Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Christmas Day Hymns at Messiah Lutheran + Moscow Mission

It's the Fifth Day of Christmas, and here are the five great hymns we sang together on Christmas Day at Messiah Lutheran + Moscow Mission.

"Joy to the World" (LSB 387)

"From Heaven Above to Earth I Come" (LSB 358)

"Now Sing We, Now Rejoice" (LSB 386)

"Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" (LSB 380)

"Angels From the Realms of Glory" (LSB 367)

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Day

The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Day

December 25, 2016
Text: John 1:1-18

            The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us (John 1:14).  The Word, ὁ λόγος.  This Baby Jesus, wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger, is the Word of our Father, now in flesh appearing.  He is the Word spoken in the beginning.  St. John chooses his words very carefully, by inspiration of the Spirit, and he takes us back to Genesis with the first words of the Holy Gospel.  “In the beginning was the Word” (v. 1; ESV).  That means that Jesus is the Word by which God the Father creates heaven and earth.  He speaks forth creation.  “Let there be light,” He says (Gen. 1:3), and there is light.  He speaks a thing, and it is.  Jesus is the speaking of God.  And not only that, “the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).  Jesus is God.  He is the eternal Son of the Father, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Creator of all things, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns to all eternity.  It is this Word, who is God, who in time becomes flesh and is born of the Virgin Mary.  This God is a Man.  The Creator comes to His creation.  Because everything has gone wrong.  Adam and Eve broke fellowship with God in the Garden.  They rejected His Word.  He came to His own in the cool of the day, but His own would not receive Him.  They hid from Him.  They covered themselves with leaves.  They were afraid because they were naked.  The darkness was taking over.  The serpent had deceived.  Man had earned sin’s wages, which is death.  And the creation which God had declared “very good” (Gen. 1:31), had fallen, held in bondage by the sin and rebellion of Adam and his sons.
            God brought about the creation of the world by the Word.  So if He is to redeem the world, He must once again speak.  And so it is God speaks His Word into the ear and womb of the Virgin Mary, and the Word becomes flesh and blood to be the Savior of all He has made.  The incarnation, we call it, the taking on of our flesh of the Son of God.  That is the theology of Christmas.  John presumes you know the Christmas story from St. Matthew and St. Luke.  We got that last night in the Christmas Eve service.  John gives us the theology of it all.  His is a theological Gospel, but that does not make it impractical.  The problem is sin, darkness, and death.  And you know this by personal experience.  You never measure up.  You are a constant disappointment to yourself, to your loved ones, and to God.  You never know where you are going.  Life is a continual groping around in the dark.  And in the end, you die.  And just so you remember that that is what happens to us all, your loved ones die all around you, and you get sick and suffer injuries, all as a reminder that this will not end well.  Except that God speaks, and Christ, the Savior, is born.
            He is born to die, so that you live.  That is why He must be flesh and blood.  He comes in the flesh to be one with you, to suffer your every weakness and temptation, only without sin.  He comes in the flesh to be your substitute, to take your sins into Himself and to be punished in your place.  He comes to make atonement.  Apart from atonement, there is no justice.  For God to be just, He must punish sin.  But your punishment happens there, on the cross.  God sends His Son, and punishes His Son, that He might be both just and the Justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:26).  The death of Christ on the cross restores creation to the Creator and sinners to the Father.  And so to all who receive Jesus Christ, who believe in His Name, He gives the right to become children of God, born of God (John 1:12-13), children of the heavenly Father, forgiven, restored, and renewed.  You don’t measure up, but Jesus measures up for you.  You continually disappoint, but Jesus doles out grace upon grace on you and all your loved ones, all people, and from His fullness we receive all we need (v. 16).  God looks upon you as perfect and righteous, because He sees only the fullness of His Son.  In Jesus, your sin is done to death, and you are righteous in full measure. 
            Now, you would not know this apart from the Word.  So again, God speaks.  The Light comes into this world of darkness, so that you who are born spiritually blind, may see your salvation.  God speaks Jesus into your ear and into your heart and mind and soul in preaching.  Jesus comes to you.  We often speak of the real presence of Jesus in the Supper, of His true Body and Blood under the bread and wine for our forgiveness, life, and salvation.  That is a very important consequence of Christmas, of the incarnation of our Lord.  When He says He is with us, He means in the flesh!  I have said to my family back home as they celebrate Christmas that I’m with them in spirit.  By which I mean that I’m not with them at all!  I’m in Idaho, of all places!  My word cannot make it otherwise.  When Jesus says He’s with us, He really means it.  The Word does not lie.  Jesus speaks Himself present on the altar, in bread and wine.  But consider this.  He is also really present in the speaking of His Word.  It is the living voice of Jesus you hear in Scripture and preaching.  It is the living voice of Jesus you hear forgiving your sins in Absolution.  He speaks a thing, and it is.  He is the Word that is spoken.  Preaching only has power because the Word became flesh.  We preach Christ crucified (1 Cor. 1:23), and that means the crucified and risen Christ comes to you in the preaching.  He comes to you in the flesh as He is preached into your ears, just as surely as He came into the ear and womb of the blessed Virgin. 

            Now, He is poured all over you in your Baptism, the water and the Word that washes away your sins and bespeaks you God’s own forgiven and beloved child.  He is spoken into your ears and your very being by preaching and Absolution.  He is spoken into bread and wine to open your lips and course through your veins in the Sacrament.  And what happens?  The Light comes to grab you up out of the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.  The prince of darkness is foiled again.  His reward is coming, and he also will have to suffer the weeping and gnashing of teeth for all eternity.  But not you.  Your sins are forgiven.  Jesus has paid your debt in full by His blood and death.  And He is risen.  You will not die.  In the end, your loved ones who died in the faith will be restored to you, and you will be healed.  That is the Good News of Christmas.  All that is wrong has been righted in the incarnation of our Lord.  Christmas is nothing less than the re-creation of the world, the restoration of what has been lost, God’s coming in your flesh to be reconciled with you and to clothe you with Himself.  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  And the Word is with you now, in the flesh.  The Word makes all things new.  Including you.  Merry Christmas.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.             

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Eve

The Nativity of our Lord – Christmas Eve Candlelight Vespers

December 24, 2016

Hymn: 376 "Once in Royal David's City"

Hymn: 379 "O Come, All Ye Faithful"

Isaiah 9:2-7: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil. For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

Comments:  Jesus Christ is the light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome.  He brings His light into the darkness of our sin, the darkness of violence, of sickness, of death.  He comes to break through the darkness, to grant us forgiveness, peace, healing, and resurrection.  “Break forth, O beauteous heav’nly light, And usher in the morning… This Child, though weak in infancy, Our confidence and joy will be, The pow’r of Satan breaking, Our peace with God now making" (LSB 378:1).

Hymn: 378 "Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light" 

Titus 2:11-14: For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

Comments:  Jesus both justifies and sanctifies.  He declares us righteous and makes us holy.  It is all by grace.  It is a great and mighty wonder, that God should become flesh, born of a virgin, to redeem our flesh and save our souls.  “The Word becomes incarnate And yet remains on high” (LSB 383:2).  The grace of God appears in the flesh.  God becomes a man.  He unites our flesh to Himself.  He pays the penalty for our sin.  He dies for our redemption.  He makes us new by His resurrection.  He redeems us from lawlessness.  He purifies us for Himself.  He makes us zealous to do good works to His glory and for the benefit of our neighbor.  “Proclaim the Savior’s birth: ‘To God on high be glory And peace to all the earth!’”

Hymn: 383 "A Great and Mighty Wonder"

Luke 2:1-7: In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

Comments:  The birth of our Lord Jesus Christ is grounded in history.  It happens in a real town, Bethlehem, in a real stable, among lowing cattle and bleating goats.  It takes place when Quirinius is governor of Syria, under the empire of Caesar Augustus.  Historical events bring Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem to be registered.  You can investigate the historical sources.  All of the facts line up.  The Son of God is born into our history to redeem our history.  He is wrapped in our history, wrapped in our flesh, wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger.  “O holy Child of Bethlehem, Descend to us, we pray; Cast out our sin, and enter in, Be born in us today” (LSB 361:4).

Hymn: 361 "O Little Town of Bethlehem"

Luke 2:8-14: And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

Comments: The holy angels do not announce the Savior’s birth to King Herod or Governor Quirinius or Caesar.  They do not sing to the High Priest or temple clergy.  Instead, the poor have the Good News preached to them.  They come to the lowly, despised shepherds, keeping watch over their flock by night.  While the rest of the world slumbers in ignorance, heaven is aglow with rejoicing that spills over onto earth.  The angels and the multitude of the heavenly host proclaim the glory of God and peace on earth, peace with God, the peace that can only come from the Seed of the woman come to crush the serpent’s head.  This Gospel, proclaimed by an angel to the poor Judean shepherds, is also for you.  “Come to Bethlehem and see Him whose birth the angels sing; Come, adore on bended knee Christ the Lord, the newborn King” (LSB 368:3).

Hymn: 368 "Angels We Have Heard on High"

Luke 2:15-20: When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Comments: The Gospel message of the heavenly host gives strength and courage to the quaking shepherds.  Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.  They find the Child, just as it had been told them.  The prophecy is fulfilled.  Messiah has come to save His people from their sins.  God is in the flesh.  He is Emmanuel, God with us.  This Good News is to be confessed abroad, as the shepherds made known all the things that had been told them concerning this Child.  And it is to be treasured and pondered in the heart, as did the Blessed Virgin Mary.  “Be near me, Lord Jesus; I ask Thee to stay Close by me forever and love me, I pray” (LSB 364:3).  Be near me and abide with me.  Abide with Your holy Church.  Keep us in the faith of this blessed Gospel.  And take us at last to heaven, to live with Thee there.

Hymn: 364 "Away in a Manger"

Hymn: 363 "Silent Night, Holy Night"

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Hymns This Week at Messiah Lutheran + Moscow Mission (12/18 & 21/2016)

"Come, Thou Precious Ransom, Come" (LSB 350)

"O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" (LSB 357)

"Jesus Came, the Heavens Adoring" (LSB 353)

"O Lord, How Shall I Meet You" (LSB 334)

"Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus" (LSB 338)

"Savior of the Nations, Come" (LSB 332)

"Once He Came in Blessing" (LSB 333)

"Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us" (LSB 711)

"God Loves Me Dearly" (LSB 392)

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Advent Midweek IV: "Savior of the Nations, Come: Are You Ready?"

Advent Midweek IV: “Savior of the Nations, Come: Are You Ready?”[1]

December 21, 2016
Text: Luke 2:8-20

            It is no accident that our Lord’s birth is first announced to shepherds.  This is God’s plan.  These men were chosen by God for this purpose.  It is no accident, but neither is it obvious.  After all, who are these shepherds to receive the announcement of Almighty God’s birth in the flesh?  Shepherds are common laborers, and these particular shepherds are the lowest of the lower class, for they are working the night shift out in the fields of backwater Bethlehem.  There they keep watch over these dirty, stupid, defenseless animals.  Out in the cold and the dark, with little comfort, they are charged to protect their sheep at all costs.  Remember young David who once worked these very hills, defending his flock against lions and bears, wrestling them with his hands or killing them with his sling.  Dangerous work, shepherding could be.  And thankless.  Some were in it only because they needed the work.  You can always tell a real shepherd from a hired hand.  When danger arrives, the hired hand runs for his life.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  Of which category were these shepherds of whom St. Luke writes in our Holy Gospel?  We don’t know.  But we do know one thing: While they may have been ready for lions and bears and wolves and robbers, they were not ready for the appearance of the angel in the glory of the Lord.  Needless to say, they were terrified.  In spite of the effeminate representations you put on top of your Christmas trees, angels are always a fearsome sight for sinners.  But this angel bears good news.  “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11; ESV).  No, the shepherds had not expected this.  They were not ready for the appearance of the angel, and they were not ready for the Gospel he proclaims.  Nor were they ready for what happened next: Heaven torn open by a heavenly chorus, the angels and saints who had gone before singing the first Christmas hymn, which we still sing today: “Gloria in excelsis deo!”  “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (v. 14). 
            The shepherds were not ready for Christmas.  The Gospel has about it this quality that it always comes as a surprise.  God is a man.  He is born of a virgin.  This baby is God.  He is born to die.  He is risen from the dead.  He lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit.  He will come again to raise you from the dead and to give you eternal life.  In the meantime He gives comes to you in the flesh in Words and water, bread and wine.  These are all scandalous statements.  And the great surprise is you believe every one of them.  The whole business of the angel appearing to shepherds tending their flocks by night is a great surprise, and it is scandalous.  But more surprising still, the shepherds believed it.  And they dropped everything, left it all behind to go and see this thing that the Lord had made known to them.  What were they to do with this great Gospel news?  Go and find the Baby where the angel said He would be.  Go and find God in the flesh where He is for you.  Find Him wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.  They go, and so they find Him, and they tell everyone who will listen about the sermon the angel preached.  They tell everyone who will listen about Jesus, the newborn Savior and Lord.  Then they return.  They go back to work.  But everything has changed.  They take up their shepherd’s crooks with renewed vigor, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
            It is no accident that the Gospel is first received by shepherds.  Jesus is our Good Shepherd, and He lays down His life for the sheep.  He lays down His life for you.  He was born for this very purpose.  You are His beloved sheep, and Jesus is no hired hand.  Like His forefather David, He faces all the enemies that would harm you, rob you from His flock, and kill you.  He takes on sin, death, and the very devil, and He protects you at all costs.  He does not run from danger.  He embraces His cross and He willingly dies, for His death means your life.  In His death, death is defeated.  His blood washes away all your sin.  And the devil?  The devil has lost his grip on you.  He once held you with claw and fang.  Like a roaring lion, he sought to devour you.  But now the Good Shepherd has wrestled the satanic hellcat with His own pierced hands.  He has triumphed over him in His cross.  The Shepherd’s heal was struck, but the serpent’s head is crushed. 
            Jesus is the Good Shepherd who laid down His life for the sheep, and now He is risen from the dead, and still tends His sheep here in the sheepfold of His Church.  He tends them by His Word, proclaimed by His undershepherds.  “Pastor” is a Latin word that means “shepherd.”  We learn a lot about what it means to be a pastor from the Bethlehem shepherds.  Pastors are to keep watch over the flock and protect the sheep from predators and robbers at all costs.  Dangerous work, pastoring can be.  It is fraught with perils.  Many are the pastors who have fallen to the enemy in battle for the lives of the sheep.  Some only do it because they need the work.  When danger comes, they are exposed as hired hands.  They run for their lives.  But a true pastor lays down his life for the sheep, in the confidence that his life will be returned to him by the Good Shepherd, the Good Pastor, even Jesus Christ.  Like the shepherds of Bethlehem, a pastor must first hear the preaching.  He must first receive the Gospel and believe it in order to preach it.  He is a sinner, and he needs the Good News proclaimed by the angel: “Fear not!  Unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  Go and find the Lord where He has promised to be for you: in the swaddling cloths of the Scriptures and in the manger, the feeding trough that is the altar, where you feast on His true body and blood.  Then preach.  Tell all who will listen, and even those who won’t, the saying that has been told you concerning this Child.  Get to work.  Tend the sheep.  Glorify and praise God for all you have heard and seen.”
            And then there are the sheep themselves.  That is to say, then there is you, Jesus’ little lamb.  The Good Shepherd loves you and tends you Himself.  And He sends His pastor, His undershepherd, to care for you.  By preaching.  By pointing you to the place where Jesus is for you: The swaddling cloths… the Holy Scriptures; the manger… the altar.  The pastor is to shelter you and your fellow sheep in the grotto of Holy Church, and feed you with Jesus. 
            Mary is the picture of the faithful Christian in this Gospel.  She hears the shepherds’ preaching, and what does she do with that Word?  She treasures up all these things and ponders them in her heart (v. 19).  What are you to do with this incredible, surprising, scandalous Good News of great joy proclaimed by the angel to the shepherds, and by the shepherds to Mary, proclaimed in the Scriptures and by your pastor to you?  Treasure it up.  Ponder it in your heart.  Keep it always before your ears and eyes as that which is most precious.  Cling to it for your very life.  Wonder.  Worship.  And speak it to others.  To all who will listen, and even to those who won’t.  For this Gospel first proclaimed to lowly shepherds is now proclaimed to you: “Unto you is born a Savior, Christ, the Lord.”  Rejoice.  Emmanuel comes, now, in the flesh, to you dear child of God.  He advents.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.                   

[1] The theme and some of the thoughts in this sermon are from Savior of the Nations, Come (St. Louis: Concordia, 2009).

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Fourth Sunday in Advent (A)

December 18, 2016
Text: Matt. 1:18-25

            Christmas is near.  So near you can almost taste it.  If you’re anything like me, you’ve already been tasting the Christmas cookies, undoing everything you’ve worked so hard for since the Lenten fast.  That is why we’ll all make our New Year’s resolutions in a couple of weeks, which we’ll promptly break.  But we aren’t worried about that now.  Not yet.  Now, we’re filled with anticipation and excitement, nostalgic for the Christmases of yesteryear, hoping to capture once again that old Christmas feeling.  But our memories are faulty when it comes to the good old days.  The truth is, Christmas never lives up to its expectations.  We make it so stressful.  There is always so much to get done, the shopping, the cooking, the baking, the merry-making.  There are the decorations to put up, the house to clean, the cards to send, the presents to wrap, the phone calls and visits to make.  Some of it is good and enjoyable, but there’s so much of it.  It’s all a big blur.  Hectic.  Chaotic.  And, of course, when all is said and done, the house is a disaster, the new toys are already broken (and you didn’t get the right batteries anyway), the gifts were wrong and have to be returned, and you’re left, not with a Christmas glow in your heart, but with a giant, Christmas-sized headache.  Some of you have even greater challenges, though.  Some of the family members you love aren’t talking to each other.  Maybe they aren’t talking to you.  Some of your family members or close friends have made decisions that have brought them harm, and deeply disappointed you.  Some of you will face Christmas for the first time without a loved one who has gone to be with the Lord.  Depression is rampant this time of year.  No doubt some of you are suffering with that cross.  And of course, we know about all those among us who are suffering great physical afflictions.  What is it about Christmas that it never lives up to our expectations?  Is Christmas broken?  Has Christmas failed? 
            If you think you have problems this Christmas, just take another glance at the Holy Family’s situation in our Gospel.  An unwed, teenage girl from Nazareth finds herself pregnant.  She tells her family and her fiancé she’s seen an angel, who told her this baby is from God, conceived by the Holy Spirit, the Son of the Most High.  Likely story.  Poor Joseph.  What’s the guy to do?  By all rights he should hand her over to the religious authorities as an adulteress, to be stoned to death.  But he doesn’t want to do that.  He’s a just man, a faithful and pious Jew, waiting for Messiah to come and deliver his people.  He has compassion, and… well, he loves her, the poor schlub.  So, a quiet divorce.  That’s the best answer.  Engagement, betrothal, was regarded as the same level of commitment as marriage.  The only difference was that the bridegroom had not yet taken the bride into his home and there had been no consummation of the marriage.  So you see, Joseph had to divorce her, both to protect his own reputation (he hadn’t touched the girl!), and because the only way to break the relationship is by a legal severing of what God has joined together.  That first Christmas, the family was broken.  Everyone was suffering.  Everyone was hurting.  It would take a Christmas miracle to put it all together again.
            And that’s what happened.  An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.  “Joseph, Son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:20; ESV).  So, it was true after all!  She wasn’t making it up.  Mary, God bless her, is still a virgin!  She has been faithful.  And not only that, she has been chosen by God to bear His own Son, the promised Messiah.  “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (v. 21).  He’s been given to be the Savior of the world.  The Name “Jesus” means “The LORD saves,” and that is what He will do.  He is the LORD, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, but now also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, and He has come to redeem us, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood, and by His innocent suffering and death. 
            He is the rightful heir to the throne of David.  Don’t miss how the angel greets Joseph: “Son of David.”  The royal lineage is passed down now to Jesus, the Son of David par excellence, the fulfillment of the promise that David would never lack a man to sit on his throne.  But Jesus’ throne is of another sort than King David’s.  Jesus’ throne is made of wood.  It is the throne of the cross, whereon the proclamation is nailed, “Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews” (John 19:19).  For on the cross, crowned with thorns, the Savior claims for Himself a Kingdom, a people for His own possession, and you are given to be in that number.  Jesus was born for this, to make you His own by taking on your flesh and blood, coming into your mess of a life, taking on your diseases, your hurts, your sorrows, your griefs, taking into Himself your very sins, all of them, and bearing them to the death of the cross, your death, your condemnation, which He willingly takes upon Himself in your place.  Jesus comes into a broken family in order to redeem your broken family.  He is conceived by an unwed, teenage mother to redeem unwed, teenage mothers.  He is born of a virgin to redeem virgins.  He passes through all the stages of life to redeem us at every stage of our lives, from microscopic embryonic life to the grave.  He is born amidst sin and suffering and hurting because He is the cure to it all.  That is why He came.  Our Lord Jesus did not come into the world expecting us to clean up the house for Him, put up the decorations, bake Him Christmas cookies, and make sure He experienced a Christmas glow in His heart.  He came because we are incapable of cleaning it up.  Because as hard as we strive to decorate our lives with good works, in the end, it’s only worthless tinsel, shiny to be sure, but messy and good for nothing.  Jesus did not come to be adored and receive our worship and praise.  He came to rescue His enemies, those who hate Him, those incapable of worshiping Him, much less believing in Him, those who would crucify Him, you.  That you might be reconciled to God and have eternal life. 
            This is the miracle of Christmas.  Jesus has become one with us.  “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15).  He has suffered everything we suffer.  He has endured everything we endure.  He knows what it means to be sick.  He knows what it means to be heartbroken.  He knows what it means to be falsely accused, arrested, tried, beaten, tortured, mocked, and condemned to death.  He knows it all.  Because He’s suffered it.  He’s been there.  He’s one of us.  He’s as with us as with us can be, truly our Immanuel.  The only difference is, He never sinned.  But He does know what it means to be a sinner.  For He became THE sinner for us.  All our sins were heaped on Jesus, that the Father would punish them all there, in His body, on the cross of Calvary.  So we have no more sin.  Jesus has taken it all away.  He has paid for it all in full.  This was the plan all along.  The proof is that now He is risen and lives and reigns at the right hand of the Father, and He will come again to get us, to deliver us finally, once and for all, on the Day of our own resurrection from the dead.  
            This is a great comfort for us at Christmas and always.  Jesus does not fail to come to us because our lives are messy.  He comes precisely because of the mess.  Christmas is not about having everything neat and in order.  Christmas is not about all the hustle and bustle that becomes so distracting.  And above all else, please understand that Christmas is not about a feeling at all.  A warm glow is nice, but Christmas can get along just fine without it.  Nor is Christmas about giving and receiving gifts, or getting together at Grandma’s.  In fact, this may surprise and even offend you, but Christmas is not about your family.  Nor is it about coming to Church to adore the baby Jesus.  That would be your work for Him, and Christmas is most assuredly not about your work for Him. Christmas is about this one objective fact: God has come in the flesh to save you.  And He comes to you right here in the Church in His flesh, in His Word and Sacrament, to deliver that salvation wrapped up in the swaddling clothes of Words and water, bread and wine.  Everything else you add to Christmas, the traditions, the decorations, the feasting, the presents, and even the family gatherings… though those things be good and wonderful, they have nothing to do with the essence of Christmas.  The essence of Christmas is Jesus.  The essence of Christmas is Christ for you.  He is for you, right where you are, right in the mess that is your life, right in your sin and suffering and death, right in your disappointments and depression and broken relationships, right there to cover it all with His blood and forgive it. Christmas is not broken.  Christmas has not failed.  Christmas is doing exactly what it was given to do.  Giving you Christ.  Everything else, beloved, is just wrapping paper.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.    

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Hymns This Week at Messiah Lutheran + Moscow Mission (12/11 & 14, 2016)

"Hark the Glad Sound" (LSB 349)

"Hark! A Thrilling Voice is Sounding" (LSB 345)

"When All the World Was Cursed" (LSB 346)

"O Savior, Rend the Heavens Wide" (LSB 355)

"Savior of the Nations, Come" (LSB 332)

"Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates" (LSB 341)

"Prepare the Royal Highway" (LSB 343)

"O Light Whose Splendor" (LSB 891)

Advent Midweek III: "Savior of the Nations, Come: His Throne"

Advent Midweek III: “Savior of the Nations, Come: His Throne”[1]

December 14, 2016
Text: John 19:16-22

            The account of Jesus’ crucifixion may seem a strange reading for Advent. I mean, we’re prepared for prophecies about His coming and accounts of His birth during this holy season, but by the glow of Christmas lights and the Yule log, the crucifixion can be… a bit of a downer. But we’ve missed what Christmas is if we forget why He came. He came to die. Christmas is what it is in all its glory because of Good Friday. Otherwise this is just the birth of another baby to another peasant-girl. And while every birth is special, it’s an everyday occurrence. It is the purpose of this birth that sets it apart. Jesus is born to die. And to rise again, but that resurrection can only happen out of death. The newborn King claims His throne when He is nailed to it for the life of the world. He dies for His subjects. He dies for all people. He dies for you. And in so dying, He claims you for Himself. Hark, this is the peace on earth the herald angels were singing about: His death. “Glory to the newborn King.”
            No matter how you cut it, Jesus doesn’t live up to human conceptions of kingship. The Jews of Jesus’ day were not against the Messiah coming. But they expected a Messiah who would be mighty and powerful, lead a military revolution, and rule as earthly King over an independent Israel. When Jesus didn’t live up to their expectations, they plotted how they might trap Him, arrest Him, and deliver Him over to death. Jesus’ own disciples were no better. Even after His resurrection, they asked Him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6; ESV). They were thinking too small. They failed to understand that by His crucifixion Jesus had restored the Kingdom to spiritual Israel, the Church, claiming a Kingdom and a people for His own possession, purchasing us from sin and death by His own sinless blood and death.
            Jesus is not the kind of king we expect, either. We expect a king who will make our lives better, easier, who will not allow bad things to happen to us, or who will immediately pick us up and brush us off if they do. We expect a king who shares our values rather than imposing His own upon us. We expect a king who will shatter our enemies and exalt us as the favored nation. In reality, our expectations of the King aren’t that much different than the Jews and disciples.
            Jesus is none of that. Not in the way we think, anyway. Jesus is the King whose power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). Jesus is the King who gives Himself up totally for the sake of His people. He is the King who comes not to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28). He is the King of the universe, the Son of God, who leaves His heavenly throne to take up residence in the womb of the Virgin Mary, who becomes flesh and makes His dwelling among us (John 1:14), who is laid in a manger because there is no room for Him in the inn, who grows up in a carpenter’s family, who surrounds Himself with fishermen and other commoners, eats with tax collectors and sinners, is despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief (Is. 53:3). This is the King who is betrayed by a kiss, who willingly gives Himself into the hands of His enemies, though at any moment He could call upon His Father in heaven and be rescued by more than twelve legions of angels (Matt. 26:53). This is the King who is tried before earthly rulers, the Sanhedrin, Herod, Pontius Pilate (who declares Him innocent). His Kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). Nor is He a king the world would embrace. This is the King who is clothed in royal purple, worshiped in mockery by the soldiers, given a reed scepter and beaten with it, spat upon, and crowned with thorns. He is scourged and led in royal procession outside of the city, where He is nailed to His throne, the blessed and holy cross, lifted up and exalted between two criminals, forsaken of the Father, suffering all hell. For you. For His subjects. And there He dies. He dies to make you His own, that you may live under Him in His Kingdom and serve Him.
            Pilate writes the truth. “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” (John 19:19). Here He is, enthroned on high, for us and for our salvation. The devil, the world, and fallen humanity thought they had conquered this King once and for all that Good Friday. But on the Third Day He would emerge from the grave victorious over all His enemies. Glory to the newborn King, who came to die that we might live.
            By nature we rebel against our crucified King. We reject Him as our King and as our Savior. We want to rule ourselves. We want to save ourselves. Or at least we want Him to rule and save us on our own terms. We want strength, not weakness. We want glory, not the cross. But there’s no salvation in that. There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other Name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12). Jesus is the King. And He comes to us in weakness, that we might share in His glory. He comes to us in weakness still: Words and water and bread and wine. But in these weak vessels there is great power: the Holy Spirit, the washing away of sin, the true body and blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. Don’t let the appearance of the vessels fool you, any more than you should let the appearance of the King Himself in His earthly ministry, suffering, and death fool you. This is Almighty God come to His people. Because we cannot ascend to Him. He descends to us. He comes to us, in weakness, by which His power is made perfect.
            And there is no other way. This King must die to save His people. So He does so, willingly, in love. No earthly King would do what He did. No earthly King could do what He did. And that is why Christmas is what it is. We don’t celebrate just because a baby was born. We don’t celebrate because that baby was the symbol of hope, or even the symbol of God’s love. We celebrate because that baby is hope incarnate, God’s love in the flesh, poured out on the cross. Christmas is meaningless without the cross. Even at Christmas we say with St. Paul, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Worship the newborn King by beholding Him on His cross, and receiving the benefits of that cross as they are delivered to you in the means of grace. Because in that way you live joyfully in Jesus’ Kingdom. This (Christ crucified) is King of the Jews. By this, we have God’s peace on earth, God’s goodwill toward men. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] The theme and many of the points made in this sermon are taken from Savior of the Nations (St. Louis: Concordia, 2009).

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Third Sunday in Advent

Third Sunday in Advent (A)

December 11, 2016
Text: Matt. 11:2-15

            “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matt. 11:3; ESV).  It is the question of Advent.  Is Jesus the long-promised Savior, or are we to look for salvation somewhere else?  John’s question does not betray a lack of faith.  Far from it.  He is languishing in prison for the sake of Christ and His Word, and in the end, he will lose his head as he decreases and our Lord increases.  The Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence and the violent take it by force (v. 12).  John sends his disciples seeking a word from Jesus, a simple word, a Gospel word: I AM.  I am Jesus, YHWH saves.  Look no further.  For there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).  John, you can die in confidence and peace for the Name of Jesus, for He is, indeed, your life and salvation.
            You ask this question, too.  “Are you the One, Jesus, or shall we look for another?”  It’s not that you don’t believe.  Far from it.  It’s that you languish in the prison of this fallen flesh.  You know your sin.  You know your guilt.  You know your utter inability to free yourself from your sinful condition and work your way into God’s favor.  And in the end, you will die.  Death and taxes, as they say.  The evidence of the fall of all creation is all around us in corruption and decay.  So we need a word of hope.  We need a Gospel Word.  I AM.  I  am Jesus, YHWH saves.  You can die in confidence and peace, for the Name of Jesus is on you… You are baptized into Christ, and He is your life and salvation.
            What answer does Jesus give John’s disciples?  “Go and tell John what you hear and see” (Matt. 11:4).  What you hear comes first.  Go and tell John about the preaching.  Faith comes by hearing.  Jesus comes to preach the Kingdom of Heaven into your ears.  Then tell him what you see.  The actions of Jesus fulfill the Scriptures and confirm the preaching.  The blind receive their sight.  The lame walk.  Lepers are cleansed.  The deaf hear.  The dead are raised.  And the capstone of all the miracles: The poor have the good news, the Gospel, preached to them (v. 5).  Those languishing in sin and death and mired in the brokenness of this world hear a Word of hope.  Salvation has arrived.  The things Jesus does are the things spoken of by the prophets signaling the arrival of salvation.  Death itself is being reversed.  All that is broken is being restored.  Jesus has come, and He lives up to His Name.  The LORD saves.
            John is the messenger who prepares the way for our Lord’s arrival.  He is sent to point us always and only to Jesus.  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” he proclaims (3:2), as the people come to him to be baptized and confess their sins.  “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” he preaches (John 1:29), as his ministry comes to an end and our Lord’s begins.  John is not the Christ.  He is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, preaching in the place of emptiness and death.  John baptizes with water, but Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire.  John is Elijah who was to come (Matt. 11:14).  He is the last of the Old Testament prophets, and he witnesses the fulfillment of the prophecy.  From John we learn what it is we should look for in a preacher.  He is not a reed shaken by the wind, bending this way and that depending which way the wind blows.  In other words, he does not tickle fancies or scratch itching ears.  He does not preach what people want to hear.  He preaches what you need to hear.  He does not dress in soft clothing.  That is to say, he doesn’t preach for a paycheck.  He’s not in the ministry for his belly or to live in the lap of luxury.  On the contrary, a leather belt and camel’s hair are his raiment, and locusts and wild honey his meat.  Why, then, is he out there in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance?  Why is he in the dungeon awaiting execution for having preached the sanctity of marriage to the powers that be, King Herod and his illegitimate wife?  He is there because he was sent.  The love of Christ compels him.  He is given a Word to preach, and woe to him if he does not preach it.  But the preacher also needs the Gospel.  The preacher especially needs the Gospel.  Go and tell John what you hear and see.  Go and tell him the Scriptures are fulfilled.  The Savior comes.  He advents.  Jesus saves us from our sins. 
            And what is Jesus’ answer to you?  What is His answer to your question, “Are you the One, Jesus, or shall we look for salvation in someone or something else?”  His answer is the same as that which He gives to John.  What do you hear?  What do you see?  You hear the Scriptures.  You hear the preaching.  You hear that your sins are forgiven in the stead and by the command of Jesus.  You hear that He died for your sins on the cross.  You hear that He is risen from the dead and lives and reigns to all eternity with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and He is coming again to raise you out of death and give you eternal life.  In the hearing of this preaching, the Holy Spirit gives you faith to believe it.  And then you see the water of the font, and you know it is what Jesus promises, the washing away of your sin and your new birth in Him, the Name of God placed upon you making you God’s own child.  You see the bread and wine of the Supper, and you know they are what Jesus says of them, His true body and blood, given and shed on the cross for you, now placed in your mouth, for the forgiveness of your sins.  It is the manna that sustains you as you sojourn in this wilderness.  These things are miracles of God no less than those our Lord performed during His earthly ministry.  You who are blind to the things of God now see by the healing Word of Christ.  You who are lame in your spiritual impotence Jesus raises up unto love and good works.  You who are leprous with sin unto death have been cleansed and made whole.  Your deaf ears have been opened.  You’ve been raised from the dead already now spiritually, and on the Last Day in your body.  Indeed, you poor, you who have nothing in and of yourself with which to save yourself or earn God’s favor… you, who are enslaved to sin and death in your fallen flesh, and suffering in this fallen creation… you, who have no hope outside of Christ… you have the Good News, the Gospel, preached to you.  Jesus has come.  He is your Savior.  He forgives all your sins.  He loves you and makes you His own.  In Him, you have eternal life. 

            So to answer your question, “Are you the One, Jesus, or shall we look for another,” Jesus brings you to Church and gives you Himself.  He comes.  He advents, right here and right now, in His Word and Sacraments, for your salvation.  And since that is true… Since Jesus is your life, and that life cannot be taken from you, what can you suffer for the Name of Christ and His Gospel?  You can suffer all, even death, in confidence and peace, knowing Jesus will not forsake you.  You can speak the truth in love to a world that does not want to hear it.  You can suffer the scorn of family members and friends who can’t believe you hold on to this religion nonsense.  You can tell them Jesus loves them and invite them to your Church.  You can suffer fines.  You can have your business ripped out from under you, as our brothers and sisters in the marriage industry have had in recent times.  Much like St. John.  You can suffer imprisonment.  You can lose your head to be served up on a platter.  You can suffer the paradox of living in the reality of light and life in Jesus, even as you experience darkness and death in this world.  Because in the End, Jesus wins.  He’s already won in the cross and empty tomb.  Beloved, Jesus comes.  Joy is breaking through the gloom.  That is why the rose candle glows this morning, light piercing the violet of repentance.  Christmas is coming.  The Virgin conceives and the days are fulfilled.  The Table is set and the Feast is before you.  God in the flesh arrives.  He comes.  For you.  For the forgiveness of sins.  Blessed is the one who is not scandalized by Him.  And blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.  Hosanna in the highest.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.    

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Advent Midweek II: "Savior of the Nations, Come: The Announcement"

Advent Midweek II: “The Announcement”[1]

December 7, 2016
Text: Luke 1:26-38

            The announcement was impossible to believe, at least by the standard of human reason. By that standard, it is still impossible to believe, that a virgin should conceive and bear a Son, and that Son be God in human flesh, the Savior. It is the mystery of Christmas. Virgins don’t conceive, protests our reason. And for God to be a man is an unreasonable notion. Don’t take these two things for granted just because you are a Christian. Have you ever stopped to reflect on how impossible it is to believe this, how utterly unbelievable it is that a virgin conceives, and that the child she conceives is Almighty God? That the Creator of the universe is a blastocyst, an embryo, a fetus, a baby who is born and cries and pukes and soils His diapers? The mystery isn’t unbelief. The mystery is that anyone believes any of this at all.
            Yet this is what the angel preaches to St. Mary. The angel Gabriele announces to her that the Lord is with her, that she has found favor with God, that she would conceive and bear a Son and call His Name “Jesus.” This Son, preaches the angel, will be the King of Israel, the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of the Most High. Now Mary wonders aloud with the same question we all ponder: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (v. 24; ESV). And the angel answers: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (v. 35). Beloved in the Lord, as the angel speaks these words, the very Word of God, so it happens. The Word of God is performative. It accomplishes what it says. So as the angel speaks, so it is done. The Word enters Mary’s ear and is implanted in her womb. The Word becomes flesh and makes His dwelling among us. He is conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary. He is the Son of God from all eternity. He is Mary’s Son in time, conceived at the angel’s announcement, born in Bethlehem on Christmas Day.
            It is impossible for human reason to comprehend, unbelievable by our own reason or strength. But such is the case with everything God’s Word preaches. God created the whole universe in six days several thousand years ago, as the Bible says? Forget it, says our human reason. Much easier to believe this is all some cosmic accident that evolved over billions of years into what it is now. Miracles like the Flood and the deliverance of Noah on the ark, the plagues in Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, the day the Sun stood still, and all the other miracles of the Bible? Impossible, says our reason. There must be some rational explanation. Again, the virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus, His bodily resurrection from the dead? We can explain these away by showing that they are pious traditions and explanations of faith adopted by early Christians in their scientific ignorance. We are children of the Enlightenment, and we know better. So says human reason. Nor can reason accept the great miracles God performs among us today in His Church. A powerful Word of God proclaimed by preachers in the stead of Christ, Baptism actually washing away sin and making you God’s child, forgiveness from the pastor as from God Himself, bread and wine the true body and blood of Christ received in your mouth for your forgiveness? This is all just as unreasonable, unbelievable to human reason. And not one of us is capable of believing this on our own. What makes this difference? What brings us to reject our fallen human reason in favor of the Word and to say with St. Mary, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (v. 38)?
            The same impossible Word of God spoken to St. Mary is spoken to us. And the Word is powerful. It is full of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit’s vehicle, His means of conveying faith in Christ and new life to us. As the Word was preached into St. Mary’s ears so that it took root in her womb, so the Word is preached into our ears and takes root in our hearts. Faith is conceived, faith in the Word made flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ. And such faith believes the Word of God no matter how unreasonable, no matter how unbelievable, no matter how impossible. Faith clings to the Word, the Word preached, the Word made flesh. This faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit who declares to us in the Word: “The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid. You have found favor with God. Because Jesus has come, God in human flesh, the Son of Mary, the Son of God. And He has borne your sin all the way to the cross. He has suffered your punishment. He is risen from the dead. He has restored you to God. And He sends His Spirit through His Word so that you believe in Him and His sin atoning work and receive eternal life.” Impossible to believe by our own reason or strength. But it is all God’s work. With man it is impossible, but all things are possible with God (Matt. 19:26).
            So we cling to the angel’s announcement to Mary for our very salvation. The virgin did conceive and bear a Son, Jesus, who saves us from our sins. He is true God, begotten of the Father from all eternity. He is true man, born of the Virgin Mary. And He is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sin, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood, and by His innocent suffering and death. He has made me His own. All this He has done also for you and all people. All who believe in Him have eternal life. So we prepare this Advent for a robust and joyful celebration of our Savior’s birth on Christmas. Because the impossible has happened, the unbelievable, the unreasonable: God became a man, born of a virgin. God became a man for you and me. He is our Savior, Christ the Lord, and He has come to set us free. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] The theme and many of the points made in this sermon are taken from Savior of the Nations (St. Louis: Concordia, 2009).