blood of his death. There at the cross was the baptism of all baptisms, the baptism into which all who are baptized are baptized... into his death, and into life eternal.

So rejoice this day in the baptism of our Lord, at the Jordan, and at the cross. Rejoice this day that at your baptism, you receive the benefits of his baptism. Rejoice this day that each and every day “baptism has the power divine to make life immortal mine”.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Sermon - Matthew 2:1-12 - Epiphany (Observed)

Grace Lutheran Church, Racine, WI
January 4th, 2015
Epiphany (Observed)
Matthew 2:1-12

Grace and peace to you...

Today we observe Epiphany, and read from Matthew's Gospel concerning the visit of the Wise Men from the East.

Perhaps a missionary emphasis is fitting here, not because before you is a wise guy recently returned from the far east, but because the Wise Men who visited the Christ child represent the inclusion of the nations in God's plan of salvation through Jesus. Thus, this is sometimes called the “Gentile Christmas”.

And while pop culture blends this event in with the events of the nativity in Bethlehem, we in the church recognize it as a separate event – perhaps occurring even when Jesus was 2 years old. You've probably seen the bumper sticker like I have, or maybe a Christmas greeting card or sign bearing the message, “Wise Men Still Seek Him”.

It's a nice sentiment, if only it were true. For the wise men of old couldn't take much credit for seeking him. And if you asked them, they might not claim to be so wise. They come asking a question because God had sent them a message, through a star. To truly understand the visit of the wise men, we must acknowledge that God brought them from their eastern contemplations to see the brighter visions streaming afar.

Wise men still seek him. You know it's not even true today, either. For first of all, who is truly wise? Apart from God, no one. We are fools, embroiled not in lofty and spiritual concerns, but in the day to day worries and troubles of life as a sinner, living in a sin-filled world. Sin is the ultimate foolishness, and you and I have bought in to it for the full ride. “In the day you eat of it you will die” “Sounds good to me!” said foolish Adam and Eve. And their children, even you and I, follow in their foolish footsteps.
Foolish sinners like you and me have no interest in seeking a Savior, let alone one that looks so unimpressive, clad in diapers, down and dirty in the feed trough. Just as foolish sinners have little regard for a bloody and suffering savior, dying on a cross, sweaty, humiliated, helpless and hopeless, mocked by all. There's your God! There's your savior! Can't even save himself! But the foolishness of God is far greater than the wisdom of the world. And the weakness of God is stronger than the strength of men. And the Savior God sends is far better than any would-be, self-saving sinner. Humble and lowly as he is, in birth, in life, in death. He's the only Savior we've got, and the only one we fools need.

And the wisdom of God is to call us to faith in Christ by the Gospel. The wisdom of God is that the Holy Spirit brings you to Christ, points you to Christ, buries you with Christ in baptism, and raises you with Christ from the dead. The wisdom of God is that you can't do it, you can't decide to have faith, or by your own reason or strength come to him. But He does the saving, and we are the pure recipients of his grace.
Something for nothing, foolish as it may sound.

Wise men still seek him? Wise men, by the standards of the world seek anything but Christ. But wise men who live only by the wisdom received from God? Now we're talking. We are wise unto salvation only when we look away from ourselves and to Christ, who has done it all. We are wise unto salvation when the Spirit brings us to repent, again and again, and to believe in Christ for forgiveness. We are wise unto salvation only when we become fools, fools for Christ, whose foolishness conquers all.

The Wise Men from the East came a long way to worship the infant king. You and I travel only a short way down the road. But when God brings us to himself through Christ, we all travel the infinite distance from death to life. We go from enemies of God to friends, even children.

The Wise Men had to contend with enemies of God, especially Herod. Weasely-wise Herod employed his worldly wisdom to lie and deceive, for his own wicked ends. He was an enemy of Christ, and of the Gospel, wanting no other king but himself.

And you and I must also contend with enemies of the Gospel. Perhaps our foes are not as cruel or slick as old Herod, but the ultimate enemy is the same, the Old Evil Foe who seeks to work us woe. He seeks to steal the Christ child from you, or you from your Savior. He seeks to be the only king, but to make you think you are on the throne instead of God. He lies and deceives, and would make you miserable any way he can, if God would only let him.

Just as the wise men could not have stood up to Herod on their own, but were rescued by the Lord's design, so too is the Lord our only refuge when Satan seeks to oppose us and the Gospel. We don't turn to dreams and visions, but instead to the word of God, and the promises of Christ himself.
And then the gifts. The Wise Men brought gifts to the Christ child. But this is not so much to buy his favor, or to bribe him for some benefit. They bring him gifts to honor him who is born King. It is a confession of their faith in the word they received concerning this child.

So too, with our gifts. We can bring nothing to Christ that isn't already his. We can give nothing to Christ that he needs or lacks. We can pay nothing to purchase his favor or mercy. Instead, we who receive all good things through him – we bring our gifts in grateful response. We bring our gifts to support the preaching of his word, the administration of his gifts, and the expansion of his kingdom of Grace. Not that he needs our gifts, any more than the Christ child needed gold, frankincense or myrrh. But we do it in joy and thanksgiving, to honor him who has first served us.

And our gifts also serve as a confession of our faith that this child who was born for us, this child who would grow to a man who died for us, and rose from the dead for us, and lives and reigns to all eternity for us – is our savior, even Christ the Lord.

The highest worship isn't to bring him gifts of gold, frankincense or myrrh. The highest worship isn't even to fall down before him. The highest worship of Christ is to believe his word concerning himself.

This day as we observe Epiphany, recall the wise men. Share in their wisdom and worship the Christ, only by the grace of God who has called us to such wisdom. So come from afar, bring your gifts, and rely on the only one who can rescue you from the evil foe. For his word is sure, and he will not fail to save.

In Christ our Lord, Amen.