December 25th, 2016
“A Very Wordy Christmas”
We wish you a Merry Christmas. A Blessed Holiday Season. Season's Greetings. Happy Holidays. Have yourself a Merry little Christmas. There are so many ways people greet each other in honor of this day. But what if I wished you a “Very Wordy Christmas”?
The Word. That's the central idea of John's Christmas account. Unlike Luke's detail-rich account of shepherds and angels, inn and manger. Unlike Matthew's focus on Joseph's dilemma and the angelic dream. Here, John goes right to the deep theological meaning of the event. There's no possibility of sentimentalizing this. But there is great fodder here for profound meditation and rumination. Consider with me, this Christmas day, these words of John's Gospel, as “the Word became flesh and dwelled among us”.
John is already hitting the notes of Genesis with the first few words here. “In the beginning”. That's how Genesis starts, and that's what the word “genesis” literally means. John is evoking for us the very beginning of Creation, in which God spoke everything into being by his word. “Let there be light”. “Let there be fish, birds, beasts...”. “Let us make man in our image”.
No this world wasn't formed when some naughty mythological miscreant opened a forbidden box. We aren't the byproducts of a war between Marduk and Tiamat. Nor is this just another iteration of the unending circle of birth and rebirth. Genesis points to a beginning. A time when the earth was formless and void, and God gave it form – by his word, and filled the void – by his word. The word of God is the agent of all creation. By this word, all things were made.
John tells us even more about that word. He was with God, and he was God. The word is eternal, and the word is a person. The word is identified with the God who speaks the word... they are, we confess, of the same substance. And so this eternal word is a living word, a word in which is also life – and light. Just how all this is so is a mystery as great as the Trinity itself. A ponderous enigma not really to be understood, but confessed by faith. The mystery of the Word, the Son of God.
And then another word was given. “You can eat of any tree in this garden, but not the one at the center – for in the day that you eat of it, you shall die”. But the serpent tempted, the woman was deceived, and her husband also ate. All that had been orderly and good was now corrupt. Death came. And we've been living with it ever since.
Our words are small and selfish and corrupt and failing. They are not reliable. They are unclean words that proceed from unclean lips. They are words that flow from unclean hearts, and are accompanied by sinful actions and sinful inaction. We are no better than our first parents in the garden. We are just as deceived, in our flesh, just as disobedient to God's word. We are just as deserving of his word of condemnation.
But before God even addressed the brand-new sinners in the garden, he had a word, another word – a word of hope for them. For the serpent's head would be crushed by the woman's offspring, though his heel would be bruised.
This word, a word of promise, would unfold and expand throughout the pages of the Old Testament. The prophets declared the outlines of a savior and his work – a suffering servant, born of Bethlehem, born of a virgin, a son of David. The events of history painted a picture – a system of sacrifices that pointed to a final sacrifice, a bronze serpent lifted up for healing, the sign of Jonah – in the belly of death for three days... and so many more.
All these words, woven together in a blessed tapestry of prophecy and promise, all driving toward the blessed incarnation of the Living Word from eternity, born as a humble Jewish baby. The Word became flesh. And here another mystery impossible to comprehend.
How can “the Word” be God? How can a word be alive? How can a word become flesh? How can God become man? How can light and life have their being in a word? How can the creator of all things, the eternal Son of God, whose glory and majesty we can't even begin to comprehend, who stretched out the heavens and called forth from nothing everything that is, how can this incomprehensible glory be revealed in a newborn child? One of us?
But there it is. The mystery of the incarnation. The wonderful fulfillment of God's ancient word of promise. Salvation unto us has come.
God's greatest gift to the world came wrapped not in ribbons and bows, but in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger. God's plan of salvation was not accomplished with swords of steel or bolts of lightning, but with a word made flesh, and that flesh offered in sacrifice. This living word was born to die, to give his life as a ransom for many. This living word, in which was the light of men, would submit to the darkness of death to shine the bright beams of salvation upon us. But this living word would never be silenced, even by death, for he rose and lives for all eternity. And his word goes forth – from Jerusalem, to Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
The word, the word... the word that today proclaims your forgiveness – not a word “about” your forgiveness, but a word that actually forgives you your sins. An absolution so strong that it even unlocks the gates of heaven!
The watery word of your baptism, the triune name of God – Father, Son and Spirit – a word that holds sway over you every day. A promise of adoption that still stands. A washing away of sin that still matters. A word of hope that will never fail.
And the words with which Christ gives to us his body and blood – words of institution – words which promise forgiveness of sins. Far more than symbol or metaphor, these words are “mysterion”, they are sacramental. They put the eternal word of God, the person of Jesus Christ himself, in yet another form for us – under simple bread and wine. And as his words invite us to take and eat, take and drink, they also promise forgiveness, life and salvation.
Where would we Christians be without the word? We'd be without Jesus, and that is no place to be.
That's the way it is for the world. The unbelieving world that does not receive him. That has no ears to hear this word. Even though he made them, they don't know him. The same goes for his own people, the Jews. Though some did receive and believe, as a whole, his own people rejected him. We see the haters and scoffers around us, today, too. Sometimes we cower before them. Sometimes we are annoyed or even enraged by them. But ought we not also bear witness to the light?
But to us, who have received this word, by faith, he gives the right to become children of God. And in this way – he whose birth was a mystery and a miracle – he gives us a mysterious and miraculous second birth. Not by blood, or the will of man, or the flesh – but we are born of God. Born of water and the word. Born by the spirit.
As you ponder the Christmas story, remember John's Christmas. And consider the Word. The word who was with God, who still is God. The Word by whom all things were made. The Word who became flesh, in the person of Jesus Christ, born for you. In him we have seen the glory of God. In him we are born anew. Abide in his word, dear Christians. And have a very “wordy” Christmas.
Tuesday, December 20, 2016
December 18th, 2016
“Matthew's Christmas Prepositions”
“Matthew's Christmas Prepositions”
Today we have the Nativity of Christ according to St. Matthew. It's shorter than the Luke account. We don't have all the details that Luke tells here. Instead, Matthew focuses on the dilemma of Joseph, the appearance of the angel and the naming of the Savior – Jesus, also known as Immanuel. It serves as a complementary account to the more well-known nativity told by Luke. And so both help us by painting part of the picture of the events surrounding our Savior's birth. Today I'd like to take a slightly unusual approach to this familiar Christmas text....
Abraham Lincoln, in his famous Gettysburg Address, spoke of a government “of the people, by the people and for the people”. They are powerful words that are still quoted in political speeches even today. Those little words, “of”, “by” and “for” hold most of the meaning in the phrase – even though they are lowly prepositions.
Well we Christians know something about words, and we especially treasure the Word of God. We pay attention to the grammar, and even the smallest words amongst God's words can play an important role for our faith. So today, I'd like to look at a familiar Christmas passage from Matthew's Gospel, through the lens of some important prepositions.
Our first preposition helps Joseph solve the dilemma he faces. The problem is this: his betrothed, Mary, is found to be pregnant. She had been away for a few months visiting her cousin Elizabeth, and one way or another, Joseph comes to find out that she is with child. You can imagine the thoughts that ran through his head – assuming that Mary wasn't who she appeared to be, and had instead betrayed him and his trust. She had broken the marriage, it seems, before it really even got started. She had put Joseph in a very difficult position.
According to Jewish law, the penalty for all this could be quite harsh for Mary. Joseph could have not only divorced her, but he could have done so in a very public way – putting Mary to shame as an adulteress. Some suggest that if he pressed, could have had her punished – even perhaps put to death.
But Joseph was a righteous man, and wanted to divorce her quietly. He was a man of faith, a child of God. He resolved to do unto Mary as he would have done to himself. He was making the best of a bad situation in the most godly way he knew how. And in this way, he stands as a fine example for all of us. He was being, in his way, Christ-like.
But he didn't have all the information. So the angel appears and fills him in on some very important things. And here we come to our first Christmas preposition: From. “That which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” In other words, this isn't a case of adultery, Joseph. This child is from God.
From God. Or we might translate “by God”. In these two words is summed up the central doctrine of the scriptures. Everything good that happens to us and for us is from God. He is the source of all things, the creator of all this creation. He is the one who works salvation – it is a pure and free gift from him.
By contrast, we could look at what comes from man. From man comes sin and evil. From the heart of man come wicked desires. From the mouth of man's unclean lips come unclean words. We bring nothing good of ourselves. We have only shame.
But from God comes good, despite all of this. From God comes Jesus, the Savior. From the Holy Spirit is conceived in the womb of the virgin a miraculous child – sent from heaven above – from the Father – to us.
Completely outside of and beyond this creation, Christ comes from God, though he is God himself. From the highest throne to the lowly manger. From riches to rags if it ever were. He comes. From there, to here, for you.
This is the mystery of the incarnation. That God takes the initiative in our salvation, without any human work or effort. By his Spirit, he sends his Son into the womb of Mary. Just has he calls each of us to faith by that same Spirit, working in the word.
The next preposition is also a “from”. But it's an entirely different direction: “From their sins”. The sense is, “away from”
“She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
And so we see that the significance of the birth of Christ is all wrapped up in the forgiveness of sins. Without this part – the forgiveness of sin, the saving FROM sin – none of this matters much at all. But this child from heaven is here to bring us away from sin, and back to the Father.
The name of this child is also from heaven, from God, through the angel. And the name “Jesus” is not just a favorite name popular in the Jewish mom and dad baby books of the day. Jesus means something. It means, literally, “God Saves”. Yah- Shua. And you will call him this, the angel commands, for a specific reason. FOR (there's another preposition) he will save his people from their sins. The name denotes his special role, calling, task. It tells us who he is and what he's here to do. Save us. From our sins. From our own sins. To save us first of all, from ourselves.
And he does it by a perfect life, and by a sacrificial death. He does it by doing everything well, and doing it in our place. He does it by earning what we couldn't, and paying what we can't. He suffers all, bears all, endures all – even death, FOR us.
And finally, he is not only FOR us, he is also WITH us.
“God with us”, the ancient prophecy gave this title to the Messiah, “Immanuel”. He is God with and among us. With us in the most intimate way possible – by becoming one of us. He's not just God in our midst, he's God made flesh, Creator becoming creature.
And he is God with us for us. That is, he comes in mercy, not in terror. He comes as savior, not as judge. He comes to bring us salvation. If God were angry with us and here to judge us, then his being with us would be terrifying. But this Immanuel is here for our good, our highest good.
And while we no longer see him, for his body is now ascended to the throne of heaven, still he remains Immanuel, God with us. He's with us by his word of promise - where two or three are gathered in his name. He's with us in baptism, by which we have “put on Christ”. And he is with us in the mystery of the meal – that bread and wine are divine body and blood – because he says so. Immanuel, God with us, even now, even here, even today. For our good, for our forgiveness, for our salvation.
As we mark one more Sunday of Advent, one week away from Christmas, rejoice in Matthew's Christmas account. And give thanks that this child, this Jesus, is FROM God. Rejoice that he saves you FROM your sin. And believe his promise, that he is WITH you always, even to the end of the age. Amen.
Monday, December 05, 2016
December 4th, 2016
“John's Call to Repent”
In much the same way that the holiday season brings visits from loved ones we may see once a year, today we have the annual Advent season appearance of John the Baptist. And just as every family seems to have that one crazy uncle or aunt (and as they say, if you don't know who it is, it's probably you), so John the Baptist is a very strange character himself.
He must have looked kind of rough, living out in the Judean wilderness. He won't be winning any fashion shows with his camel's hair outfit. His cookbook full of locust and wild-honey recipes probably won't have a wide appeal. And he's not going to write a book on how to win friends and make nice to pharisees – calling them out as a “brood of vipers”.
But for all of that, it wasn't John's oddity that gained all the attention. And he was gaining quite a following, as, “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him”. What was it about John that grabbed everyone and made then take notice? It was his message:
“Repent! For the kingdom of God is at hand”
It's Advent. Jesus is coming. And John the Baptist has appeared again with the same Advent message, even to you and me: “Repent! The kingdom of God is at hand!”
Repent! Turn from your sin. What a strange message it must be in the ears of a world that is more concerned with decorations and presents and baking and parties. Repent! The world, if it listens to that message at all, usually finds it offensive. Imagine the accusations John would hear today! Judgmental. Harsh. Close-minded. Bible thumper. But John's cry still rings out, down through history. Repent! This is how you REALLY prepare for Christmas, for the birth of the Christ, for the coming of his kingdom.
And who likes to be told they are wrong? Who likes someone rubbing your nose in your sin? That's what the call to repentance is, first of all. The pointing finger of John jabs past the holly and garland, through the evergreen potpourri, past the neatly wrapped boxes under the tree, and it stabs at the heart of our sinful nature. Poking, prodding, touching the sore spot of sin that we so often pretend isn't there. John's call to repent is an uncomfortable reminder that you're not all right, you're not just fine, and you stand under the judgment of a Holy God. You've broken his commandments. You've rebelled against his word. You didn't eat of the forbidden fruit in Eden, but you chow down on all sorts of other forbidden pleasures. And as a tree, your fruit is rotten.
And because that word is so sharp – repent – there's no explaining away our sin. There's now softening its edges. We can't blunt the force of the accusation or shift the blame or rationalize it away. “Repent” leaves us no “out”. It is a crystal clear call to turn away from sin.
And the threats are real. The axe is at the tree. The fruitless trees are to be cut down and thrown into the fires of judgment. This is not just some slap on the wrist, it is the condemnation, the very wrath of God.
John anticipates their argument, “But... but... we're children of Abraham!” Spiritual resting on one's laurels is no excuse for sin. Claiming you are something when you are really nothing is a fool's game. John pulls the rug out from under them, and us. There's no refuge we can devise. There's no escape we can formulate. There's no merit or worthiness we can offer to shield ourselves from the force of the law.
And there's only one place to turn. The same pointing finger of John that calls out sin, is the finger he would turn to Christ and say, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” He preached repentance, yes, but a preaching of repentance, and a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin! And let's not forget that aspect of John's message.
Yes, John was a harsh preacher of the law, whose words cut us to the heart even today. But he also held forth the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. The “greater One” who as soon to come. John's not worthy to touch his sandals. John's baptism is preparatory, fulfilled in the Baptism of Jesus Christ. John is a prophet, and greatest among those born of women, but greater still is Jesus, the one who brings the kingdom of God to us all.
For his part, Jesus the “greater one” makes himself last and least in the kingdom. He places himself under the axe of judgment. And lays down his life on the tree of the cross. But this tree does bear fruit – abundantly. The fruits of the cross – the body and blood of Jesus – are offered here, to you, even today. The forgiveness of sins Jesus procured for us there, is also freely given here.
John. Like any good preacher worth his salt, is really not about himself, but about pointing sinners to Jesus. Calling sinners to repent, turn from sin, and turn TO Jesus Christ in faith.
Really that's the other part of repentance. It's not just turning from sin, it's turning TO Christ in faith. If repentance was only feeling contrition, being sorry for our sin, then we would still be lost in despair, for there is no way to dig ourselves out of sin's pit. But faith turns its eyes to the only one who can save. And Jesus brings us out of the pit, even out of the grave, restoring us not just to neutrality – but to a place in the kingdom, even in his family.
You might be tempted to think that repentance is something you do – but it really isn't. It's a change of mind and heart that is worked by the Holy Spirit. It happens when he works through God's law to convict you of sin, and when he awakens and strengthens faith in you by the gospel. We confess, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength, believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him...”. And that goes for repentance, too. Even this is a work of God, a gift from God.
Repent! It's also a daily call for the Christian. For each day, we return to our baptism:
For what does such baptizing with water indicate? What does such baptizing with water signify?--Answer:
It signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
Where is this written?--Answer:
St. Paul says Romans, chapter 6: We are buried with Christ by Baptism into death, that, like as He was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
So say hello again this Advent season to John the Baptist. He calls you to repent! Turn away from your sins, and turn in faith to Christ. And live in the daily repentance and faith of your baptism. For one even greater than John has come – Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God. And through him, the kingdom of God is yours.