Sunday, January 24, 2021

Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Third Sunday after the Epiphany (B)

January 24, 2021

Text: Mark 1:14-20

            Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Mark 1:17; ESV).  We love that verse, and this story, because it makes for one of the more vivid and exciting Sunday School lessons.  And I’ve heard any number of pastors who are experienced anglers use this text as an excuse to tell some whoppers of fishing stories from the pulpit.  Thankfully I’m not all that great a fisherman, so you don’t have to worry about that today.  But it does happen, as it so often happens with favorite Sunday School lessons, that we are prone to reduce this saying to a moralism.  The moral, we might say, is that if you really want to follow Jesus and be a faithful Christian, you ought to be reeling them in for the Lord.  You should be always doing evangelism.  And if you’re doing it right, you ought to be successful.  And if you’re not successful, you’re not doing it right, and you must not be faithfully following the Lord.  Now, it is true that you should do evangelism.  As individual Christians, and as a Church, you should be concerned with the Evangel, the Good News, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and you should be intentional about spreading it far and wide.  But the moralistic preaching of this text falls into several common traps that I would warn you against. 

            One is the trap of making this text a simplistic command about a certain activity you ought to do, namely, evangelism.  But that is not actually the command here.  The command is to follow Jesus. 

            Another is this idea that evangelism and its results in any way depend on you.  They don’t.  Jesus says, “I will make you fishers of men.”  Not, “Follow me, and make yourselves fishers of men.”  No, He does it.  And He does it His way, in His time, on His terms.  And we should never forget that sometimes these same guys from our text fish all night and catch nothing, until Jesus comes along and bids them cast their nets on the other side, and that is when they can hardly haul in the catch (Luke 5:1-11; John 21:4-8).  Jesus makes the fisherman, and Jesus is responsible for the results. 

            And then there is this trap of using a text like this to preach evangelism without ever actually preaching the Evangel.  This is what happens all the time at pastors conferences.  “Go, get all motivated and excited (and guilted!) about evangelism.  Spread the Gospel.  Love the lost.  Get out there and get busy.”  Fine.  True.  But in that kind of sermon, the preacher never gets around to speaking the Gospel to you.  He never actually applies the Gospel as Jesus gives it for you.  And you can’t give what you don’t have.  The Gospel has a content which is to be handed over in proclamation.  And that content is this: The time is fulfilledThe time for which we’ve all been waiting since our first parents fell into sin; God’s appointed time, for the fulfillment of the Promise; the time to which all the Law and the Prophets pointed; that time has come.  That is, the Kingdom of God is at hand.  Because the King is here, Messiah, the Christ, our Savior from sin and death and hell.  He has come.  He has conquered.  He now rules where Satan once held sway.  He is here for you, to save you.  Therefore, beloved in the Lord, Repent… Examine yourself.  Confess your sins to God.  Sweep them out of your life.  And believe in the Gospel… All your sins are forgiven on account of the sin-atoning Blood of Christ, who has come to be your Savior, to take your sins away, to put them all to death in His body on the cross, to bury them in His tomb forever, to rise from the dead, bodily, to be your eternal life and salvation, to rescue you from death and condemnation, to raise you bodily on the Day of His glorious return.

            That is the Gospel.  That is the Evangel of evangelism.  And when you hear that, you don’t need to be guilted into getting busy and getting out there.  You will live in this reality: A forgiven, beloved, free, child of God and possessor of eternal life.  Jesus has made you, fashioned you, created you a fisher of men.  So you’ll tell people.  And tell them what?  This very Gospel.  The Good News that the time is fulfilled and the Kingdom has come in Jesus.  That He is their Savior.  That they should repent and believe in the Gospel, because salvation is an accomplished fact in Jesus. 

            Sometimes you’ll do this, and you’ll fish all night and catch nothing.  What is that to you?  Do you really think God is depending on you?  Do you really think success depends on your creative and superior fishing methods?  Just proclaim the Gospel.  God will do what He will do.  His Word never returns to Him empty (Is. 55:11).  So just be who He has made you to be and speak what He has given you to speak.  And who knows?  Maybe all at once you will cast the net, and the haul will be beyond your wildest imagination.  We should all be praying in these days of sore distress for just such a catch, for a great returning to the Lord, for repentance and faith and the salvation of many.  But again, that all depends on Him, not us.  We are simply given to cast the net.  We are simply given to proclaim God’s Word.

            Jesus is the Master Fisherman.  Remember, He is the first Preacher to cast the net of proclamation in this morning’s Gospel: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15).  Those are His Words.  And that is the summary of the whole content of His preaching, and that is what every fisher of men who follows Him is given to proclaim.  In other words, “Here is the Gospel of God’s victory over your enemies.  You are now saved.  Repent and believe it!”  The fish are, of course, men, people, you, and by the net of the preaching, Jesus halls you into the Boat, which is His Kingdom, which here goes by the name “holy Christian Church.”  It should not be lost on us that we are hauled out of the sea into the Boat of our salvation.  To use a similar, but different, biblical illustration, the Church is the Ark, and we are the beasts.  But to get back to fishing, Jesus pulls us out of the sea by the net of His Word.  And in the Scriptures, the sea is the place of chaos, the haunt of demons, the swirling abyss.  And that is as apt a description of this world and our fallen life in it as I’ve ever heard.  See, as the Gospel is preached, Jesus rescues you from that, and brings you into this place of safety, until you reach the shore of that Promised Haven to come.

            Now our Lord enlists others to fish… fish whom He’s caught to be fishers of men.  He is always the Fisherman behind the fishermen.  In the case of the disciples He calls in our text, they are to leave everything for this new occupation.  For they will also be Apostles, Christ’s authoritatively sent ones, His messengers, His preachers, to speak in His stead.  And they will appoint others for the apostolic ministry, not as Apostles, but as Christian pastors, to leave everything and devote their lives to this calling.  This is important, and it is in no way opposed to the work He gives all Christians to do.  That is a lie of the devil that pits lay people against clergy, as though they are in competition.  Don’t believe it.  Both are necessary.  Both are gifts of God.  Both, together, make up the Church.  But our Lord has established a holy Office of the Public Ministry, to preach this Gospel and administer Christ’s Sacraments, that the net may be cast in every place.  And woe to those preachers when they refuse to do His bidding.  Jonah didn’t want to preach repentance and the Lord’s mercy to the Gentiles in Nineveh.  Well, the Lord did a little fishing with him, anyway!  Talk about a big fish!  Jonah’s whole life, and death, and life again, would proclaim this Gospel.  The sign of Jonah (Matt. 12:39-41), down to Sheol in the belly of the fish, on the Third Day death vomits him up again onto the shore… To proclaim God’s life-giving Word to the Ninevites.  And he catches the whole city, and even the pagan king (Jonah 3).  So a pastor had better preach, and he better preach faithfully, or the Lord may just throw him into the sea.  And that is a very serious thing, to be thrown off the boat and into the abyss.  That is what it means that pastors will be judged more strictly (James 3:1).  God forbid it should ever happen to this pastor.  This is what St. Paul is getting at when he writes, “necessity is laid upon me.  Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16).  But in the preaching of the Gospel, there is great reward.  It is to follow Jesus, speaking His Word, through death and into life again, and in the end, by His grace and blessing, have a whole net full of fish to show for it.

            But we usually like to talk about every disciple being a fisher of men.  There is certainly truth in this.  You may not be called to be a pastor, but you are called to follow Jesus.  And you do have a part in the fishing.  That is as a faithful Church member.  Come to Church.  Be filled with the Gospel.  You are Baptized into Christ.  Jesus died for you.  Jesus is risen for you.  Jesus loves you and rules all things at the right hand of God for you.  And He feeds you here with Himself, His true Body and Blood, for your forgiveness, life, and salvation. 

            And it is to be a faithful Christian in the world.  That certainly means speaking the Gospel of Christ to others at every opportunity.  But it also means loving your family.  Being faithful to your spouse.  Raising your children in the fear and admonition of the Lord.  It means praying for your pastor and your brothers and sisters in Christ, giving an offering, participating in the life of the congregation.  Getting up, going to work, working as for the Lord.  Helping whoever needs help.  Giving to whoever lacks.  Paying your taxes.  Honoring the governing authority… yes, that is your command in Scripture (Rom. 13).  It means living confidently in the grace of Jesus Christ, repenting of your sins, but believing in the Gospel of forgiveness and life in Christ.  And so rejoicing always.  Being patient in tribulation.  Constant in prayer (Rom. 12:12), waiting for and hastening the coming of the Day of Christ (2 Peter 3:12).

            And as people hear you speak the Words of Christ, and see you live in Him, they just might be caught up in it.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen


Sunday, January 17, 2021

Second Sunday after the Epiphany - Part 2

Second Sunday after the Epiphany - Part 1

Second Sunday after the Epiphany (B)

January 17, 2021

Text: John 1:43-51

            When God calls you, it is an objective, external thing.  It is not an ambiguous feeling deep down in the pit of your stomach.  It is not simply a thought captivating your mind and heart, or an inner voice, or an inclination of the will.  When St. Paul talks about the qualifications for pastors, he says the desire for the task of ministry is noble (1 Tim. 3:1).  But it does not yet qualify a man for the Office, and it is not a call.  A call does not come from within you, as desires do.  It comes from outside of you.  When I was eleven years old, in Catechism class, the desire was born in me to be a pastor.  I wanted to be just like Pastor Wellman.  And that desire was nourished by the Word of God, and it grew, and I began to prepare for the task.  But none of those stages of development were yet a call.  That had to come from outside of me.  In the case of the ministry, God calls through His people, the Church.  When I was called here to be your pastor, there was no mistaking it.  Because it came in a packet of papers duly signed by the officers of this congregation.  And that was God’s call.  Now, in Christian freedom, I could have returned it and stayed in Michigan where I also had a call from God, but the point is, it was all external.  It wasn’t just something in my mind or my heart.  The same is true for Pastor Taylor.  He knew God called him to our Church because we voted on it and issued him the paperwork.  That was how God called him here.  And now, thank God, after due deliberation and prayer, he has accepted that call.  The process may not seem spiritual enough for our pious sensibilities, but those sensibilities are really creatures of the Old Adam in us.  Old Adam is super-spiritual.  He just isn’t scriptural.  As Lutherans, we shouldn’t be surprised that God always works through external means: The Word, water, bread and wine, a congregation of redeemed sinners.  Call documents.  To say that God’s call comes from the outside is to say that it is His work, and not ours.  Or, perhaps another way to say it is, God’s call is by grace, not by works.

            Those of you who aren’t pastors are not called into the ministry.  But you do have a call from God.  For most of you, you first felt this call, not in your heart, but on your skin, and it made you cry.  It was the water splashing against your infant head, the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word spoken by the startling voice of the pastor.  In Baptism, Jesus says to you, “Follow me” (John 1:43; ESV).  And that is the ultimate call.  That is the call that envelopes all other calls, and it is their source.  That call is your identity: Baptized into Christ!  Sometimes you feel it in your heart, but oftentimes you don’t.  But it doesn’t matter.  It isn’t defined by your feelings.  It is defined by what happens outside of you.  It is an external and unmistakable act of God.  By grace, not by works.  Water and Word, in the fellowship of the congregation.  It is all quite regular and proper.  In fact, it is the custom of the Church that witnesses are enlisted, certificates issued, records are kept, so that there is no doubt.  You are called by God to be His own.

            So it happens for those who are called as infants or young children.  But older children and adults are called in another way, and this also is external.  It is not to the exclusion of Baptism, but leading to it.  And that is when one who is already a follower of Jesus speaks the Word of Jesus to a person, and bids him come and see.  This is what Christians do.  Faith spills over into confession of the Gospel.  You tell someone what Jesus has done for you and for all sinners in His sin-atoning death and resurrection, and invite that person to Church to meet Jesus for himself.  “Come and see,” you say, like Philip to Nathanael (v. 46).  And sometimes, like Nathanael… even sometimes in spite of objections like, “Can anything good come out of a Christian Church?”… they do just that.  They accept your invitation.  They come and see.  And it even happens (and it is always a great surprise) that sometimes, in coming here, where Jesus is, to welcome sinners, and forgive sins, that the person you invited finds a home.  And then his life is never the same.  It leads to catechesis and Baptism and full Communicant membership in the congregation.  Now, it doesn’t always work out that way, as you know.  And you are not to worry about that, because the results aren’t up to you and they’re not your problem.  That all rests with God.  But you speak Jesus, and you invite people to Church to come and see, and sometimes they do, and it’s wonderful.  People come to faith by means of the Word confessed and preached.  It is an external call.  You spoke, and the Spirit entered the person’s heart by means of the ear, by means of the external Word of the Gospel.  Jesus said, “Follow me,” and so the person does.  Perhaps that is your story, how God brought you here, when you came to faith because someone spoke the Word of Christ to you.

            It is always by the Word.  So it was with the Prophet Samuel, the Word calling from the Most Holy Place, and so it was with Philip.  In their cases, Jesus (and it is Jesus in both cases) called them immediately… that is, without a mediator, by His own voice.  But then Jesus called Nathanael (also known as Bartholomew) mediately, through the confession of Philip.  Philip and Nathanael, He called them both to follow Him, to be His disciples, which is to say, Christians.  But now, in their particular case, Jesus also called them to be Apostles.  That call happened sometime later, after Jesus had spent all night in prayer, and then called to Himself twelve specific men out of His disciples to be His Apostles, which is to say, His authoritative sent ones (Luke 6:12-16).  Not every disciple of Christ was to be an Apostle.  But they were all to be Christians.  And this teaches us that from our overarching call to be Christians, flow our other callings in life.  There are specific roles and relationships to which Jesus calls us.  And every one of us has such callings.  Now these don’t define us in the same way the call to follow Christ does.  That call is our identity.  But these other callings flow out of our identity.  These are our vocations (vocation is just a fancier word for “calling”).

            This is important.  Your vocations from God are holy.  You don’t have to be a pastor.  You don’t have to be an Apostle  As one baptized into Christ, which is your overarching vocation, you are called into holy relationship with your neighbor, to love and care for your neighbor in what Luther rightly called “masks of God.”  That is, God loves and cares for your neighbor hidden under your vocation.  And God loves and cares for you hidden under your neighbor’s vocation.  Your vocations are God’s external means.  So what does this mean, practically speaking?  Well, many of you are called by God to be spouses.  How do you know that?  I don’t mean to spoil your romantic notions of love at first sight, falling helplessly into passionate romance, thunderstruck by the fateful appearance of your soul mate…  Well actually, I do mean to spoil it.  Because none of that is love.  At best, it is attraction and infatuation.  But at worst, it is lust, which is sinful.  Repent.  Love is commitment and action for the good of the other.  Love is not a feeling in your heart.  The good feelings that go along with love can be wonderful, but they are not love, they are not the thing itself.  If you’ve been married any length of time, you know such feelings wax and wane, and other-than-good feelings sometimes come into play.  So if not by your feelings, then how do you know if you are called to be a spouse?  You don’t look within.  You look outside yourself.  Was there a ceremony, with an officiant, where vows were made before God Himself?  Were there legal witnesses, and were contracts signed?  When you wake up in the morning, is there another person there, to whom you promised your lifelong love and fidelity?  Congratulations!  You’re married!  You are called to be a spouse, to care for that person in love and faithfulness.  That is your vocation. 

            Maybe you are called to be single.  If so, that is easy to know, because there isn’t another person there.  Now, that calling can change, and for those who are single and don’t want to be, don’t lose heart.  Your Father knows what you need, whether that is to remain single (which is a high and holy calling from God), or to provide you with a loving spouse (which is also a high and holy calling from God).  But if you are single, then, in this moment, you are called by God to be faithful and chaste in that condition.  That is your vocation. 

            Are you called to be a parent?  You’ll know it if there are children in your house, needing to be fed and clothed and taught and cared for, and most importantly, raised in the Christian faith.  And then that vocation is modified as they grow into adulthood, but it continues nonetheless.  Are you called to be a son or daughter?  You’ll know it by the parents God gave you to honor, to serve and obey, to love and cherish.  Are you called to be a citizen?  You will know it by the governing authority God has placed over you.  And you’ll know to whom you are called to be a neighbor when you realize you live in a specific place.  You’ll know to whom you are called to be a fellow Church member when you look around you in the pews.  You’ll know what your job should be when you’re offered it, and you accept.  And if you’re blessed with the option between this job or that, thanks be to God.  You have Christian freedom to make a decision that fits you best.  God has called you to work.  And so it goes in all your stations in life.  God calls by external means.  You’ll know it by your circumstances.  You’ll know it as you open your eyes to take stock of who is around you, the relationships you’ve been given, your commitments, the location and time in which God has placed you, the gifts He has given you to use for the sake of others.  And you’ll know how to serve faithfully in those vocations as you examine your place in life according to the Ten Commandments… as you look to God’s external Word.  And then also as you look at Jesus, who was faithful in His vocation as God’s Son, and as your Savior, to deliver you from all your unfaithfulness in your vocations, to forgive you all your sins. 

            Our vocations are not all the same.  Most of you are not called to be pastors.  And by the way, pastors are not called to be Apostles.  That was a special Office in the early Church entrusted to very few, with very particular qualifications, not the least of which is being an eyewitness of His resurrection.  And even then, only a few received that call, and it was immediate, from Jesus Himself.  Philip and Nathanael were among them.  And Philip and Nathanael were called to be martyrs, Philip reportedly by crucifixion (upside down, like Peter), and Nathanael by being flayed alive.  None of us knows yet whether we’ll be called to shed our blood for Jesus, but we’ll know if He calls us, and so we should be prepared.  By the way, I am not called to be a doctor, or an engineer, or a mother (which is a biological impossibility for me), or a grandparent.  It is a good thing that we don’t all have the same vocations.  The Lord has ordered the members of His Body with varying gifts and callings according to His wisdom (Cf. 1 Cor. 12).  But you and I, and Pastor Taylor, and Philip, and Nathanael, do all share one common vocation.  And that is the overarching one.  It is the call, in whatever we do, to follow Jesus.  It is the call to be a Christian.

            And it is to look to Jesus, crucified for our sins, and risen from the dead, and see heaven opened to us.  It is to see the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.  Jesus is Jacob’s ladder.  It is to see in Jesus our whole salvation, our purpose in life, our very identity, and to confess with Nathanael, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God!” (John 1:49).  God calls you by Baptism and by the Word.  And all your vocations flow from this.  The call is by grace, so you need never doubt.  God calls you, objectively, into the life of His Son.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

The Baptism of Our Lord

The Baptism of Our Lord (B)

January 10, 2021

Text: Mark 1:4-11

            Forty years of wandering in the wilderness.  Every member of that generation, 20 years or older, who came out of Egypt, had died, save Caleb and Joshua.  Now it was time for their children to inherit the Kingdom of God.  But not before a Baptism.  To get from the wilderness into the Promised Land, they had to cross the Jordan.  And this is how it would happen.  The Ark would lead them.  The Ark of the Covenant, the throne of God, the Ark of His presence.  The priests carrying the Ark would step into the river.  And the moment their feet touched the waters, when the holy Ark entered the Jordan, the mighty river would cease flowing, and the children of Israel, led by Joshua, would pass over on dry ground.  So it happened, a repeat of the Red Sea for the next generation.  When God enters the water, He leads His people through, that they may enter into His Land.

            So it is no accident that we find ourselves at the Jordan this morning.  John is there, baptizing in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4).  The crowds are coming out to him, all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem.  Because they know they are a broken people.  They know they are a rebellious people, like their fathers before them.  They are sinners.  And even though they dwell in the Land of Canaan, the Land of Promise, they recognize that as they stand before God, they are not yet where they should be.  So they enter the water with John for a baptism of repentance, confessing their sins.  John understands that his baptism is preparatory.  The fulfillment is yet to come.  And it is coming in the Mightier One, the strap of whose sandals he is unworthy to untie, the One whose way the Baptist prepares.  John baptizes with water, but when that One comes, He will baptize with the Holy Spirit. 

            And He comes, the Mightier One, John’s cousin and Lord.  And what happens?  He Himself steps down into the water.  And now the new and greater Ark has come into the Jordan.  Jesus.  In Hebrew, יְהֹושֻׁעַ, Joshua!  God is in the water with His people.  And it is that, it is He, who gives the water its potency, its power!  Jesus enters the water, that those in the water with Him, baptized into Christ, may enter the Kingdom of God.

            What is Baptism?  Baptism is not just plain water, but it is the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s word.  Which is that word of God?  Christ our Lord says in the last chapter of Matthew: ‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’ (Matt. 28:19)”[1]  By His Word and Command, Jesus places Himself in the water for us, at the Font.  And as we enter the water with Him there, a great exchange takes place.  Jesus comes into the water, righteous and sinless, needing no Baptism for Himself.  But we enter the water, wicked and full of sin, in need of a Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  In Baptism, our sins are washed away, as surely as Naaman’s leprosy was washed away by God’s Word and Promise (2 Kings 5)  They are left there in the water, where Jesus soaks them up into Himself, that He may put them to death in His Body on the Tree.  But so also He leaves something behind Him in the water for us.  His righteousness.  His sinlessness.  His holiness.  And so, in Baptism, not only are our sins forgiven, we are given all that belongs to Jesus. 

            But there is more.  As the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus at His Baptism, so He descends upon us in ours, to open our eyes and ears to the things of God, to give us faith in Jesus Christ, to sanctify us and keep us, to give us new and eternal life, and one Day, to raise us bodily from the dead.  Now, we don’t get Him visibly, in the form of a dove.  But we get Him audibly, by His Word. 

            And as the Voice from heaven announced to Jesus at His Baptism, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11; ESV), so the Father declares to us at our Baptism.  We don’t hear the Voice coming from above, but we hear it as the pastor speaks in God’s stead, and by His command, and so it is the very Voice of the Father.  Beloved.  God’s own Child, I gladly say it.  But not only Child.  Son.  That is, Jesus.  You are tucked into Jesus.  You are clothed with Jesus.  You are covered by Jesus.  And so you get the whole inheritance with God’s Son Jesus, the very Kingdom of God.  And God declares that He is well pleased with you on account of Jesus.  That is, you are justified, righteous in God’s sight, on account of the righteousness of Jesus, given you in Baptism.

            Thus it is true, what the Catechism teaches us, that Baptism “works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare… ‘Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.’ (Mark 16:16).”  Faith receives what Baptism gives, even as in Baptism, God gives the very faith to receive it.   

            And this is important, because it trips so many people up.  Baptism is not our work for God…  It is God’s work for us!  It is not as though Baptism is a good work we do to be saved, nor is it simply obedience to some divine ordinance that is otherwise meaningless.  Baptism saves because God is the One who baptizes.  He does it by the Pastor’s hand, but He is the One.  God brings us to the Font.  He does it in the case of infants by the arms of parents and Godparents, or in the case of adults, by their own two legs, but He is the One who carries you there.  His is the Word.  His is the Voice.  He is in the water.  The Father speaks.  Jesus accomplishes it.  The Spirit hovers over it, to fashion a New Creation.  Baptism… now saves you,” Peter says (1 Peter 3:21).  (H)e saved us…” Paul says, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).  So many Protestants reject the idea that Baptism saves, because they think Baptism is our work of obedience to God.  But that isn’t what Scriptures say.  Baptism saves, because it is God’s work of grace.  And the greatest picture of that is a baby brought to the water by his parents.  Helpless.  Unable to make any kind of decision for Jesus.  Unable to rationally understand what is happening.  Unable to coherently confess it.  Probably screaming.  Maybe stinking.  Already staining the pristine baptismal gown with spit-up or worse.  But then, that is all of us.  That is a picture of you, no matter how old you were when you were baptized.  The older you are, the better you are at hiding it, but God knows you are a screaming, stinking, helpless baby.  So thank God, there He is, to clean you up, and put you in Jesus.  This could no more be your work than it could be the infant’s.  God does it all.

            Now you are passing over, and there is Jesus, our Greater Joshua and the Ark of God, with you in the water.  And that is something to remember, always, in this life.  You are in between.  The wilderness is behind.  The Promised Land is before you.  But right now, you… you are in the water with Jesus.  Or better, Jesus is in the water with you.  It is not that you were baptized, as some past event.  It is that you are baptized, a present reality.  And that changes everything.  This is now your daily reality.  There with Jesus in the great in-between.  Still suffering the pains of the old world, but filled with the hope of the New that is coming.  You do still sin, to be sure, but there you are, in the water with Jesus.  And that means that every day, you drown Old Adam.  You repent of your sins, for repentance is nothing but a daily return to Baptism.  And every day you emerge and arise as a New Creation in Christ, to fight against sin and to do the righteousness that is already yours as a gift in Christ.  You are baptized into His death.  You are baptized into His life.  You die with Him.  You are raised with Him… spiritually now, bodily then.  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).  Even as you sin every day, so you are forgiven every day.  You have the Holy Spirit every day.  Every day the Father says of you, that you are His beloved Son, with whom He is well pleased.  Every day, there is Jesus, in the water, with you, for you.  He is bringing you over, to enter His Rest.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.                         

[1] Catechism quotes from Luther’s Small Catechism (St. Louis: Concordia, 1986).

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

The Epiphany of Our Lord

The Epiphany of Our Lord

January 6, 2021

Text: Matt. 2:1-12

            God led His people, Israel, to the Promised Land by the light of a fiery pillar.  It was the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night that separated the people from their Egyptian oppressors.  It was the pillar that led them through the Red Sea as on dry ground.  It was the pillar that led them through the wilderness.  And God Himself, the Angel of the LORD, was in the pillar.  Whenever the pillar would lift up from the Tabernacle, the people would set out, and wherever the pillar came to rest, the people would settle in.  And always, the pillar would settle over the Most Holy Place, where the Ark was.  And God would take up His throne between the Cherubim on the Mercy Seat, the covering of the Ark, where the blood of atonement came between Him and the Law within it, the Ten Commandments.  God took up residence in the midst of His congregation.  He camped with them.  He tented, right there in the barren desert, even among His harried and rebellious people.  He tabernacled among them, because the place of this God is always with His people.  He was their Light.  He was their Life.  He was their salvation.

            But it was never God’s plan only to save the House of Israel.  He says of the promised Messiah through the Prophet Isaiah, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Is. 49:6; ESV).  And so it is, that in the fulness of time, when God had brought forth a Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem those under the Law (Gal. 4:4-5), He led Gentile sages to the fleshly Ark of His Presence, this time not by a pillar, but by the light of a star. 

            Now, when it comes to the star, I suppose we cannot rule out natural phenomena entirely, but if this year’s conjunction of planets has taught us anything, it is that no natural astronomical phenomena we are aware of could lead the wise men first to Jerusalem, then after the time required for deliberation with Herod and the clergy, to Bethlehem, and then to the very house where the Child was with His mother.  In other words, we’re pretty safe in assuming this is a miraculous star appointed just for the occasion.  It behaves just like the pillar.  God is doing for the Gentiles what He had done for His people, Israel.  And in this way, Simeon’s words ring true: The Christ Child is “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32).  God makes of the two, Jew and Gentile, one new people, one new Israel, bringing them to Christ by the Light.

            It is the fulfillment of prophecy: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.”  Thus did Balaam declare to Balak in Numbers 24:17.  And our Old Testament reading from the Prophet Isaiah: “nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (Is. 60:3).  Even specifically this coming of the wise men: “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the LORD” (v. 6).  Incidentally, the wise men, magi (from which we get the word, “magician”), astronomers, scholars, keepers of ancient wisdom, may well have been from Media or Persia, possibly from the school which traces its lineage back to Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  In any case, they didn’t simply see the strange light.  They also must have had some knowledge of these Scriptures, and made the connection, guided by the Holy Spirit, between these prophecies and the astronomical sign.  And so God led them by the light of a star, by the Light of His Word, to the very spot where God tabernacled among all humanity (Jew and Gentile), tented in our flesh, in the very wilderness of this world, among harried and rebellious people.  He is the enfleshed Mercy Seat (what St. Paul calls, “the Propitiation”), where the Blood of Atonement comes between God and His Commandments, wherein dwells His Torah, His Logos, His Word.  To be humanity’s Light and Life and Salvation.

            Now, what God did for Israel and for these Gentile magi, He does for you.  Okay, you don’t get the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night.  You don’t get the star that leads you to the very house where the Child is with His mother, Mary.  You get something that St. Peter calls “the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:19).  Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps. 119:105).  God leads you by the Scriptures, by the Light of His Word.  He leads you through the Red Sea waters of Baptism, right into the Holy of Holies where He is enthroned, in the flesh, in the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.  He leads you to the Blood of Atonement that comes between your God and His Law, which you have broken, to cleanse you from all your sins.  There God dwells with you.  He tabernacles with you.  Because the place of this God is always with His people, to be your Light, your Life, and your Salvation. 

            I think we mostly take it for granted that God’s salvation has come among us Gentiles.  And so we miss the whole miracle of Epiphany.  But think where our ancestors were before Christ was revealed to them.  Think where you and I were before the Light of Christ shone upon us.  St. Paul tells us: You were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you once walked… You lived according to the passions of your flesh, carrying out the desires of your fallen body and mind, children of wrath, separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, strangers to the Covenants and Promise, having no hope, and without God in the world (Eph. 2:1-3, 12).  But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (v. 13).  This is no minor miracle that you are sitting here in the pew this evening.  God led you here by a miraculous light even greater than the pillar of fire or the Bethlehem Star.  His Spirit led you here by the Word.  He led you to the very presence of Christ.  For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). 

            The Word shines the Light of Christ into every dark corner of your life as it is held before your eyes and preached into your ears, exposing and forgiving your sins; healing your diseases of heart, soul, mind, and body; freeing you from your chains of captivity; restoring your sight; giving you ears to hear; providing you with all the riches of God in Christ; and raising you to new life.  And this is important, because you know the darkness around you and within you all too well.  Hiding it doesn’t help.  Blast it with the Light.  Whenever and however you find yourself in darkness, run to the Word that shines upon you and gives you Christ.  Run to the Scriptures.  Pray the Psalms.  Call your pastor.  What do you think I’m here for?  Demand the Gospel.  Demand Absolution.  Run to the Church at every opportunity to hear the speaking of Christ for you.  Run to the Mercy Seat, run to His Altar, the Sacrifice for your sins once given on the cross, now given to you to eat and to drink and to fill you with Light and Life.  You are no longer enslaved to the darkness of sin, death, and the devil.  You belong to Christ who has come to pitch His tent here with you.

            And, by the way, not only does the Light of Christ put the darkness to flight in your own life.  The same miracle takes place every time you speak this Light into the ears of others.  You know they are afflicted with the darkness, too.  Speak God’s Word into it.  Speak Christ into it.  Encourage your fellow Christians.  Tell those you love about God’s love for them.  Share Bible passages with those who are going through a hard time.  Tell people you are praying for them.  Speak God’s blessings upon them in Christ.  Rejoice with them.  Weep with them.  Always in the Name of Jesus.  And love them.  Serve them.  Help them… as the hands of God in the world.  It doesn’t have to be an awkward evangelism program.  It is simply the living of your Christian life tented among people.  You go forth from this place, from the Mercy Seat, bearing Christ, aglow with Christ.  And that Light leads others here. 

            Now, we should say a word about the gifts.  You know them well: Gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Do not miss what these gifts indicate.  It is not simply that we should give God our riches and our very best, as true as that may be.  These are not Law gifts.  They are Gospel gifts.  Gold, because Jesus has come to be our King.  Frankincense, the sweet-smelling incense offered to God with the sacrifices in the Tabernacle, because Jesus is God, and He is our High Priest who makes the Sacrifice for our sins, and is Himself the Sacrifice.  Myrrh, the prominent spice used in burial.  Because Jesus was crucified for us, dead and buried.  And now He is risen from the dead, and lives, and reigns, our Prophet, Priest, and King. 

            The gifts are first of all God’s gifts to you in Christ.  And now you respond by returning gifts to God: The gold that is faith in Christ, precious to Him, refined by fire, imperishable and unfading.  The frankincense of your prayers that waft before the throne of God.  The myrrh of repentance as you mortify your flesh, crucifying Old Adam in you and burying Him in the tomb.  The Church Fathers make a big deal out of this, that after the wise men worshiped the Child, being warned in a dream, they did not return home by the same route.  So also, when we come before Christ, to receive and worship Him, we can never go back the same way we came.  We should not return to the way of the flesh.  Christ has set us on the path of life, the way that is ever new.  Led by the Light, let us turn not aside, as Christ, who implants Himself among us, leads us on into the Promised Land.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.     

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Second Sunday after Christmas

Second Sunday after Christmas (B)

January 3, 2021

Text: Luke 2:40-52

            Get wisdom; get insight; do not forget, and do not turn away from the words of my mouth.  Do not forsake her, and she will keep you; love her, and she will guard you.  The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight” (Prov. 4:5-7; ESV).

            Thanks to Google, we have an inexhaustible body of knowledge at our fingertips.  Knowledge is the acquisition of bare facts and data, the who, the what, the where.  If we dig a little deeper, and actually read and research the subject of our knowledge, we may come into possession of understanding.  That is, we may begin to grasp the meaning of a thing, the how and the why of it.  But wisdom… wisdom is something else again.  Wisdom is to discern what is right and true, what is good and beautiful, and to order our lives accordingly.  It is to know what to do with knowledge and understanding, how to respond to what you know, and how to think about it.  You can know a lot of things, and even understand them, but that does not yet make you wise.  Think of the stereotypical mad genius, or even the so-called “progressive march of science.”  For example, a scientist may know about editing genes for designer babies, and he may understand how to do it, and why someone might desire it.  But only wisdom can determine whether or not it ought to be done, whether it is ordered according to what is true and good.  We may know how to create more embryos in a petri dish than we ever intend to use, but wisdom must weigh the rightness and wrongness of the thing, whether it is good, in light of the truth that nascent human beings will die in the process.  Only wisdom can ask the question whether the thing under consideration actually advances the good.  Or whether it will, in fact, lead further away from the good, toward godless disaster.  Mere knowledge, as it turns out, simply puffs up, as St. Paul warns us (1 Cor. 8:1).  In fact, when it comes to science, and so many other things, as a society, we value knowledge above all else, understanding somewhat less so, and wisdom not at all.  And we get the order precisely backward!  We think if we know how to do something, we should do it, and that is called “progress” or “scientific advancement.”  But we never stop to ponder the good of it, or whether there is any good in it.  Well, I’m no prophet, but I have a good idea we’re going to have a whole lot of hell to pay as a result.

            God’s Wisdom, though, is the true Wisdom, and that is a Wisdom beyond all human reason.  For God’s Wisdom is not simply a matter of ethical deliberation.  God’s Wisdom is an attribute essential to His Nature.  It is personified in the Spirit, enfleshed in Jesus.  And so, what we call “godly wisdom” among human beings is nothing less than a spiritual gift.  God bestows it on His children, to be received, like all spiritual gifts, by faith.  Now, natural man cannot receive this Wisdom.  That is, man in his fallen state, before conversion.  This is the point Paul makes in 1 Corinthians: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14).  Thus God says through the Prophet Isaiah: “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD” (Is. 55:8).  So, while worldly wisdom can be attained by some amount of effort under the right circumstances, God’s Wisdom is bestowed by the Holy Spirit.  It can only be received as the Father gives it by His Spirit in Christ.  And we know where He does that.  He does it by His Word.

            Twelve-year-old Jesus amazes all who hear Him with His understanding and answers (Luke 2:47).  He is filled with wisdom (v. 40), and He increases in it (v. 52).  I’ve always found that juxtaposition fascinating.  He is filled with it, He already has it, and yet He increases in it, His wisdom grows.  I think this is an indication of our Lord’s two natures, divine and human.  As God, the Son possesses all Wisdom from eternity.  It is His attribute.  In fact, He is the Wisdom of God.  But as Man, He grows in it.  He learns.

            The same juxtaposition marks our own life in Christ.  We are given this Wisdom of God as a gift when we are baptized into Christ.  The Spirit comes upon us and we are filled with His Wisdom as a trait of the Christian family.  But then, there is no question that it must grow in us.  It must increase and be molded and shaped and honed.  This happens as you are immersed in God’s Word, where you learn what is right and true and good and beautiful, what is of Christ.  And then that is refined by school of experience as you bear the holy cross.  That drives you to desire more and more Wisdom.  Like Solomon in our Old Testament reading (1 Kings 3:4-15), you plead with God to grant you an understanding mind, and really what you are asking for is Wisdom from above, godly Wisdom that can respond to all the challenges.  Now, this Wisdom is still a gift of course.  God gives you this Wisdom in His Word and Sacraments, and it is received by faith.  But then also it is exercised by the Spirit as it works its way in your life.  This is what the Psalmist means when he teaches us, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,” that is, faith; and “all those who practice it,” that is, live according to that Wisdom as it is imparted in God’s Word, “have a good understanding” (Ps. 111:10).   

            Now, sometimes, when the cross is particularly heavy, you search for this Wisdom in desperation… as though you didn’t know where to find it!  Now you are like Mary and Joseph, anxiously searching for their lost Boy.  But you should know, as they should have known, precisely where to find Him: In God’s House, among the teachers, immersed in God’s Word, where the sacrifice is for sinners.  Jesus has this way of pointing out our silliness, as He so often did with His disciples, and as He does here with His parents.  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (v. 49).  That is how our version renders it, and it is certainly a fine translation, but another possibility is, “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?  Or, perhaps more literally, “Did you not know that I must be among the things of my Father?  I like that one, and it actually includes all of the above.  There is Jesus, in His Father’s House, doing His Father’s business, among the things of His Father, which is to say, in the Father’s Word and the sacrifice for sins.  And think about that: The Word Incarnate in the Word!  Wisdom Incarnate, full of Wisdom and understanding, growing in Wisdom by means of the Word!  The Holy Parents should have known, and you should know.  Do you want to find Wisdom?  You will find it in the Word, and where the Sacrifice is for your sins. 

            Mary and Joseph frantically search for their dear Son.  They assumed Him to be among the crowd of pilgrims, but at the first night’s lodging, He failed to materialize.  Any parent knows that feeling of the earth being pulled out from under your feet, when you don’t know where your child is.  In anxious terror, they return to the City.  They look everywhere.  For three whole days, they can find Him nowhere.  And then, finally, after three days…  After three days, they find Him in the Temple.  After three days, what was lost has been found.  After three days, it is like a resurrection from the dead.  We can hardly begin to comprehend it, but as it turns out, this whole thing has been according to God’s plan.  It is a prophecy of our salvation as it unfolds according to God’s Wisdom.  This is how God will do it, and it is good, and it is beautiful.

            But is totally backward, as far as we are concerned.  Mary even thinks it needs a mother’s rebuke: “Son, look what you’ve done to us!  You scared us to death!”  That is how we often respond to God’s Wisdom: “What on earth do You think You are doing?  I don’t understand this!  I can’t see how this could be good for anyone!  Why don’t You stop messing around!  Wake up, and help us out here!”  This is, after all, not the wisdom of the world, this way of God’s salvation.  That is why the world rejects it.  But this is the Wisdom of the cross.  That is, God delivers by appearing to do the opposite.  God saves the whole world by utterly forsaking His Son in the death of crucifixion.  What a joke!  What a scandal!  The renowned philosophers, the most distinguished academics, the greatest minds among us could not begin to comprehend it.  What God here does appears so weak and foolish.  But this is our whole faith.  This is our whole theology: “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:23-24).  On the cross, in the preaching, there is Christ to save and make us wise. 

            “Did you not know that I must be among the things of my Father?  Did you not know that you would find me in His Word?  Did you not know that I AM the Sacrifice for your sins, and the sins of the whole world?  And that I am here, in the Father’s House, my Body given for you, my Blood shed for you, risen from the dead after three days?  Did you not know that here, in my Word, I will teach you of all that is right and true and good and beautiful, and I will give you to order your life accordingly?  Dear mother, my dear guardian Joseph, dear brothers and sisters whom I have redeemed, do you want to find me?  Do you desire Wisdom?  Here I am, in the Word, from the pulpit and on the altar.  Never believe I am lost to you again.  You can always find me here for you.”

            And then He goes back with His parents to Nazareth where He is submissive to them, honoring them by serving and obeying them, loving and cherishing them, fulfilling the Fourth Commandment for us and in our place.  And this teaches us about a life of Wisdom.  Having been given the Wisdom of God by grace, we now grow in it.  And that bears fruit in our vocations.  We put Wisdom to work as we live by God’s Word in all our relationships with one another. 

            Now, like Mary and Joseph, there are many things about God’s Wisdom we simply don’t understand.  But in this way, Mary serves as our example.  She simply believes what her Son says and does.  And she treasures up all these things in her heart (Luke 2:51).  We work hard to attain our knowledge, and with a little study, or sometimes a lot, perhaps we gain some understanding.  But true Wisdom is always received, here among the things of the Father, where Jesus is and will always be found.  The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight.”  That is what you get in God’s Word and the Holy Supper.  To have Christ is to have the Wisdom of God.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.