Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Christmas Day

The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Day
December 25, 2017
Text: John 1:1-18

                        The good news of Christmas is that you don’t have to work your way up to God.  He comes down to you in the flesh.  He comes as a Baby, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.  He is God.  He is Man.  He is one with your flesh.  He comes to make His dwelling with you.  He comes to be present with you, and to be present for you.  Now, this is incredibly good news, because if you had to climb some sort of ladder up to God, you would never stop climbing.  No matter how high you got climbing the ladder of the Law, you would never reach the level of our holy and righteous God.  And every sin you commit, every impure thought, every lustful glance, every twinge of bitterness or hatred or greed, would knock you off the ladder.  And there would be no second chances.  There is no getting on the ladder again.  Sin disqualifies you.  Which means you are sunk from the beginning, because even before you’ve committed an actual sin, you have inherited the guilt of Adam.  You are born in sin, and in sin did your mother conceive you (Ps. 51:5).  That is the predicament of all humanity.  You are not worthy.  You are not good enough.  You cannot ascend to God by keeping His Law.  You will never reach Him that way.  So God comes to you in the humility of His only-begotten Son, wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger, because there is no room for Him in the inn (Luke 2:7).
            “In the beginning…” (John 1:1; ESV).  In our Holy Gospel, St. John takes us back to Genesis.  “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1).  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:1, 3).  It is this Word of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the eternal Son of God, who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (v. 14).  The Creator has come into His creation.  The Creator has come to make His dwelling in the midst of His creation, in the midst of His people, to tabernacle among them, to be one with them, to be one with you.  The Creator has come into your flesh to redeem you.  Because you could not ascend to Him, He has come down to you.  The Word, the Son of God, has come down to the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, to be a Son of Adam, to undo all that Adam did and all that you have done, and make Adam and you sons of God once again.
            And He comes right into the midst of your broken mess of a life.  He doesn’t wait for you to be good enough or clean enough.  He doesn’t wait for you to polish up your life so that you and He can live in the delusion that everything is just fine without Him.  He knows just how screwed up everything is, just how screwed up you are.  He knows about your unfaithfulness, the things you do and say and think in secret.  He knows your selfishness, your pride, your loose tongue, your wandering eye.  You can hide those sins from yourself, but you can’t hide them from Jesus.  The good news of Christmas is that He comes to you, not even in spite of those things, but because of them, to deal with them, to take them away from you, to take them upon Himself and bear them to the cross.  That is why He had to be born as a real Man, fully Man, really born of a woman, real flesh and blood.  So that He could stand in for you and take the corruption of your flesh upon Himself, and so that He, even though He is God, could die.  For you.  So that you, being man, can live.  In Him. 
            You see, He comes into your mess of a life as Life in the midst of death, as Light in the midst of darkness.  All life has its source in the speaking of God.  The Word that became flesh and dwelt among us, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (v. 4).  And the thing about this Life from Jesus Christ, which is the Light of men, is that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (v. 5).  Your darkness, your sin, your sadness, your suffering, your death, cannot overcome the Light and Life that Jesus brings.  Christ Jesus is risen from the dead.  And He will raise you.  You have eternal life.  What happens when Jesus comes to you is that His Life dispels your death, takes over, encompasses you.  His Light dispels your darkness, shines into every corner of your body and soul, your heart and your mind, and completely envelopes you.  In Christ, all your sin is gone.  In Christ, your death is done.  In Christ, all that is wrong is right.  In Christ, you are a child of the heavenly Father.  You are not worthy, but He is.  He is your worthiness.  You are not good, but He is.  He is your goodness.  He is your righteousness.  He is your holiness.  In Him, you stand before God as a son, to inherit the Kingdom with Christ.  All of this is yours, not by works, but by faith.  By believing in Him.  By receiving Him, receiving your Christmas gift from God, your heavenly Father.  “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (v. 12). 
            You receive Him on your head and in your ears and in your mouth.  Water, Word, bread and wine, the Body and Blood born of the Virgin Mary.  He comes to you still in the humility of the Means of Grace.  He comes to you still right in the midst of your broken mess of a life.  He comes for the broken.  He comes for sinners.  How many of our members stay away from Church, stay away from the Body and Blood of Jesus, because they think their lives are just too broken and messy for Him?  Dear brothers and sisters, this should not be.  If your life is broken and messy and you know it, come.  This Supper is for you.  It is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick (Luke 5:31).  Christmas is for broken people.  The Church is a hospital for sinners.  Christ comes to you here in the midst of your sickness and darkness and death.  To make you whole by His Life and Light.  That under these humble vessels you see His glory, “glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).  That from His fullness you receive grace upon grace (v. 16).
            And so we feast.  The Creator has come to rescue His creation.  He has come in the flesh to redeem our flesh.  Christ is our Immanuel, God with us.  And He is our Light and our Life.  Joy to the world, the Lord has come.  Now sing we, now rejoice, with heart and soul and voice, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, over what our God has done.  God is a Man.  And in Him we are all made sons of God.  Merry Christmas!  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.           

Fourth Sunday in Advent

Fourth Sunday in Advent (B)
December 24, 2017
Text: Luke 1:26-38

            Lutherans have an irrational fear of Mary.  Luther himself didn’t.  Neither did the early Lutheran fathers.  And most importantly, Jesus didn’t.  She’s His mom.  That ought to give her some credit with you.  I suspect it’s a particularly American Lutheran problem.  To be frank, it’s probably a part of the whole “That’s too Catholic!” phobia, which is a ridiculous argument about anything, and I’m telling you right now, if that’s ever your argument, you’re gonna have to do a lot better than that to convince me.  The Roman Catholics do a lot of great things that we also do, like reading from the Bible and praying just to name a couple, and as I’ve told you before, don’t let Rome have all the good stuff just because you have some phobia of being “too Catholic.”  It’s silly.
            There are, of course, any number of things we reject in Roman doctrine and practice, and Mary is often at the epicenter.  We should mention these as things we do not do or believe with regard to Mary.  We do not worship her.  We do not pray to her.  We have no Scriptural command to pray to her, nor any indication from the Scriptures that she could hear us if we do, or could help us if she hears us.  She does pray for us, as do all the saints in heaven, but whether she’s aware of what’s happening to us here, we don’t know.  Probably not.  The cult of Mary grew up around this idea that her Son, Jesus, is a stern Judge who doesn’t really like us and wants us all to go to hell.  That’s not the real Jesus, but that was how He was often portrayed in the Middle Ages.  As a result, it was taught that if you want to get on Jesus’ good side, you ask for Mary’s help.  After all, what’s He going to say to His mother?  You get her, the softer, more loving one, on your side, and you’ll have Jesus on your side.  So people began to invoke her.  Slowly she came to be regarded as “coredemptrix,” our redeemer along with Jesus, which is frankly more than a little blasphemous.  It was said that she was conceived without sin to explain how Jesus was conceived and born sinless.  That’s what the teaching on the immaculate conception refers to… It’s not about Jesus, it’s about Mary.  But it doesn’t really solve the problem.  It just backs it up a generation.  Nor do we believe that Mary was sinless.  The Scriptures are pretty clear.  She was a sinner like us.  She didn’t always believe in her Son.  She didn’t understand when He was twelve years old that He must be about His Father’s business (Luke 2:49).  When He was older and causing significant embarrassment to His family, she went with His brothers to get Him and bring Him home like someone who was insane (Mark 3:21, 31).  She isn’t perfect.  She has her faults.  It was also taught that Mary was immediately raised after her death, and bodily assumed into heaven, which is where you get the idea of the Assumption of Mary.  There are other things we could mention, but these are the main ones, and clearly these things we reject and condemn as false and dangerous teaching. 
            But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.  If the Romans err by giving Mary too much credit, the Lutherans fall off the horse on the other side.  Mary is the main saint.  She is the main saint, not because she’s somehow less sinful than the rest of us, but because She is favored by God, and the Lord is with her (Luke 1:28).  The word “favored” in our text comes from the Greek for one who has received grace from God.  You’ve heard the Romans translate it as “Mary, full of grace.”  It’s not her grace, it’s the grace of God.  That’s why she’s the main saint. 
            That, and because of what happens next, and how she responds to it.  She’s troubled at the appearance of the angel and this strange greeting, as anyone would be.  But the angel preaches the Gospel to her.  The word “angel” means “messenger,” and here Gabriel is doing the angel thing for which he’s been created.  He preaches that Mary need not be afraid, for she’s found favor, she’s been graced by God, and now she’s going to have a Son.  But not just any son.  THE Son.  Mary is the mother every Jewish woman since Eve has longed to be.  Her Son is the promised Messiah.  And more.  He’s the Son of God.  No human father will be involved in this conception.  God is His Father.  The eternally begotten Son of the Father, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, will be born of her.  In time.  In the flesh.  The promised Son of David, to establish the davidic throne forever. 
            Mary naturally wonders how this is going to happen.  After all, and for the record, she is a virgin (v. 34).  She may be young, but her mother taught her how this works.  But with Mary, it will be different.  Remember all those women who were barren in the Old Testament, but were promised a son and miraculously conceived?  All three of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob married barren women.  Sarah conceived when she was 90 years old and Abraham was 100!  Rebecca was barren at first, but miraculously gave birth to twins, Jacob and Esau.  Both Leah and Rachel (especially Rachel) had their troubles with barrenness, but the LORD gave them both sons of their own.  Remember Hannah, who was very much like Mary, praying for a son at the Tabernacle, and Eli the priest thought she was drunk because her mouth moved but no sound came out with her tears as she prayed fervently?  God gave her as a son the great Prophet Samuel, whom she gave into the service of the Lord.  Finally, recall Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, who in her old age has conceived a son, St. John the Baptist.  Mary would visit her over the next three months to help with John’s birth.  All of these women were types of the blessed virgin Mary.  If their pregnancies were miraculous, and they were, at least they involved a human father.  Not Mary.  This is how it happened for Mary.  The Holy Spirit came upon her in the angel’s preaching.  The power of the Most High overshadowed her as she heard the Gospel.  The Word of God entered her ear and took root in her womb.  “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14; ESV).  Nothing shall be impossible with God (Luke 1:37).  Not a virgin birth.  Not God born a man.  Not the salvation of sinners in the death and resurrection of this God born a man, Jesus Christ, our Lord. 
            And how does Mary respond?  She believes it!  And this is almost as great a miracle as the virgin birth itself.  This is why she’s the main saint.  She teaches us what it is to be a Christian.  She teaches us what it is to be the Church.  It means to believe the Word of the Lord, no matter how impossible.  “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; may it be to me according to your word” (v. 38).  Those are incredible words of faith.  That is the posture we take toward our God.  We are His servants.  May it be to us according to His Word.  And what happened to Mary happens to us.  The Holy Spirit comes upon us in the preaching of the Gospel.  The Word of God enters our ear and takes deep root in our hearts.  Jesus is conceived in us.  He is with us and in us.  And we are highly favored, graced, by God.  We need not fear.  The Savior comes to us.  Our sins are forgiven. 
            St. Mary should be highly honored among us because she is Theotokos, the Mother of God, our Lord Jesus Christ.  She is the mother of Jesus, and as we are baptized into Jesus and made one with Jesus, she is the mother of us all.  She is the model of faith.  She is the model of the Church.  The Church is the mother who gives birth to us by giving birth to Jesus in us by Baptism and preaching.  She is the mother who feeds us and nurtures us with Jesus in the Supper.  The Church is a picture of Mary.  Mary is a picture of the Church.  We honor Mary and we honor the Church because she brings us Jesus.  For in the end, it’s all about Jesus.  Not Mary.  Her last recorded words in Scripture are these, and they refer us to her Son: “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5).  She always points us to Jesus.  She doesn’t want the attention.  She wants us to hear and believe in her Son.  We honor Mary, not for Mary’s sake, but for Jesus’ sake. 
            For Jesus is the One we worship and to and through whom we pray.  He hears us and He answers us.  He is not angry with us.  He does not long to damn us.  He is our one and only Redeemer from sin, death, and the devil.  He came for us.  He gave Himself for us.  He died for us on the cross.  He is risen and lives and reigns for us.  He loves us and wants us for His own.  He is the only mediator we need.  He alone is sinless, and He takes away our sins.  He sits in heaven at the right hand of the Father in His body, and He rules all things for the good of His people.  Tonight begins the celebration of His holy Nativity, His birth of the Virgin Mary.  We’ll hear a lot about Mary tonight and in the coming days of Christmas (there are Twelve of them, after all!).  But in hearing of Mary, we’ll hear the voice of Jesus.  Don’t shy away from her, Lutherans!  She’s beautiful.  She’s beautiful in her faith.  She’s beautiful in her bringing us Jesus. 

            It’s almost Christmas.  Just a few more hours.  You can almost hear the angels singing.  We can hardly contain our joy.  This morning St. Mary gives us our final Advent instructions, the last few moments of Advent preparation.  We are the Lord’s servants.  May it be to us according to His Word.  That is the posture of the Church.  That is the posture of faith.  That is the posture that receives Christ and His eternal salvation.  Merry Advent, beloved!  Rejoice!  Emmanuel comes.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.           

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Third Sunday in Advent/ Advent Midweek III

Third Sunday in Advent (B)
December 17, 2017
Text: John 1:6-8, 19-28

            Well, it’s no secret that I’m not always a fan of the CPH bulletin cover art.  Perhaps I’ve been a little critical in the past.  And so, when they get it right, we really ought to talk about it for a minute.  Take it out and look at the thing, if you will.  There he is, St. John the Baptist.  This isn’t the usual kitsch or the ambiguously “inspirational” picture to which we’ve been accustomed.  This is sublime art of the highest order.  Perhaps you even recognize it.  This is what’s left of the mosaic from the great Hagia Sophia, the ancient cathedral in Byzantium, or modern day Istanbul.  This is what has survived the ages and the violence.  I wish they would have shown more, but I won’t complain.  To your left, where the picture is cut off, you would see that St. John is bowing to a Jesus who is fully in control of the situation.  Our Lord holds in His left hand the Book of Life, and His right hand is lifted in the traditional posture of benediction, blessing St. John and us.  This is worth a Google when you get home.  It’s tremendous.  This is the surpassing value of art that preaches. Remember that when we start planning a building.  No kitsch.  Real, sublime, theological art.    
            Well, CPH gives us the St. John part of the picture, and it’s worth a thousand words, but I’ll only give you a couple hundred.  Look at his face.  It is downcast.  So much for Christianity being all smiles and kittens unicorns.  You’re just going to have to get over this idea that Christians are never sad, that they don’t suffer greatly, and should always be smiling.  It’s fake.  Knock it off.  John isn’t smiling.  You wouldn’t be either, if you’d suffered what he’s suffered for the sake of Jesus.  An ascetic life in the wilderness.  Rough clothing.  Only locusts dipped in honey to quell the hunger pangs, honey which he undoubtedly acquired with many stings.  Everyone who’s anyone is questioning his authority to do what he’s doing, baptizing and preaching.  The ruler’s wife, Herodias, is out to get him.  Herod puts him in the dungeon.  And then as a reward for his step-daughter’s lewd dance, Herod cuts off John’s head and serves it up on a platter.  So you’ll excuse John if he isn’t all handshakes and grins.  But notice at least two things about him.  His eyes, though sad, are intensely focused on Jesus, who is blessing him.  And his hand is pointing us to Jesus who holds the Book of Life.  That is John’s preaching office in a nutshell.  Fixed on Jesus.  Always pointing us to Jesus, to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  And the halo?  That indicates not that he’s sinless or some silliness like that.  That indicates that he has the righteousness of Jesus Christ by faith.  He has the Spirit, who enlightens him and gives him faith.  Jesus has a halo, too, in the picture, and His is more glorious than John’s, which is absolutely right.  The halos of the saints in Christian art are always a reflection of Jesus’ halo, Jesus’ righteousness.  They are saints because of Jesus. 
            John points to Jesus.  Always.  That is his Office.  He’d be horrified to know that he’s on the bulletin cover and Jesus is cut off.  Well, he’s just gonna have to get over it this time.  But we learn from St. John what it means to be a preacher of Jesus Christ.  John is always insisting that he is nobody, and redirecting us to Christ, who is everything.  Here the Pharisees are asking on behalf of the Jerusalem bureaucracy just who John thinks he is, and he confesses… he does not deny it, but confesses (notice the emphasis in our text), “I am not the Christ” (John 1:20; ESV).  He is not the Light.  His job is to bear witness about the Light, about Jesus.  He insists, “I’m nobody!  I’m not even the Elijah who is to come first!”  Well, he is.  Jesus says he is (Matt. 11:14), but in his great humility, John is guarding against the misunderstanding on the part of the Jews who thought Elijah was going to return from the heavens on the chariots of fire as a clear, visible indication that Messiah had arrived.  It didn’t quite happen that way.  Nonetheless, John is the guy.  He looks like Elijah.  He does what Elijah does.  He preaches.  He calls to repentance.  He calls to faith.  But he claims nothing for himself.  “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie His sandal.”  That’s saying something.  With all the “stuff” people walked through on the streets in those days, only a slave was ever made to touch the sandal straps.  It was an indignity, and it was gross.  John says he’s not even worthy to be Jesus’ slave.  That’s the attitude a preacher ought to have and what he ought to say.  I am nothing.  Jesus is everything.  He takes away your sins. 
            It’s a great temptation, though, for pastors to think a lot of themselves.  It’s pretty heady stuff to speak for Almighty God and forgive people’s sins, give them Jesus to eat and drink, bring Jesus to their bedside when they’re sick or when they’re in distress, be with them in their greatest triumphs and their greatest sorrows, be the first one they call when they’re in the hospital or when there’s been a death.  I’ve told you some of the downsides about being a pastor, but it’s also true it can make a man feel pretty big for his britches.  All the nice comments people make and their expressions of love and gratitude.  It’s so important for a preacher to keep in mind that, while certainly your love for the preacher is genuine and I thank God for that, it’s really Jesus you’re clinging to.  And that’s absolutely right.  You really don’t need me, you need Jesus.  And you get Him through the Office I happen to fill in this place at the moment, the Office established by Jesus to bring you Jesus.  It’s Jesus you want at your bedside, with His Word and body and blood.  When you call in the middle of the night, it’s really Jesus’ Word you want to hear.  You want Jesus there for your greatest triumphs and your greatest sorrows, when you’re sick or despairing, and especially in the hour of death.
            This is a good test for your parish pastor, and really for anyone who comes to you in the Name of Jesus, claiming to speak for Him.  I’m thinking here particularly about the preachers you watch on television or whose books you insist on buying from the Christian bookstore.  Is the preacher magnifying himself?  Or is he magnifying Jesus?  Who do you hear in the preaching?  The preacher?  Or Jesus… the Word of Jesus?  Who is increasing, and who is decreasing?  Jesus must increase before the ears of the hearers.  The preacher should fade into the background and disappear under the vestments.  John does that.  He disappears under the camels’ hair and fades into the background behind death’s dark veil.  He decreases, but he rejoices in it, because in this way, Christ is magnified.  And now we can’t see John.  We can see somebody’s best guess at what he looked like on our bulletin cover, but we can’t see the man.  He’s in heaven with Jesus, awaiting the resurrection of his body, complete with fully attached head.  But we do hear his preaching still.  His flesh has faded like grass, but the Word of our God endures forever.  We hear John’s Advent cry: “Make straight the way of the Lord” (John 1:23).  “Prepare!  Repent.  Believe.  Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” 
            And now we learn from St. John the posture of the Church and the posture of the Christian, you.  The picture on the front of the bulletin is of you, beloved.  St. John is every Christian.  There you are under whatever crosses your Father has designed just for you to bear, for your good, to be sure, but they hurt.  There you are in the wilderness, in the dungeon, in the execution chamber.  And while there is great joy in being a Christian, and you do often smile and should rejoice always, it’s not all a bed of roses.  You also weep.  Your shoulders are often heavy.  You are often bowed down under the weight of your suffering and, frankly, the weight of your sin.  But your eyes are firmly fixed on Jesus Christ, your Savior, whose pierced hand is raised in blessing over you.  Your name is written in the Book of Life, because His Name is written on you in Holy Baptism.  There is a halo over your head, not because you’re so great, but because Jesus is.  Your halo is a reflection of His.  His righteousness is your righteousness.  His holiness is your holiness.  You are a saint because Jesus is holy and perfect, and that counts for you.  His death on the cross is your death.  His resurrection is your resurrection, spiritually now, and bodily on the Last Day.  His life is your life.  And you, like St. John, in this time in between, the Already/Not Yet of resurrection victory in Christ, are a witness to the Light.  Your hand is always pointing to Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  You are given to do this for your family and friends and neighbors.  You are given to always be pointing them to the Crucified, to the Lord who loves them and gave His life for them and lives for them.  You are always decreasing that He might increase.  You are always bearing His Name, “Christian,” perhaps even wearing Him around your neck, speaking of Him, calling upon Him in every need, praising and thanking Him, and loving your neighbor out of love for Him.  That is the Christian life, pictured right here in the face of St. John. 

            Now, one easy way to do this for your neighbor, to bear witness about the Light, may be to pull out your phone and Google this image and show it to your neighbor.  And explain what it is and what it means.  In any case, go look at it yourself, and believe the preaching.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.      

Advent Midweek III
Prophetic Preaching of Preparation: Comfort for God’s People from the Prophet Isaiah
“The Poor Have the Good News Preached to Them”
December 20, 2017
Text: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

            Luther called it “The Happy Exchange,” that which takes place between you and your Lord Jesus.  He takes all of your sin and death and condemnation into Himself.  In exchange, He gives you all of His righteousness and life and eternal blessedness.  St. Paul put it this way: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21; ESV).  All that we are and have as fallen, sinful, dying and dead human beings, Jesus takes upon Himself.  And all that He is and has as the one and only sinless and perfect human being, born of the Virgin Mary, who is also true God, eternally begotten of the Father, becomes ours.  The exchange takes place in Holy Baptism: His Baptism into us in the Jordan River, our Baptism into Him at the Font.  And we receive all the benefits of this exchange by faith, which is given us by the Holy Spirit at Baptism and in the Word, and nourished by the Word and by the Supper.  A truly “happy” exchange, indeed, happy for us, for by it, we obtain all that we have not earned, but that Christ has earned for us by taking what our sins have earned upon Himself and suffering it on the cross. 
            Now, imagine, if you will, a poor beggar on the street, without a penny to his name, no place to lay his head, clothed in rags, stomach distended by hunger, hoping and praying the strangers walking by will cast a few unwanted coins into his cup.  Now imagine a rich man walking by sees the poor beggar, and he stops and lifts the beggar to his feet and looks into his eyes.  The rich man doesn’t put any coins, or any money at all, into the beggar’s cup.  Instead, he tells the beggar some good news.  He is transferring his entire bank account to the beggar, giving him his house and his pantry full of food, clothing him in his own clothes, and signing over his business.  This is to take the beggar’s life and give him a whole new life in exchange.  And as ridiculous as that sounds, it gets more ridiculous yet.  The rich man will take the beggar’s bedraggled clothing and his cup and sit on his street corner and become the beggar.  Because in this way the beggar can become the rich man. 
            This is really an unbelievable illustration, I realize.  And yet this story gives you only the faintest infinitesimal fraction of and inkling of the true story of God’s coming down into your flesh to exchange everything that is His for all that is yours.  It’s pretty good news, yes?!  Indeed, this is what the Prophet Isaiah means when he says, “The Spirit of the LORD GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Is. 61:1).  The good news is that in the coming of Jesus Christ, everything is turned on its head.  The brokenhearted are bound up, the captives set at liberty, the prisoners freed.  Those who mourn are comforted, sinners are declared righteous, the ancient ruins are raised up, and the devastations repaired.  This great reversal, all that is wrong made right, comes as a result of this happy exchange.  It is fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
            Isaiah intensifies the image of this Good News even more.  He says that what happens when God comes down to make the happy exchange is actually a wedding.  Christ is the Bridegroom.  The Church, the soul, the Bride.  And the first thing the Bridegroom does for His Bride is to clothe her in splendor.  Now, if you’ve read Isaiah, and you’ve followed him through the first sixty chapters, you know that Israel, Judah, the Church is anything but clothed in splendor.  She is a mess.  Full of sin and idolatry and rejection of her God.  It’s the same old story over and over again.  The whoring after other gods.  The fear, love, and trust of all that is not God.  The whole Old Testament is the story of God’s chosen people rejecting Him, suffering for it, repenting and receiving rescue, and then repeating the whole process over again.  It’s your story, too.  It’s the story of all humanity, of every sinner. 
            Jesus is the only One who gets this right.  He never sins.  He never rejects His Father.  He never bows the knee to another deity.  Therefore He is completely righteous.  What He does when He comes to His Bride is that He clothes her in His own spotless garment.  And He takes her tattered robes caked in filth and puts them on Himself.  That’s the exchange.  And He puts what is ours to death in His body, and when He rises from the dead, He is clothed in resplendent glory.  Look at what Isaiah says: “he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, as a bride adorns herself with jewels” (v. 10).  This is probably the passage St. Paul has in mind when he says that Christian husbands and wives are the picture of Christ and His Bride, the Church, and when he says that husbands are to love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:25-27).  This, by the way, is why every Christian bride has the right to wear white on her wedding day, despite any mistakes she may have made.  It’s blasphemy against the blood of Jesus Christ, that old tradition of shaming women who have sinned sexually by making them wear some other color.  Not to mention that it singles her out when it takes two to tango, as they say.  Now, I’m against fornication, of course.  Don’t do it.  And if you do, stop it.  Now.  But you have to understand that, when it comes to our own holiness, none of us could wear white.  Ever.  But when our Lord Christ undertakes this happy exchange, all of our impurity and filth is gone forever.  And what is left behind is His own beautiful, resplendent white gown of righteousness.  That is why we often clothe babies in white robes when they are baptized.  That is why the acolyte and the elder wear white when they serve at the altar, and why the pastor is covered by an alb, which is simply the baptismal gown that all the baptized can wear.  It represents Christ's righteousness which is given at the font.  St. Paul says that “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27).  You wear Him as a garment.  He is your spotless wedding gown. 
            Luther makes a lot of hay out of this image.  In his marvelous little book, The Freedom of a Christian (which you all should read), he talks about this happy exchange.  It’s worth quoting him at length:
            “The third incomparable benefit of faith”… Obviously there more incomparable benefits of faith, but you’re going to have to read it for yourself to find out what they are… “The third incomparable benefit of faith is that it unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom.  By this mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul become one flesh [Eph. 5:31-32].  And if they are one flesh and there is between them a true marriage—indeed the most perfect of all marriages, since human marriages are but poor examples of this one true marriage—it follows that everything they have they hold in common, the good as well as the evil.  Accordingly the believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as though it were its own, and whatever the soul has Christ claims as his own… Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation.  The soul is full of sins, death, and damnation.  Now let faith come between them and sins, death, and damnation will be Christ’s, while grace, life, and salvation will be the soul’s; for if Christ is a bridegroom, he must take upon himself the things which are his bride’s and bestow upon her the things that are his.  If he gives her his body and very self, how shall he not give her all that is his?  And if he takes the body of the bride, how shall he not take all that is hers? 
            “Here we have a most pleasing vision not only of communion but of a blessed struggle and victory and salvation and redemption.  Christ is God and man in one person.  He has neither sinned nor died, and is not condemned, and he cannot sin, die, or be condemned; his righteousness, life, and salvation are unconquerable, eternal, omnipotent.  By the wedding ring of faith he shares in the sins, death, and pains of hell which are his bride’s.  As a matter of fact, he makes them his own and acts as if they were his own and as if he himself had sinned; he suffered, died, and descended into hell that he might overcome them all.  Now since it was such a one who did all this, and death and hell could not swallow him up, these were necessarily swallowed up by him in a mighty duel; for his righteousness is greater than the sins of all men, his life stronger than death, his salvation more invincible than hell.  Thus the believing soul by means of the pledge of its faith is free in Christ, its bridegroom, free from all sins, secure against death and hell, and is endowed with the eternal righteousness, life, and salvation of Christ its bridegroom.  So he takes to himself a glorious bride, ‘without spot or wrinkle, cleansing her by the washing of water with the word’ [Cf. Eph. 5:26-27] of life, that is, by faith in the Word of life, righteousness, and salvation.  In this way he marries her in faith, steadfast love, and in mercies, righteousness, and justice...”[1]  Thus far Luther.
            So what does this mean?  It means that when God looks at you, He sees no sin or unrighteousness, but only the perfect righteousness, innocence, and holiness of His Son, Jesus.  And it’s not as though this is just God pretending that you are righteous.  In our Lord’s undertaking this happy exchange, all that is His is really and truly yours.  And that is Good News, indeed!  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.         

[1] LW 31:351-52.     

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Advent Midweek II

Advent Midweek II
Prophetic Preaching of Preparation: Comfort for God’s People from the Prophet Isaiah
“Comfort, Comfort My People”
December 13, 2017
Text: Isaiah 40:1-11

            On Sunday we heard that God does His Gospeling by sending a preacher.  He sends a voice to cry in the wilderness.  This evening we learn more about the content of the preaching.  God gives the preacher the Word he is to speak in God’s Name.  It is beautiful Gospel that the LORD comes to His people with reward for His own and recompense for His enemies.  It is the Good News that God Himself will tend His flock as our Good Shepherd.  And of course, this is what He does in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ.
            But the preacher is not to preach only Gospel (in the narrow sense).  He is also to preach God’s holy Law in service to the Gospel and as preparation for it.  And why?  Why the Law?  Because apart from the Law we do not know our sin.  We do not see that we are separated from our righteous and holy God by our transgressions and unbelief.  We do not see that we are dead in our trespasses and sins, hell-bound slaves of the devil apart from Christ.  God must show us how utterly helpless and weak and mortally diseased we are before we will submit to His cure.  For His cure is radical and terrifying.  It is nothing less than death and resurrection.  It is first Jesus’ death on the cross for your sins, and His resurrection as the everlasting Righteous One who is now your righteousness before the Father.  And then it is your death with Christ in Holy Baptism, the drowning of your Old Adam, the crucifixion of your sinful nature, and your resurrection to new life in Him.  It is Good Friday and Easter.  It is repentance and faith.  It is Confession and Absolution.  It is living now as though dead, knowing when you die, in reality and truth, you live.  It is seeing only death and decay around you, but believing the Lord’s Promise that in the end He will raise you and all people, and give eternal life to you and all believers in Christ.  That is the pattern of the Christian life of faith.  That is Law and Gospel. 
            And the Law is necessary.  It must come first.  You wouldn’t let a man like Dr. White cut you open with a scalpel unless he had first given you a diagnosis exposing your disease, and shown you that by wounding you he can heal you.  Well, God is out to kill you.  That is what He does by His Law.  And this is why preachers get in all sorts of trouble, because God throws the preacher under the buss as the one who has to speak His message.  For some of us, it’s not so bad usually (though I could tell you stories), but just ask Jeremiah or John the Baptist and the rest of the prophets, including Isaiah himself, or Jesus for that matter.  Sinners see the preacher coming at them with the scalpel of the Law and it becomes a matter of self-preservation to them.  Kill or be killed.  They take their fear of God’s Law and their hatred for God out on the poor schmuck who ignorantly signed up for this job, or in many cases resisted it with all his might, and in every case was called and sent by God Himself to do it, and to suffer for it. 
            The surgeon’s scalpel is a good image for God’s Law.  It can wound and it can kill.  A man can wield it for good or ill.  It’s not the scalpel’s fault when it is abused, it is the man’s.  It will always hurt.  Nobody likes to go under the blade.  Even when we know it is necessary for our health and life.  In the case of God’s Law, the purpose is not simply to wound you, but to kill you.  Always.  The Law always kills.  But it’s not a bad thing.  No, the Law is God’s holy will for you.  How could that be bad?  The Law of God is good and wise.  It’s just that you can’t do it.  You can’t fulfill it.  And so that which is good and wise and promises life to the doer of it, ends up exposing your evil and foolishness and so condemns you to death.  The Law shows you your sin.  The Law always accuses.  The Law always delivers the verdict that you are guilty before God in light of His Commandments.  The Law always sentences you to eternal death in hell. 
            Now, if you hear that message from God, and you know it and believe it, you’re desperately ready for another message, another Word.  And that is what God gives you in the Gospel.  “Comfort, comfort my people,” He commands the preacher (Is. 40:1; ESV).  “Tell them I’m not at war with them anymore.  I’m not out to get them.  Their iniquity is forgiven.  For I send them my Son, Jesus.  He will be one with them, taking on their flesh, and He will heal their diseases, cast out their demons, and preach peace to them.  And He will take their iniquities into Himself and put them to death in His own flesh.  And I will raise Him from the dead, but their iniquities,” your iniquities, “will never rise to haunt them again.  My Son will be their Shepherd.  He will carry them forever.  I am the LORD, and I have spoken it.  Go, preacher, and preach!”  That is the Gospel.  And had you not heard the Law, you would never know just how good that Good News is.  It is life for the dead!  And when you hear it, it creates faith in you.  It is the vehicle of the Holy Spirit by which He brings you to know and believe in Jesus Christ for your eternal life and salvation. 
            Now, what is the Law in our text?  To begin with, there is this idea of recompense (v. 10), which would be primarily directed at Assyria, and especially Babylon, and the nations God has used to discipline His people Israel.  When God delivers, He will smite His enemies, there is no doubt about it.  That is Good News for Israel, but Law for the other nations. 
            But the one that hits us most directly is the reality that “All flesh is grass” (v. 6).  And grass withers.  In other words, you’re gonna die.  And the preacher, the voice, is told to cry that to you.  Your beauty is fading.  The Law is exposing your ugliness.  You’re getting old.  You get sick.  Life in a fallen world takes its toll.  This, in itself, is the Law of God.  And the breath of the LORD blows upon you (v. 7).  His Law is preached, and you know it.  You’re dying.  It kills you.  But that’s good, because here is the Gospel, the Promise: “the Word of our God will stand forever” (v. 8).  And that Word is life to you.  So as long as the Word endures, so will you.  You have eternal life by God’s speaking it so. 
            Then there is the Law of admonition: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (v. 3).  That is to say, repent.  The preaching of repentance is Law.  And here’s the thing: “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain” (v. 4).  We could call it “The Great Straightening Out.”  Your parents probably told you, or maybe you’ve said it to your own children, “Straighten up!”  By which you meant, “Repent!  Knock it off, what you’re doing, and behave yourself!”  Well, the point here is, what is low will be lifted up and what is high will be knocked down.  You can either humble yourself, so that God will lift you, or God will knock you off your high horse with His Law.  And whatever is bumpy or crooked will be straightened.  So take a look at yourself in the mirror of God’s Law.  What is bumpy?  What is crooked?  What isn’t right?  Confess it.  And straighten up.  The Lord is coming.  He is coming to rule.  He’s coming to judge.  Prepare by repenting.  Prepare by being good and dead so that He can raise you up. 
            And He will.  He does.  He forgives your sins for Christ’s sake.  He gives you new birth in Holy Baptism and upholds you life by His Word, by His preaching, by sending the preacher.  He sustains that life by feeding you His body and blood.  In this way, He Himself tends you as your Shepherd.  He heals you and He carries you.  That is the Gospel,  And now you, O Church of God, Zion, herald of good news, Jerusalem, herald of good news, you have a message to speak.  He sends you to lift up your voice and proclaim it to the world.  “Behold your God!” He says.  He tells you to tell them.  And He’s talking about Jesus.  You point to Jesus and say, “Behold your God!”  And the Word does what He sends it to do.  That’s why He sends it.  He sends a preacher to preach to you, to kill you with the Law and make you alive with the Gospel, to comfort you.  And then He sends you out to speak it to others and bring them here to hear the preaching.  God be praised, He does not leave our ears stopped up with death.  He speaks.  And you live.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.   

Monday, December 11, 2017

Second Sunday in Advent

Second Sunday in Advent (B)
December 10, 2017
Text: Mark 1:1-8

            “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1; ESV).  Quite an introductory sentence to the shortest of the four Gospels.  Really, it’s the title of St. Mark’s book.  But it also serves as the thematic statement for Mark’s Gospel as a whole, and our text in particular.  Mark gets right to it.  He tells us what the Gospel is and how it is delivered.  It is the coming of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in the flesh, in fulfillment of the whole Old Testament.  This is the One we’ve been waiting for, the Messiah who comes to save us.  And now this is what happens as a result, in order to bring that Gospel to the people: God sends a preacher.  He sends His prophet, his man, St. John the Baptist, the voice.  He sends him out into the wilderness, the place of nothingness and lifelessness, aside from the wild beasts… a place the people believed to be a haunt of demons.  It is just to that place that God sends His preacher.  To do what?  To cry: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (v. 3).  The Christ is coming.  Repent of your sins.  Turn from them.  Give them up.  Return to the LORD your God, and to His Messiah, His Son.  Believe the Good News.  (The word “Gospel” means “good news,” or “good tidings,” like a herald announcing the visit of a king or a great victory over the enemy.)  John preaches repentance and faith in the empty wasteland of beasts and demons.  And there he stands, in the dirty, stinking Jordan River, pouring water all over sinners, washing away, not the dirt of the body, but the defilement of the soul and the body, sin.  His baptism is for repentance and the forgiveness of sins, and the people come out to him there, in the middle of nowhere, confessing their sins, being washed, forgiven, and set free.
            That’s the Gospel happening, the life-giving Gospel blooming in the desert, putting demons to flight, making saints out of sinners, Christians out of brute beasts.  Do you see what this means?  The nature of the Gospel, the good news that God is reconciled to sinners in the coming of Jesus and His death and resurrection, that all our sins are forgiven… the nature of this Gospel is that it be proclaimed.  It’s right there in the definition of the word Gospel: Good news, good tidings, to be told.  And so, when God does His Gospel, He sends a preacher.  They’re not always much to look at, these preachers.  St. John was clothed in a leather belt and a camels’ hair suit.  It was weird even then.  They’re sometimes socially awkward and their behavior can be off-putting.  St. John lived as a hermit in the wilderness, ate locusts caught with his own hands, and raided bees’ nests for the wild honey.  He was rather blunt in his speech.  He didn’t beat around the bush.  He called sinners out for their sin.  And he was pretty specific.  Painfully so.  “You there, stop being so greedy.   Share what you have.  You tax collectors, stop stealing from the people.  You soldiers, stop bullying people and extorting money.  Be content with your wages, with the provision God has given to you.  And you, Herod… It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.  Thou shalt not commit adultery.  You are not your own.  Your body is not your own to do with as you please.  And Herodias is not your wife.  She is Philip’s.  Repent” (Cf. Luke 3).  It would get him beheaded.
            No, John was not a people-pleaser.  Can you imagine the trouble he’d get into if he pastored a congregation in the Missouri Synod?  But this is what God does when He sends His man: He calls sinners to repentance and faith.  He sends a voice to preach, hands to baptize, ears to hear confession, a voice to absolve.  But the man is nothing.  In the end, he’s expendable.  Even St. John.  It is God who does the Gospeling.  It is God who preaches, baptizes, and absolves.  It is God who feeds with better fare than locusts and wild honey, who clothes with better than camels’ hair and leather.  When God sends a preacher, it is God Himself who comes into the wilderness.  And when you hear a preacher preaching repentance and faith, you hear the voice of the living God.
            And that means when a preacher declares your sins forgiven, they really are forgiven before God in heaven, for it is God who has done the forgiving… not the man in the strange outfit.  The man is clothed in an office.  St. John was dressed remarkably like Elijah!  He was clothed in the mantle of a prophet.  This was to decrease John, and magnify the Christ he proclaimed.  Your pastor is dressed remarkably like the clergy have dressed since Roman times.  He is clothed in the mantle of the Public Preaching Office.  This is to decrease him, and magnify the Christ he proclaims, nay, the Christ who speaks, directly, to you in His holy Word, and who washes you in Baptism, forgives your sins and clothes you in His own righteousness in the Holy Absolution, and feeds you with Himself, His body and blood, crucified and risen, in the Holy Supper.  That is God doing His Gospel to you. 
            And He does it right here in the wilderness, doesn’t He?  You do realize, don’t you, that we live in a wilderness even more lifeless and full of nothing but wild beasts and demons than St. John did?  For all of our shopping malls, restaurants, and big box stores, we really live in no-man’s land.  None of the stuff money can buy fills us.  None of it satisfies us or makes us happy.  Remember that when it comes time to open presents at the end of the month.  It’s great and all, but it doesn’t add to you and it won’t make you happy.  (Truth be told, you’ll probably take it back to the store.)  In many and various ways, Christmas has become for us one giant exercise in hedonism and selling ourselves to other gods for nothing more than a mess of pottage… or an i-Pad-Pod-Phone-Thingamajiggy that will be obsolete on December 26th
            Beloved in the Lord, repent.  Stop being so greedy.  Stop coveting.  Stop worrying that if you’re too generous, there won’t be enough for you.  Believe in God, and in Christ His Son.  Believe the God who shed His blood and died for you, to make you His own, and know that He will never forsake you and He never holds out on you.  He blesses you to be a blessing.  Give it away.  Share.  Give gifts.  Sacrifice.  And rejoice in Jesus, who is all you need.  Don’t bully.  Don’t covet.  Be content with your wages.  Delight in the spouse God has given you, and have eyes only for him or her.  And if God has not given you a spouse, wait upon Him and pray and give thanks that you are never alone.  He is always with you.  Honor your father and mother.  Pay your taxes and pray for the president.  Confess your sins.  Be forgiven and cleansed. 
            For you are baptized into Christ, and that means something pretty incredible.  What Christ is, you are.  You are a son of God in the Son of God, Jesus Christ.  You have died.  You got your death over with at the font, where you were baptized into the death of Christ!  So you don’t need to fear death.  When you die, you keep living.  Because Christ is risen, and you live in Him, and you will never taste death.  You will live forever with Him, and on the Day of His return, He will raise you bodily from the dead.  That’s pretty good news, right?!  And your sins can’t haunt you.  They’re washed away.  The Law cannot accuse you or condemn you.  You’ve died to its power.  The devil?  Oh, he cannot accuse you either.  His tyranny is at an end.  He’s hell-bound without you, praise be to Christ!  And all of your enemies: sin, Satan, death, and hell itself, the things to which you used to be enslaved… these will be thrown into the Lake of Fire on that Day where their worm does not die and their fire is not quenched, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Those things can’t hurt you anymore.  You belong to Christ!  You are baptized into Christ! 
            And there is this difference between John’s Baptism and yours.  John’s Baptism was interminably great, to be sure.  It was a Baptism by which God turned the sinner from sin to Himself.  God repented the sinner, and forgave the sinner all his sins.  Tremendous stuff, that.  But as great as it was, it was but a shadow of your Baptism into Christ.  It was the type.  Yours is the fulfillment.  In your Baptism, you have all that John’s Baptism gives.  And you have more.  John’s pointed forward to Christ.  Yours delivers Him.  John’s prepared sinners for the coming of the Savior.  Yours saves by giving you His salvation.  John’s Baptism was with water, but yours delivered the Holy Spirit, who brought you to faith in Jesus Christ and sustains your faith as you live each day in your Baptism.  God writes His Name on you in your Baptism, His Name in all its fullness as Jesus has revealed it: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  And your Baptism is no one-time event.  It is the daily reality in which you live.  It’s not that you were baptized, it’s that you are baptized.  Repentance is a daily return to your Baptism.  Absolution in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit puts you right back into the water.  That’s how God does His Gospel to you. 

            So now you know what you really need to survive life in this lifeless and demon-possessed wilderness.  Go where God Gospels you.  Go where the preacher is and where God is giving His gifts.  Hear the preaching.  Repent of your sins.  Live in your Baptism.  Believe the Absolution.  And eat what God gives at this Table.  St. Mark records the beginning of the Gospel.  Here in the holy Church is the continuation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  Here is where He gives it for you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.           

Thursday, December 7, 2017

First Sunday in Advent/ Advent Midweek I

First Sunday in Advent (B)
December 3, 2017
Text: Mark 11:1-10

            “Come, Lord Jesus.”  You probably pray that prayer when you sit down to eat.  And you should.  It’s a wonderful prayer to pray, recognizing that every good gift, right down to the food on your table, comes as a result of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins.  God blesses you because of Jesus.  And so in your table prayer, you recognize Jesus as the unseen Host and Guest at your meal, and the one who sustains your body with food and drink, even as He does so for your body and soul at His own Table with His body and blood.  “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blessed,” you pray.  And yet, the prayer, “Come, Lord Jesus,” is so much more than a petition that food be blessed.  It is the urgent cry of the Church.  At the end of the Book of Revelation, Jesus promises, “Surely I am coming soon,” whereupon St. John replies on behalf of the whole Church of God, “Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20; ESV).  Come to us now in mercy for our forgiveness.  Come to us visibly to deliver us finally and completely from sin, death, the devil, and all evil.  Come, Lord Jesus!
            And He does.  He comes.  The word “Advent” means “coming.”  Jesus advents.  He comes.  And in the holy Season of Advent, we meditate upon and treasure His three-fold coming: 1. His coming in the flesh, God the Son incarnate, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary; 2. His continual coming to us in His holy Word and the blessed Sacraments (Baptism, Absolution, and the Supper of His body and blood); and 3. His coming again in glory on the Last Day to judge the living and the dead and give us life forever with Him, in our bodies, in the new creation.  Advent is a Season of preparation for receiving Jesus as He comes.  It is preparation for Christmas as we celebrate once again His coming as a Baby to be the Savior of the world.  It is preparation for receiving Him here in His Church, in the Divine Service, and particularly in Communion.  And it is preparation for our meeting Him face to face in our death and in the Day of Judgment.  As a result, there is a penitential flavor to Advent.  That is why the Church is decked out in purple, like the Season of Lent.  That is why we omit the singing of the Hymn of Praise for a few weeks (although we don’t put away our alleluias… Advent is not quite on the level of Lent when it comes to penitence).  That is why we have the extra midweek services and devotions.  And most importantly, for the next two weeks St. John the Baptist will preach to us in our Holy Gospel, bidding us prepare the way of the Lord, to make His paths straight.  Which is to say, St. John will preach to us repentance.  That is how you prepare.  Not with Christmas parties all month long (although those are nice, especially with the cookies).  But self-examination and repentance.  And yet, not dour repentance.  Christmas is coming, after all, and the joy can hardly be contained.
            It always strikes more than a few as odd that the Holy Gospel for the First Sunday in Advent is the Palm Sunday reading of the Triumphal Entry.  Why a Holy Week reading in December?  Well, I’m glad you asked.  In our Holy Gospel this morning, we have highlighted for us a coming of the Lord within His first coming as Savior, namely, His coming into Jerusalem… to die.  For you.  And that is what Advent is all about.  In fact, that is what Christmas is all about.  One of the strongest Christmas carols in our corpus rightly has us sing, “Nails, spear shall pierce Him through, The cross be borne, for me, for you.”  Christmas is nothing apart from Palm Sunday and Holy Week and Good Friday.  Remember that while you’re stuffing your face with Christmas cookies and ripping into presents by the light of the yule log.  You have this joy because Jesus came to die for your sins.  And so this is just the right reading with which to begin our Advent preparations and a new Church Year.  Jesus rides humbly into the City of His father David to be the sacrifice of atonement.  Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, cries St. John.  The crowds strew their palms and cloaks before Him, a royal highway.  They follow Him and shout, “Hosanna!”  It has become an exclamation of praise, but it literally means “Save us!”  “Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!  Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11:9-10). 
            Yes, blessed is He who comes!  He comes, beloved.  He is not a remote God, far away, who mostly leaves us to ourselves and doesn’t care about our day to day affairs and problems and hurts and sins.  He is our Emmanuel, God with us, and He cares very intimately for all of these things.  He died for them, to baptize them in His blood, to take away our sin, to heal our hurt, and to deliver us from all evil, including and especially the evil one!  He comes.  He came then, in the mess of fallen humanity, born to an unwed mother in a stable in backwater Bethlehem, because the family had to be there to be counted for taxes, paid to godless Caesar of all people, laid in the hay of a stinking feeding trough for animals of all places, because nobody in town had room for Him.  Not even His own kin.  But He comes to suffer just these things, and more, to suffer unjust conviction and torture and death and hell to save you from your just conviction and torture and death and hell on account of your rebellion against God, your sin.  And so this coming into Jerusalem to die is the coming upon which all His comings hinge.  He comes now in the means of grace, His Word and Sacraments, to deliver what He accomplished for you then by His death and resurrection, namely, the forgiveness of your sins, eternal life and salvation, the favor of the Father who loves you as His own dear Child, and every grace and blessing besides.  And you need not fear His coming again to judge, because of His coming then which won your acquittal and justification, and His coming now in His Church to deliver the verdict: Forgiven, righteous, holy on account of His saving work for you.
            All of which is to say, really, the three comings are of a piece.  They are one, distant in time, but one divine action of mercy for your eternal salvation.  Jesus comes to save you.  It is true of His first coming.  It is true as He comes among us now in His Church with His living voice and His true body and blood.  It is true when He comes again on that Day.  Jesus comes to save you.  This is His answer to the prayer you pray when you sit down to eat.  “Come, Lord Jesus,” you pray.  And He does.  Here and now.  He’s here!  Right now!  In the flesh!  For you!  He’s here as sure as you’re sitting here, our unseen Host and Guest.  And He’s coming again visibly, so that every eye shall see Him, to give you eternal life. 

            So let’s get ready.  There is much to be done before Christmas.  I’m sure you’re all hustling and bustling about to get your house all decorated and ready for guests, writing out your Christmas lists, and shopping for meals and presents.  That’s all wonderful.  But all of that is meaningless apart from your Advent preparations for Christmas.  Examine yourself according to the Ten Commandments.  Consider your place in life.  Confess your sins.  Repent.  And hear with joy the Word of Christ Himself who came to die and who comes, risen and living, to speak these words to you Himself: “I forgive you all your sins.”  Clean out the filthy halls of your heart by giving your sin-sick and dead heart to Jesus in confession.  Receive your heart made new from Him, and deck the halls with His righteousness.  Which is to say, hear the preaching, believe the Absolution, that it is for you, O Baptized Child of God, and eat and drink and be merry at the Supper of the Lamb.  Christmas is coming, and the Feast is prepared.  “Hosanna!” we pray with the Palm Sunday throngs.  “Save us!”  “Hosanna in the highest!  Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.”  “Come, Lord Jesus,” we pray.  And He does.  His body, given for you.  His blood, shed for you.  To save you.  Merry Advent.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.    

Advent Midweek I
Prophetic Preaching of Preparation: Comfort for God’s People from the Prophet Isaiah
“Oh That You Would Rend the Heavens and Come Down”
December 6, 2017
Text: Is. 64:1-9

            “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down” (Is. 64:1; ESV).  Come, O God!  Come and help us!  Come and save us!  This is the cry of the Prophet Isaiah, and it is the cry of all of God’s faithful suffering in the midst of the unfaithfulness of so many in Judah and Israel.  And, as we heard on Sunday, it is our cry and the cry of the Church of all times, “Come, Lord Jesus.”  But what is it Isaiah and the people are praying for God to come and do?  And the rending of the heavens?  Doesn’t that sound like a coming in judgment?  Is that really what the people want?
            Like us, they want God to come for a two-fold purpose: Judgment for His enemies and mercy for His people.  In our culture and society, we don’t like words like judgment and enemy, at least not when it comes to religion.  And yet, isn’t it true that we were all rooting for Osama bin Laden to bite the dust?  That doesn’t preclude prayers for his repentance and conversion.  We can do that, too.  But recognizing that, humanly speaking, it wasn’t likely that Osama bin Laden would repent and become a Christian, we wanted God to guide a missile, or, as the case may be, a Navy Seal, right into his living room.  When God judges His enemies in that way, it is a great mercy for His people.  Osama is out to kill Americans and Westerners in general and Christians in particular.  Now he can’t do that anymore, and he’s met his Maker.  If, by some miracle, in his last moments he had a come to Jesus experience, praise the Lord.  But that probably didn’t happen, and now he believes, probably much to his dismay.  Judgment belongs to God, and He has executed it.  Blessed be the LORD.
            Isaiah prays that God would perform just such a feat among the nations in his day.  He prays that God would come down to make His Name known to His adversaries, the holy Name, the Name that is not to be taken in vain and misused, the Name God puts on His chosen people.  He prays that the nations would tremble in the presence of Almighty God (v. 2).  Don’t you pray that?  Don’t you long for the Day God comes and vindicates you before all those who have laughed at you and mocked you for the faith, who have stolen from and beaten and imprisoned your brothers and sisters for the faith and killed them for it, who would make the Name of Jesus illegal?  Of course you do.  You pray for their conversion, but if not, you pray for Judgment Day. 
            But you do not pray from a posture of self-righteousness.  You pray from a posture of confession.  Isaiah confesses it for you.  “Behold, you were angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?” (v. 5).  We shall not, unless God acts.  And He does.  He comes.  Not just to obliterate His enemies, but to save all who believe in Him.  For there is no “God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him” (v. 4).  So we wait, and we pray: Come, rend the heavens, act, judge, save.  We are unclean.  Cleanse us, O God.  Even our good works are as filthy rags before you.  Heal us, O God (v. 6).  Hide your face no longer (v. 7), but make it to shine upon us and be gracious to us.  You are our Father.  We are clay in Your hands (v. 8).  Please lay aside your righteous anger.  Remember not our iniquities forever.  “Behold, please look, we are all your people” (v. 9). 
            Beloved in the Lord, Jesus Christ is God’s answer to your prayer.  He rends the heavens and comes down.  He comes down to suffer the Judgment for all our sins and to deliver us forever from our iniquities.  There He stands in the Jordan River, being baptized by John, and what happens?  The heavens are rent asunder (Mark 1:10).  He rends the heavens!  The heavens are opened to Jesus, and thus opened to us!  And it happens again in Jesus’ death.  His body is rent asunder for us poor sinners, heaven in the flesh rent by whip and thorn and nail and spear, and when He cries out to God and breathes His last, the curtain of the temple is torn in two from top to bottom (Mark 15:38).  For in the death of Jesus Christ, God-come-down for us, nothing bars our access to God.  Nothing.  Not the Law.  Not sin.  Not death.  Neither hell nor devil.  For these have been defeated in the death of Jesus Christ.
            And when He dies, the mountains quake (Matt 27:51).  It is the fulfillment of the prophecy.  The mountains quake, the rocks split, and many righteous rise from their tombs.  They’re confused!  They think it’s Judgment Day!  Because they recognize the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prayer in our text.  God has rent the heavens and come down to judge and to save!
            Now how do you prepare for such a coming of God?  How do we prepare for Christmas?  For the Lord’s Supper?  For our Lord’s coming again on the Last Day?  That is what Advent is all about.  And in our text, Isaiah teaches us how to prepare.  First, we confess our sins.  We have separated ourselves from God by our iniquities.  We deserve His wrath.  He is right to be angry and hide His face from us, for we have taken and eaten what is forbidden, and covered ourselves with the fig leaves of our excuses and the filthy rags of our works.   And all the while, we have blamed God for our fall.  The answer to it is not to hide our transgressions, but to confess them.  Speak them aloud before God.  Bring them out in the light to be dealt with.  Dealt with, not in judgment, but in mercy.  For our God is mercy.  He deals with our iniquity in the blood and death of Christ.  He forgives our sins.  And He sends His prophets, like Isaiah, His Apostles, like St. Paul, His pastors and His Church, to proclaim the Gospel and the Holy Absolution, the forgiveness of all your sins for the sake of Christ.  Fig leaves won’t help.  God must kill to atone for your sin.  And He does.  In Christ.  He clothes you, not with animal skins, but with Christ… with Christ who died and who is risen from the dead and who is now your righteousness and life.  So that is the first thing to do in preparation according to Isaiah.  Confess your sin.  Own up to it.  Give it to God. 
            And the second thing is to confess the faith.  God acts for His people who wait for Him.  He will not forsake you.  He forgives.  He saves.  He is our Father and we are His people.  He loves us.  He remembers not our iniquity because He has put it to death forever in Christ.  And at the end of every Divine Service He puts His Name on you once again, the Name He revealed in Jesus and placed on you once and for all in your Baptism into Christ, the LORD, the LORD, the LORD, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  He blesses you and keeps you.  He makes His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you.  He lifts up His countenance upon you and gives you His peace.
            Beloved in the Lord, the world is a mess, and frankly, so are you.  You know it, and God knows it, and I say it because I love you and because that’s what God sent me to tell you.  Don’t hide it.  Confess it.  Say it out loud to God.  And hear what He says to you.  Your sins are forgiven.  Then, confess the faith.  Confess your confidence in God.  Pray to our Father who art in heaven, that He would rend the heavens one final time and come down.  And then wait.  Patiently and with joy.  Because you know the End of this.  He advents.  He comes.  He comes for you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.           

Last Sunday of the Church Year

Last Sunday of the Church Year (A—Proper 29)
November 26, 2017
Text: Matt. 25:31-46

            What will be your confidence on the Day of Judgment? What will you plead before the Divine Court? You know, of course, that you are a sinner. You just confessed it to God a few minutes ago, “I, a poor, miserable sinner… by nature sinful and unclean… sinned against You in thought, word, and deed.” To confess anything other than this truth would be fruitless. It is not as though you can lie to the all-knowing God. But to confess this truth about yourself, that you are a sinner, to plead guilty, is a fearsome thing as you stand before your almighty and righteous Judge. That is why you plead guilty now, confessing your sins, and you cling with all your might to the Absolution, to the Word pronounced upon you by God’s called and ordained servant, “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit,” knowing that by these words God Himself is forgiving your sins. You cling to your Baptism into Christ, by which your sins are washed away and you are clothed with His righteousness. Because this is true, beloved, on the Day of Judgment you plead innocent. You plead righteous. Not with your own righteousness. You have none. Not by your own works. Your works are as filthy rags before God. You plead righteous because of your righteous Lord Jesus, who covers you. When God looks at you, He sees Jesus, His innocent, righteous, beloved Son, with whom He is well pleased.  And when Jesus, who is coming again to judge, looks at you, He sees a brother, a sister, whom He has given His all to redeem.
            But Jesus talks about works in the Gospel this morning, and this can be a little confusing to say the least. First, Jesus commends the sheep, those who are saved, for having fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and those in prison. He commends them for their works. Then He sentences the goats, those who are condemned, to the eternal fire for their having failed to do these works. What’s it all about?
            Is Jesus here contradicting our doctrine that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, apart from works? It may appear that way at first, and this text is often misunderstood in that way. But what we have to ask is this: What is it that makes the sheep, sheep? And what makes the goats, goats? And when we examine the text very carefully, we see that it is not the works that make the sheep or the goats, but the sheep or the goats that make the works… just as a good tree bears good fruit, and a bad tree bears bad fruit (c.f. Matt. 7:17). In fact, before the judgment, before works enter the picture, the sheep are already sheep, and the goats are already goats. The sheep are those who are in Christ, the Lamb of God, by Baptism and faith. The goats are those who have rejected Christ and relied on their own works for justification and salvation.
            So again the question, what will be your confidence on the Day of Judgment? What will you plead before the Divine Court? The sheep have as their only confidence on that Day their Lord Jesus Christ. The sheep will plead innocent and righteous because of Christ, who covers them. The goats will also plead innocent and righteous, but not because of Christ. They will make this plea because of their works. They will take confidence in themselves and in their works. And they will be condemned because their works are not sufficient. Their works are, in fact, sinful.
            The sheep will be surprised that they have ever done any good works. “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” (Matt. 25:37-39; ESV). The sheep will be surprised because they know their works to be filthy with sin, impure, with mixed motives, and they know that they have often failed to live according to God’s will… that they have, in fact, blatantly sinned against His commandments. Yet their works are made holy by the blood of Jesus, which cleanses them. Everything that they do is baptized into Christ. Their works are holy because of faith, which grasps the righteousness of Christ. The sheep will be surprised because they take no account of their works. They just do them, because faith is always living and busy and active, overflowing in love and good works. The works don’t make the sheep. The sheep make the works. And their sin and impurity and weakness is not counted against them, because they are forgiven in Jesus, who died for them and is risen for them. He alone is their confidence. They are justified by faith alone. But their faith is never alone. It is always full of love and the works wrought in believers by the Holy Spirit.
            The goats will also be surprised on that Day, surprised to find out that none of their works count. None of their works help them. They will blame Jesus for having misjudged them, for being unjust. “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?” (v. 44). “Lord, don’t you see all that we’ve done, what good people we are? We gave lots of money to charity, we volunteered at soup kitchens, we were upstanding citizens, we did everything the sheep did.” And you know what? They will be right. In terms of outward works and outward obedience, they did everything sheep did. Maybe they even did more.  Maybe they even did it better. But they did it without faith. They did it outside of Christ. And so the sin and filth and impurity and mixed motives that are forgiven the sheep for the sake of Christ are not forgiven the goats. The goats want to be judged, not in Christ, but on the basis of their works. And God gives them what they want. But no one, neither sheep nor goat, can stand before God by his or her works. Works done outside of Christ, no matter how noble and good in the sight of men, are damnable sin. Yes, a million dollar donation to St. Jude’s (or Augustana Lutheran Church, for that matter), as much as we may rejoice in it and as praiseworthy as it may be before men, is a damnable sin when done outside of Christ.
            But in Christ, the mother who changes her baby’s diaper, who feeds her children, feeds and clothes Christ Himself. In Christ, the father who sets a roof over his family’s heads welcomes Christ into his home. In Christ, when you visit your Christian brother or sister in the hospital for their comfort and consolation, you visit Christ. We often think that the works Jesus speaks of in our text have to be extraordinary works of service, above and beyond what we do in our daily lives. But in reality, Jesus speaks of our living in our daily vocations, loving and serving those around us in faith that Jesus alone is our righteousness, not these works we’re doing. We do these works precisely because Jesus is our righteousness, and we live under Him in His Kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.
            What we learn from this text is that Jesus is one with His Church, with His little lambs. We serve Jesus by serving them. We love Jesus by loving them. Because Jesus is in and with His people, what we call in theology the “mystical union” of Christ with His believers. Christ is in you and you are in Christ. The Holy Trinity is in you and you are in the Holy Trinity. This is your reality in Baptism. And this is the reality that makes all the difference on Judgment Day. Not the works you’ve done. Those are a result of the Judgment already rendered, that Christ has become your sin and paid for it in full on the cross, and you are righteous in Him because He has fulfilled the Law for you, died for your forgiveness, and is risen for your new and eternal life. The Judgment is that you are righteous on account of Christ alone. And that Judgment has already been pronounced. On Judgment Day it will be made manifest, declared publicly, for all the world and for the devil and his demons to hear. But it is a reality now. So you can go to work now, loving and serving your neighbor, knowing the end is near, but not worrying about it, because you know exactly what will happen on that Day. The Lord Jesus will say to you, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (v. 34). Inherit it, not work for it. And that will be a Day of great joy for you. Only those not found in Christ need fear that Day. For the Christian, it will be the Day when all that is wrong is made right again, when we are freed from our sinful flesh as our bodies are transformed into resurrection bodies like unto Christ, when God Himself will wipe every tear from our eyes.
            Indeed, this is how it will happen on that Day: “the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thess. 4:16-17). Hereupon will follow the Judgment, when the unbelievers will be cast into the eternal fire prepared, not for them, but for the devil and his angels.  This is the great tragedy that the unbelievers are lost. God loves them.  Jesus died for them and wants them to be with Him, but they will not have it.  But you, beloved, because you are in Christ, will receive eternal life in a new heaven and a new earth. Believe it. Be comforted by it. Do not fear. For you are in Christ, and all your sins are forgiven. The verdict has been pronounced over you in Absolution this morning.  What you heard then you will hear from Jesus’ own lips on that Day.  Your guilt is at an end. You are righteous.  You are holy.  The Kingdom of God is yours.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.