Monday, January 23, 2017

Sermon - Life Sunday 2017

Life Sunday
January 22, 2017
John 10:10-11
“Abundant Life in Christ”

10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. 11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

For some time, many of our churches have observed an annual “Life Sunday”.  We do this in January, with no small thought given to an infamous anniversary – that of January 22, 1973 – exactly 44 years ago today – when the Supreme Court of our land ruled on the landmark “Roe vs. Wade” abortion case.  Since then, we estimate somewhere around 58 million unborn children have been murdered with the blessing of our civil authorities.

To say this is tragic strains the word.  Even a term like holocaust seems insufficient.  Hitler and the Nazis killed some 6 million Jews, which is of course horrible.  But it pales in comparison to 58 million lives lost.  A number which eclipses the casualty count of even the bloodiest wars of history. And the fact that the unborn are the “least of these”, helpless, unable to speak or defend themselves, it makes the slaughter all the more deplorable.  To the extent that minimize it, fail to work against it, and perhaps even do things to encourage it – we bear guilt as well.  To the extent that we contribute to a culture of death, each of us must repent!

Let the word from this pulpit and this congregation be crystal clear:  abortion is the evil of our day, and an unmistakable sign of a culture that has lost its way and turned in no small degree to selfish evil.  It is sin.

But we are also people of the Gospel.  And so that word must be as loud and clear.  We are followers of Jesus Christ, and Jesus forgives sin.  If you happen to be one of those with this particular skeleton in your closet, then know this:  Jesus Christ forgives you.  There is no sin, not even the sin of abortion, for which he did not die and pay the price.  You stand just as forgiven and clean before God as the rest of the sinners who are washed in the blood of the Lamb.  Let this good news chase away grief and shame and guilt.  When Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them”, he means, you too.  And when Jesus says, “It is finished”, he means it.  Leave the heavy baggage of your guilt at the foot of his cross.  Be at peace.

And so it is “Life Sunday”.  But it is not only about abortion.  Let us take this day to ponder the words of the Lord of Life who lays down his life for us all.  Let us consider the gifts of life he has entrusted to us – in so many facets.  And Let us treasure and give thanks for this mystery, also caring for the lives of our neighbors.

In John 10, our text for Life Sunday, Jesus is in the midst of his remarks about himself as the door for the sheep and the good shepherd of the sheep.  He spins this metaphor marvelously, weaving in a number of important points about his person and work for us.  One key idea is that as the Good Shepherd, he lays down his life for the sheep.  He refers, of course, to the cross.  But the purpose and benefit of that cross is for us:  “that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

This Christian faith of ours, you see, really is a matter of life and death.  Death, which is the wages of our sin.  It first reared its head when Adam and Eve ate of the tree, but it's been rearing its head in ever sinner ever since.  Sin leads to death.  Sin deserves death.  And death is not just the ending of a heartbeat and brainwaves – it is the ultimate separation.  It separates body from soul, but more importantly sin and death separate us from God, the source of all life.  It's not that you cease to be, it's that you cease to be with him, and that's a frightful thought.

But it is not God's will and never has been his will that the sinner would perish.  And so he sends Jesus, that light of the world in whom is the life of all.  The one by whom everything, including all life, was made.  Jesus, who by his death on the cross destroyed death and brought life and immortality to life.  He who died but will never die again, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

To be sure, the thief is still out there – the devil himself, bent on stealing, destroying and killing.  And evil men follow suit with the prince of this world, stealing, destroying and killing.  Christians are persecuted more now, in the world, than ever before.  The ranks of the martyrs swell.  But for those who die in Christ, there remains life – eternal life – nonetheless.

Though is sure doesn't always seem that way.  How can the pastor stand over the very grave and dead body of your loved one and read the words, “Where, oh death, is your victory?  Where, oh death, is your sting?”  How can we be so sure that our loved ones who die in the faith are alive in Christ?  How can we even know that we, who so often trudge through what amounts to a living death, how can we say that we too are alive, or have life as God means it to be?

Paul helps to clarify (in Colossians 3):   For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

The life that we have in Christ is hidden.  We can see it only with the eyes of faith.  When it seems to all outward appearances that God is angry, that we're being punished, that there is no hope but only suffering...  faith sees the promise.  Faith trusts the word.  And we have life.  You have already died – in baptism, buried with Christ.  Now also raised with him, but in a way that is hidden behind the crosses of this fallen world.

But one day it will be crystal clear.  One day we will see it with our eyes – when he appears.  Then, we also will appear with him in glory.  Then the tension of the “now” and the “not yet” will be finally broken, as eternity comes, a blissful forever of life with him.

But let's circle back to the words of Jesus we started with.  “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly”.  We've said how Christ brings life by his death and resurrection.  We've shown that this life, for now, remains hidden to all but the eyes of faith.  But what about the abundance?  What does he mean by that?  “that they may have life, and have it abundantly?”

And abundance is more than you even need.  It's so much, such an overwhelming amount of life, that you'll never have to worry about having enough of it.  That's how God's grace is.  That's how his gifts are.  Always more than enough, more than sufficient to the need.  He is not a God to do just the minimum, but like the psalmist writes, “you prepare a table before me; my cup overflows”.

And that abundance of life flows over into our lives. That love, that mercy, that grace we have received must be reflected.  The life we draw from the true vine, Jesus Christ, bears fruit in our lives of service to our neighbor.

Life Sunday shouldn't only be about denouncing abortion, but also about acknowledging the life that we have in Christ, a precious gift.  But the abundance of that life also means that we care for and support the lives of others, and treat the life given to them as the precious gift it is.

Christians, therefore, respect life when it comes to thorny modern ethical questions of bioethics.  We may use certain technologies, but refuse others.  We respect our God as the Lord and giver of life.

Christians uphold and support life in the mundane work of caring for widows and orphans, the poor and needy.  It's not always glamorous, but this kind of service is commended by God.

Christians pray for, encourage, and lend a hand to young troubled mothers, swaddling them not just with clothes and diapers but with love and support.

Christians care for the aged, beginning with our own parents and grandparents, until God sees fit to bring their life to its conclusion.

Christians adopt and support the adoption of children, providing children with a loving home and a life of warmth and blessing.

We don't all do all these things all the time, of course, but as we are able, as we have opportunities, and out of love as the Spirit moves us. But we Christians do these things, and so many more, in support of God's gift of life, because we have abundant life in Christ.

“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says, “I lay down my life for the sheep”  “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  Thanks be to God, in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Sermon - Epiphany 2 - John 1:29-42

John 1:29-42a
January 15, 2017
“Behold the Lamb of God...”

You probably have that one friend or family member, who at Christmas, loves to give gifts – but doesn't just wrap them and move on – you know the type – where the wrapping paper itself is a work of art.  You might get calligraphy on the card, or a special ornament attached to the package.  It's not just paper and tape, but a fancy bow or some other foo-foo adornment.  You almost feel bad opening the gift, so much time has been put into it – and so you unwrap it slowly and carefully, appreciating the whole thing all the more.

That's kind of what Epiphany is like.  Of course, Jesus is the gift.  He's the Son of God sent into human flesh, God's gift to mankind – a savior.  And this gift is so precious that the Christian Church has set aside a whole season – the season of Epiphany – in which we take our time “unwrapping” the gift that is Christ.  And with each Sunday we will see another angle, another reality, another depiction of just who this Jesus really is:
The one baptized to fulfill all righteousness.
The one who makes fishers of men,
A Light dawning in the darkness,
The one who blesses the poor, the meek, and the persecuted, and finally, on Transfiguration day an echo of the heavenly voice heard at his Baptism:  “This is my Son”.

Today, we hear several important descriptions of Jesus spoken by John the Baptist and his disciples.  We'll touch on each of these shortly.  But for starters, let's take the famous statement of John, when he saw Jesus:  “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”.

By this moniker, “Lamb of God”, John was no doubt evoking in the people's minds the lamb that was sacrificed at the yearly Passover meal.  This lamb, which hearkened back to when God delivered the people from Egypt, was of course a foreshadowing of Christ.  This lamb, whose blood was shed to save the people, whose life was given to save the people from death.  This lamb, without spot or blemish.

But “Behold!” John says.  Look, and take note!  This one here, this Jesus is THE Lamb of God.  The lamb to which all other lambs pointed.  The lamb in which all other lambs find ultimate fulfillment.  Their sacrifices anticipated his.  Their blood looked forward to his blood.

So in this one little phrase, “Lamb of God”, John wraps a whole lot of Old Testament meaning.  But it gets better.  Because he's not just the Lamb of God, he's the Lamb of God “who takes away the sin of the world”.

Oh, those sacrifices of countless animals over the years were sacrifices for sin.  But they had no value in themselves. Instead, those sacrifices keyed in to the greater sacrifice to come, the once and for all sacrifice of the Lamb of God.  The sacrifice that Jesus finally offered, of himself, to take away the sin of the world.  One famous hymn puts it this way:

Not all the blood of beasts
on Jewish altars slain,
could give the guilty conscience peace
or wash away the stain,

But Christ, the heavenly Lamb,
Takes all our sins away;
A sacrifice of nobler name
And richer blood than they.

“The sin of the world”.  Ponder the freight of this phrase for a moment. The world has a lot of sin.  The people of the world are all sinners, from the least to the greatest of us.

But he “takes away the sin of the world”.  What an all-inclusive statement!  It's not just the sins of some people of some times and some places.  It's the whole world, all people, all times, all places.  And that means you, too.  It's not for some of the sins of the world, but for all of the sins, even the really bad sins that you have committed.  The ones you know about and bother you – and the ones that you don't even know you've committed.

This is not just any-old-lamb, mind you, this is the Lamb of God.  This is the Son of God.  This is a perfect man, who fulfilled the law and all righteousness.  This is the only one strong enough to stand toe-to-toe with sin and devil and death and come out alive and victorious.  This one, this Jesus, is the only one that could do it – but has he ever done it!  His sacrifice there for you and me and everyone – really is the greatest thing that ever happened in the whole history of the world.  Behold!  Look!  “Here he is” John says.

Today, your pastors say the same.  Behold!  The Lamb of God is here, the same Jesus who was once sacrificed for your sins.  Behold!  Look!  See him – not with your eyeballs, but with the eyes of faith.  Where is he?  Only where he promises to be:  in the bread and wine that are his true body and blood.  Given at the altar of the cross, and distributed from this altar before us today.  He's still taking away the sins of the world.  He's still giving himself for you.

“Behold the Lamb of God!” John would repeat it.  The next day he said it again, and John's own disciples begin to take it to heart.  They acknowledge Jesus first as rabbai, teacher – and then as Messiah.

They call him rabbai, which means teacher.  Certainly Jesus had much to teach them.  They would spend the next 3 years learning from him, following him, being prepared by him for witness to the ends of the earth, and for persecution and martyrdom.  They had little idea, I'm sure, that first day they began following the this teacher what they would be taught. The rabbai has much to teach you and me as well.  May we follow him faithfully, and tune our ears to his words.

And they also called him the Messiah, which means, the Christ.  Which means, the one anointed by God, set apart to bring about salvation.  John saw Jesus anointed by the Holy Spirit.  John declared Jesus to be the one he was looking for.  And so Andrew and the others confess him as Messiah, again probably having little idea what that actually meant.  Not a conquering king, but a sacrificial lamb, this Messiah.  No worldly glory but only a cross was before him.  It would take those disciples even longer to learn this.  But here they would also follow, as most of them also met a violent death.

But nonetheless, this Messiah, this Teacher, this Lamb of God – would show them all things in due time.  He would continue to reveal the riches of the mystery of his person and work – who he was, and what he really came to do.  And much like unwrapping a beautiful Christmas gift, we see the good news of Jesus unveiled for us in the Gospels.  We see God's word applied in our lives at various stages and in manifold ways – calling us to repentance, recalling us to his promises, guiding us in the darkness, enlightening us to greater thanks, deeper trust, and more fervent love for our neighbor.

For our faith is all about this Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and that includes your sin.  his Rabbai who teaches us by word and deed, this Messiah who is set apart for us – the only savior.

That's at least three names or titles for Jesus in this little reading alone.  But he's not the only name of note here.  Jesus meets Simon, Andrew's brother, and notice what happens to his name: Jesus changes it.  He calls him “Peter”, which means “Rocky”.

You, too, are given a new name in Holy Baptism.  There, you receive the very name of the Triune God.  There, you are made one with Christ, and a member of God's family.  Then and there your whole identity is renewed, as the old Adam is drowned and the new man comes forth.  There, each fallen son of man is recreated into a precious child of God.

Later Jesus remarks, when Peter makes the good confession that Jesus is the Christ, that “Upon this rock I will build my church”.  So even Peter's name – a new name – teaches us something of Christ, and of the confession of his name.

Friends, the Lord bless you richly this Epiphany season, as we continue to ponder and unwrap this great gift that is given in Jesus.  Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! Behold the Rabbai, the teacher of all men.  Behold the Messiah, the only one who can save.  Behold, he gives you a new name in baptism, and calls you to confess his strong name.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Sermon - Circumcision and Name of Jesus - Luke 2:21

Circumcision and Name of Jesus
January 2nd, 2017
Messiah Lutheran Church, Keller, TX
Luke 2:21
“He Was Called Jesus”

It's not every year that the 8th day of Christmas falls on a Sunday. But in observance of what actually happened to Jesus on his 8th day from birth, we take today to commemorate his circumcision and naming.

The Gospel reading is short, but it still gives us much to consider. We may notice, first of all, that Jesus being circumcised would have been very normal and expected for any newborn Jewish boy. It was a custom of the Jews from the time of Abraham. It was a visible sign of the covenant, and it marked you (irreversibly) as part of that covenant people. To be a Jew was to be circumcised. To be uncircumcised was to be a Gentile.

But you might say, “so what?” Why does the fact that Jesus underwent this odd Jewish ritual have anything to do with me? Why does the church bother celebrating it, and why does Luke even mention it?

Well remember this little aphorism: Everything Jesus does, he does for you. So too, his circumcision. By this event, mentioned by one short verse in Luke, Jesus begins fulfilling the law on our behalf. He goes through everything, every step, every stage of human life that we do – in order to redeem all of us. At every turn he kept the commandments. On every occasion he did what God expected. And he did all things well.

Furthermore, this event is the first time his newly-formed human body would shed his holy precious blood, but it wouldn't be the last. It was a foreshadowing of the suffering he would endure at the cross. There he would pour out his blood as a ransom for many, and for you. Even now, the shadow of his crucifixion destiny is beginning to fall upon him.

And don't pass over the significance of the 8th day. Christians have long understood the special significance of this number – 8. If 7 is the number of creation (for the world was made in 6 plus a day of rest), then 8 is the number of the new creation. It is the number of eternity, the number of heaven. It is what we inherit through Christ.

It is also the number of holy baptism, which Paul connects to circumcision. The number 8 seen on many octagonal shaped baptismal fonts. This connection is recalled in Luther's flood prayer in the baptismal rite - that on the ark God saved Noah and his family, 8 souls in all. Both circumcision (then) and baptism (now) are initiation rites for the people of God. But baptism is the circumcision of the heart, and a blessing given to both male and female Christians. Baptism even more clearly expresses the nature of God by using his Triune Name, place that name upon us.

God's been placing his name upon his people for a long time. It goes at least as far back as the Aaronic Benediction from our Old Testament reading in Numbers 6. “So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them”. Paul makes it even stronger in Galatians when he says, “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” To have his name upon us, then, is to be blessed by him. To have his name upon us is to be identified with him, to be united with him, to be accepted by him.

But perhaps most importantly, God places the name “Jesus” upon his son. Of course, it was through the angel Gabriel that this name was given, but as a messenger of God above. For the father typically has the naming rights. Speechless Zechariah had to confirm that his son would be named, “John”. Adam named the animals, and also his wife, as an exercise of his authority. Even today, children don't name themselves, but we all receive names from our parents, the ones who have the authority over us.

That Jesus was named “Jesus”, and not Joseph or something else entirely... it is a confession of his divine origin and lineage. He is the Son of God. So God alone has the naming rights.

And as we noted, not too long ago in the Advent season, the name “Jesus” also teaches us who he is, and what he does. It means, “God Saves”. And in this little child, God had come to save.

Implied in all of that, is that we need saving. Underlying the circumcision of God's people of old, and the Baptism of his people today is this universal truth: we are by nature apart from God in our sin. We are born outside of his kingdom. We are conceived in the rebellion that we inherit from our fathers, all the way up the rotten family tree back to the first man who was named - Adam.

But Jesus is the Second Adam. And he gives us a new name. His baptism makes us children of God, for in it, we “put on Christ”. No longer are we imprisoned under the law, held captive by its accusations. No longer are we bound to the hamster wheel of trying to justify ourselves by works, as if we ever could. No. Faith has come, and through faith we are all sons of God in the name of Jesus.

God saves. God saves, by his son Jesus. Jesus saves. Jesus saves by his death on the cross. And by that cross, God saves, Jesus saves... you. All that is wrapped up in the name, “Jesus”.

And when you talk about God's name, there's always that pesky Second Commandment: You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.

What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not curse, swear, use witchcraft, lie, or deceive by His name, but call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.

Leave it to sinful humans to abuse even the most precious gift. Leave it to us to find a way to corrupt what is holy, and try to use it for selfish gain. Even some thing like God's holy name. Jesus – the name of Jesus – even becomes a curse for some who would misuse it. May it never be so amongst us Christians!

Rather, let us not misuse, but properly use the name he has given us. Call on him in every trouble. Every trouble? Yes. None too large or small that he doesn't care to hear. Pray. Praise. Give thanks. Even when the going gets tough? Especially then. You have a precious hotline to heaven in the name of Jesus. Your prayers are acceptable to God in Jesus' name. Why not do as he desires, and call upon your merciful Father in the name of his beloved Son? Why not live according to that name that is on you in baptism? Why not shine forth a reflection of the blessings he speaks upon you? Don't neglect the name that God gave to him, a name he invites you to call.

And this is why we so often pray, “in Jesus' name”. As Christians, all our prayers are spoken, “in Jesus' name”. That is to say, none of our prayers are acceptable to God without Jesus. But through Jesus we not only have access to the Father, but he is favorably inclined to us. Jesus is our one true advocate with the Father, and so prayers in his name are precious to God. We don't pray in our own names, but in the name that is above every name. Could it get any better?

So this 8th day of Christmas, give thanks to God for the name of Jesus. A name he received from God. A name which he places upon us. A name which means what he does – God Saves. And remember that this savior, has come to save you.

In Jesus' Name, amen.