Tuesday, December 31, 2019

First Sunday after Christmas

First Sunday after Christmas (A)
Dec. 29, 2019
Text: Matt. 2:13-23
            Herod is unquestionably the evil villain of the Christmas story.  When he encounters the wise men and hears of this One born King of the Jews, he is troubled, and all Jerusalem with him (Matt. 2:2-3).  Why is he troubled?  Because this Baby is a threat to his kingdom.  Herod the Great ruled Judea as the vassal King of the Roman emperor.  He wasn’t technically Jewish, though he vastly expanded the Temple during his reign.  He was an Edomite, a descendent of Esau, from Idumea.  Given to fits of paranoia, Herod had family members put to death on suspicion of conspiracy against his rule.  So the last thing he wants to hear from these wise men of the east is that a new King of the Jews has been born, that a star has appeared, indicating fulfillment of the ancient prophecies.  So troubled was Herod, he consulted the clergy.  Where is the Christ to be born?  In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet” (v. 5; ESV). 
            By the way, it is fascinating, isn’t it, that the religious leaders hear the report of the wise men and identify the place that Messiah is to be born… they hear that He has come, but they don’t immediately drop everything and run to Bethlehem?  They don’t even move a muscle.  What the matter with them?  I suppose we must confess, we do the same thing when we don’t run eagerly to the altar at every opportunity to meet Christ where He has promised to be for us.  Here He is, the Lord Jesus, right here, right now, the Savior of the world, as real as you and me, giving out precious gifts of eternal consequence, but, you know… it’s not like we won’t do this again next week.  Repent. 
            At any rate, Herod has the wise men do his dirty work.  He feigns piety.  “Go to Bethlehem and let me know what you find out.  I want to come and worship Him, too.”  Lies.  Villainous lies.  The wise men go.  They find the Child with His mother, Mary, and they worship Him, and give Him their gifts: Gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way” (v. 12).  And that’s where our Holy Gospel this morning picks up the story.  Joseph is visited in a dream of his own.  Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him” (v. 13).
            And that’s when the real villainy begins.  With Jesus safely on the midnight road to Egypt, Herod unleashes the soldiers on the boys of Bethlehem.  Every boy two years old and under is ripped from his mother’s arms and mercilessly slaughtered before her eyes.  We call these children the Holy Innocents, not because they are sinless, but because they’d done nothing to earn Herod’s ire.  Circumcised on the eighth day, these boys were covenant boys, God’s boys.  And so now they are safe.  They are with God.  They rejoice that they were counted worthy to be the first to suffer for the Name of Jesus.  Two years or less in this vale of tears, they are comforted now and for all eternity in the bosom of their heavenly Father.  Their brother Jesus has escaped for now, but not for good.  His time is coming, in thirty years, give or take, when He will be executed.  The charge?  Once again, a threat to worldly power: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19).  And so we come full circle.
            Our Holy Gospel this morning is hard to take, though, isn’t it?  I mean, these poor children.  These poor mothers and fathers.  How could God allow such a thing?  Why didn’t He warn other fathers in their dreams to flee for their son’s lives?  I don’t know.  A certain humility is necessary here on the part of the Christian.  For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is. 55:8-9).  We cannot discern the hidden will of God.  Nor is it our place to call His righteousness into question.  Faith clings to what He has revealed in His holy Word and leaves the rest to Him.  For as Moses wrote to us, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deut. 29:29).  God has revealed what He wants us to know in Scripture.  But that leaves the question why God allows children to be slaughtered, whether in Bethlehem, or sitting in school, or their own mother’s womb, unanswered.  Faith confesses, in the midst of grief over tremendous evil, that God is working it all for the good of His people, for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28).   
            It makes for a struggle, though, within the Christian between the old sinful flesh and the new creation in Christ.  Because, while that new creation in Christ clings to Him in spite of all the evil it sees and experiences, the old sinful flesh whispers doubt and clings to unbelief.  You know what your real problem is when it comes to the slaughter of the Holy Innocents?  You don’t want to let God be God.  You think He made a mistake in letting those poor babies suffer, those poor mothers with their aching, empty arms.  You would charge God with injustice, or, at the very least, incompetence.  Beloved, don’t you see that you’ve fallen for the same old lie of the devil?  “Did God really say?  God is holding out on you, withholding a good that you deserve.  He’s jealous.  He doesn’t want you to have too much.  But you can be like Him, you know.  You can be in control.  You can rule yourself and your world.  You can be a god, too.”  Lies.  Villainous lies.  And when you believe them, you are Herod.  You are unquestionably the evil villain of the Christmas story.  You see God, you see Christ, as a threat to your rule over yourself and the world around you.  And so you must kill Christ, the real One, who escapes while the blood of Bethlehem’s boys runs in the streets, and you must put in His place a christ of your own making, who does and says what you want Him to do and say.  Repent.  Your old Adam, the Herod in you, must die.
            And he has, in Baptism, where your sinful flesh is daily drowned to death and you are daily raised to new life in Christ.  The truth is, you have no control over yourself or the world around you.  But Christ does.  He knows every breath you’ll ever take, every beat of your restless heart, and He’s redeemed it all by His dying breath and static heart on the cross.  Grief?  He knows it well.  Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Is. 53:4).  In all their affliction he was afflicted” (Is. 63:9).  We aren’t told when or how, but sometime before His earthly ministry, our Lord Jesus had to bury St. Joseph.  We see how He wept at the tomb of His dear friend Lazarus (John 11:35).  Do you really think He didn’t know the sacrifice of the families in Bethlehem, that He didn’t care, that He doesn’t even now console those babies and their mothers and fathers in Paradise?  For He “is mindful of them; he does not forget the cry of the afflicted” (Ps. 9:12).  Do you really think He doesn’t know or care about you in your grief?  He has redeemed you even in your grief.  He has sanctified your grief for a holy purpose.  That you recognize that your arms are empty and can be filled only by Him.  He alone can fill you.  He alone can comfort you.  And He has done something about your grief and your sorrow, something very concrete.  There, on a hill outside Herod’s Jerusalem, our Lord was nailed to the wood and lifted up, naked and bleeding, suffering and dying.  His mother’s empty arms ached as the sword prophesied by Simeon pierced her own soul (Luke 2:35).  And His Father, God… well, He gave His only-begotten Son into death for the boys of Bethlehem and their mothers and fathers, for St. Mary and St. Joseph, for the wise men, for Herod and His murderous soldiers, for you.
            The boys of Bethlehem rejoice today to have shed their blood as a witness to the Savior who would shed His blood for them, for their redemption.  They rejoiced that first Easter when our Lord burst forth triumphant from the grave with the promise that He will raise them, too, on the Last Day.  They rejoiced when they beheld our Lord’s ascension into heaven and enthronement at the right hand of the Father.  They rejoice before His throne today as they eagerly run to join us right here at the altar of Christ for the unending heavenly Feast.  So do all the Christian children who died too early.  They join us with their mothers and fathers who died in the faith, with Adam and Eve and Mary and Joseph and the wise men, and who knows?  Maybe even some of the soldiers, if they came to faith.  Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted (Matt. 2:18).  Until she sees them again.  Now she is comforted and rejoices with them, as she, too, joins us at the altar.  The Lord may not give you to see the secret things that belong only to Him.  But what He has revealed is enough to sustain you and comfort you in this fleeting life and bring you into the next, which is eternal.  Jesus is your King.  He rules over you and the whole world.  He rules all things for your good, even the evil things.  You are precious to Him.  For He has purchased you with His own blood.  And even if you are called upon one day to shed your blood for His sake, you rejoice, and rest secure.  For every drop of your blood has been redeemed by His.  And in the End, you will stand with the boys of Bethlehem before His throne, and you will sing.  Merry Christmas, beloved.  Come and join the Church in heaven at the Christmas Feast.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.         

Sunday, December 29, 2019

In Memoriam +Kathleen Ann Zillinger+

In Memoriam +Kathleen Ann (Malone) Zillinger+
Dec. 28, 2019
Augustana Lutheran Church, Moscow, Idaho, at Concordia Lutheran Church, Pullman, Washington
Text: Rev. 7:9-17
            Kathleen is enjoying Christmas just fine, thank you very much.  She now sees what we all long to see.  The Lamb on His throne.  The glory of God.  The angels in festal gathering.  The great multitude that no one can number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.  This is so much better even than Christmas at Rockefeller Center, or the perfect sentimental candlelight Christmas Eve service.  This is the real thing.  It is the celebration of Jesus’ birth, and there is Jesus right in front of Kathleen’s eyes.  It doesn’t get any better than that.  She’s there for the genuine article, “Angels We Have Heard on High,” live and in concert.  “Tidings of Comfort and Joy.”  “The glories of His righteousness and wonders of His love.”  “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, ‘Glory to the newborn King!’”  “O come, let us adore Him, Christ, the Lord!”  Even better: “This is the feast of victory for our God.  Alleluia!”  Our hymns are but distant echoes of the New Song sung day and night in heaven before the throne of God, and of the Lamb who was slain, but behold, he stands.  He lives and He reigns, Jesus Christ, the Crucified, who is risen from the dead.
            Now one of the elders asks a question in our text, and it is an important one.  Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” (Rev. 7:13; ESV).  The answer is the key to our comfort this day.  These are the ones,” the elder declares, “coming out of the great tribulation.  They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (v. 14).  They are the ones coming out.  That is the continuous succession of those who are dying in the faith of Christ.  They die, but behold, they live.  Kathleen is in their number.  As are all the saints, all believers, and all of our loved ones who have died in Christ.  And we’ll be among them, too, when our Lord calls us out, calls us home, to Himself. 
            They are coming out of the great tribulation.  That is not just some future, unknown time.  It is the time of the New Testament, the time between our Lord’s ascension into heaven and His coming again to judge the living and the dead, our life in this fallen world.  This “vale of tears” Luther calls it in his Small Catechism, or “valley of sorrow,” depending on which translation you use.  You know this life is full of trial and tribulation.  The fact that we’re gathered together for the funeral of such a dear sister in Christ is testament to that.  We suffer in this life.  We get sick.  We get hurt.  We’re broken people in a broken world.  Relationships are broken.  Minds and bodies are broken.  We’re spiritually broken, which is to say, we’re sinners.  And it is a challenge, in this world, to be faithful to Christ, to remain faithful in the midst of a faithless culture, with the very real opposition and temptation of the devil and his demonic hoard, and this sinful flesh (the Old Adam) hanging around our necks. 
            But that is the good news of the white robes.  The ones coming out have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  That is to say, Christ died for them, and for you, and for all.  And these are baptized into Christ.  That is the washing: Holy Baptism.  They are plunged into the water, immersed in the blood.  Old Adam drowns and dies with all sin and evil desire.  And the New Creation, the new person, is raised in Christ, spotless, righteous, holy.  Not because they never sinned after Baptism.  But because of Jesus, the Lamb, who died and is risen, for the forgiveness of sins.  It is His spotlessness, His righteousness, His holiness given to Kathleen and the ones coming out (and you who are baptized into Christ), that makes their robes so radiantly white. 
            And now where are they?  They are before the throne of God and serve Him day and night in His Temple.  And they are in perfect happiness.  God shelters them with His presence, safe from all harm and danger.  No more hunger.  No more thirst.  No striking sun or scorching heat.  The Lamb is their Shepherd.  He guides them to springs of living water.  And God wipes away every tear from their eyes.  Death is at an end.  Suffering is no more.  Sin died on Jesus’ cross, and He left it behind in His tomb.  It’s a pretty great Christmas for those who are there. 
            But then, it’s a pretty great Christmas for you and I who are here.  For their reality is just as much our reality, albeit for us, it is hidden with Christ in God.  They see it with their eyes.  We know it by faith.  They no longer feel the great tribulation.  We do.  We are sad today.  Death is always tragic, even when we know the one we love is in heaven with Jesus.  Because God did not create us to die.  He created us for life forever with Him.  That is why He sent His Son, Jesus.  He sent His Son, Jesus, to take on our flesh and die our death for our sins, so that we do not have to die.  God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, so that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16).  God had to do something about death, and He did it in Jesus, who died for your sins, and is risen from the dead, triumphant over death.  The one who believes in Jesus, even though he dies, yet he lives, and whoever lives and believes in Jesus will never die (John 11:25-26).  That is the whole reason we celebrate Christmas.  Christmas is not just about the birth of a baby.  It is about the birth of this Baby, who is God, come down to save us from sin and death, Christ, the Lord. 
            This text from Revelation is the reading appointed for All Saints’ Day.  Kathleen loved All Saints’ Day.  She even hosted an All Saints’ Day party for our Table Talk group just last month.  Isn’t the Lord’s timing perfect?  We had no idea what a poignant gathering that would be.  There was also our most recent voters’ meeting at which Kathleen was making the point we needed to be ready with a plan of action and resources for any funerals that may come up.  At which point I told her I declare a moratorium on deaths for the year.  Well… Kathleen does not like to be told what to do.  Least of all by Lutherans! 
            The occasion for this voters’ meeting exchange was the sermon I had just preached for All Saints’ Day on this very text, in which I told our people some things about what it means to have a Christian funeral.  At the Christian funeral, I reminded them, we do not make it all about how great the person was, how much good they did, with eulogies and secular poems or the saying of silly things that sound nice, but are utterly meaningless; things like, “See that star up there?  That is Kathleen shining down on us.”  Or, “God just couldn’t get along without Kathleen, so He had to take her to heaven.”  Or, “The snow falling from the sky is Kathleen reminding us how much she loves us and that she’s always watching out for us.”  Dear Christians, in the face of death and very real grief, it’s time to put away all your sentimental platitudes and cling to the things that are real and true.  That is what we do at a Christian funeral. 
            At a Christian funeral, we stare death itself in the face and confess, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.  Amen.”  We spit in the devil’s eye and declare with absolute certainty: “Alleluia!  Christ is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!”  We talk about Christ and all that He has done for our salvation.  His perfectly fulfilling the Law of God and crediting it to our account.  The shedding of His holy, precious blood for our redemption, and His innocent suffering and death for the forgiveness of our sins.  His triumphant resurrection from the dead, and the Promise that He is coming back for us.  Kathleen was a sinner.  That isn’t nice to bring up, but if we’re going to be honest, as we always should be at Christian funerals, that is the reality.  Death came into the world because of sin.  But she is redeemed by Christ.  Her righteousness is Christ.  Her salvation is Christ.  Her life is Christ.  And so the Christian funeral is all about Christ. 
            And there is one more thing that must be said at a Christian funeral, and if it isn’t said, it isn’t a Christian funeral.  And that is this: Kathleen Zillinger will rise from the dead.  Bodily.  Not just a spirit floating around with a halo and a harp.  Her body.  Risen.  Restored.  Perfect.  As is the body of her risen Lord Jesus Christ.  Her body as it was always meant to be, free of all suffering, sin, and death.  And you, too.  Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and He’ll raise you.  That is what we say at a Christian funeral. 
            Now it is Christmas, and that first Christmas night the angels sang glad tidings to shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night.  Let it not be lost on you, what our text tells us today about our dear sister Kathleen.  Kathleen now sings with them, with the very shepherds of the Christmas story, and the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.  And we may also add, she sings with some dear children her aching arms have longed to hold, whom she’s always held in her heart.  And so do we, every time we gather around the altar for the Lord’s gifts.  If you want to be with Kathleen now, you go to Church, where Jesus is hosting the Feast of Victory, His true body and blood, given and shed for Kathleen and for you for the forgiveness of sins.  She joins us there.  Heaven comes down to earth.  One holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints we confess, a union even death cannot break.  For Kathleen lives.  Christ is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!  And so Kathleen will rise.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.      

Friday, December 27, 2019

The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Day

The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Day
December 25, 2019
Text: John 1:1-18
            And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14; ESV).  That is the Good News of Christmas.  The Incarnation… The enfleshment of the Son of God, the Nativity, the birth, of our Lord.  For you, and for your salvation.  The Word became flesh.
            The Word: This is His Divine Nature.  He is the Son of the Father, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.  The Word who was in the beginning with God.  The Word who is God.  The Word through whom all things were made, and without Him nothing was made that has been made.  The Word in whom is life, which is the light of men, the Light that comes into the darkness of sin, death, and the devil, and the darkness has not overcome it.  The Word who walked with Adam in the cool of the day.  The Word who came to patriarchs and prophets, who spoke with Moses face to face as to a familiar friend, who gave to His people the Torah and the Sacred Scriptures.  The Word who is the revelation of the Father as a God of love; a God who makes the sacrifice for sinners, His own Son, given into death; a God who forgives; a God who saves; a God who is for us and not against us.  The Word who imparts the Spirit of the Father, that you may believe.  It is this Word who is spoken by the angel into Mary’s ear and takes up residence in her womb.  The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.
            Flesh: A rather offensive word, particularly with reference to God.  This is our Lord’s Human Nature.  Our God is a Man!  A flesh and blood Man.  At just the right time, when the fulness of time had come, He is born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem those under the Law, that you and I and all who believe in Him, who are baptized into Him, might be adopted by the Father as God’s sons, receiving the Spirit of the Son into our hearts, so that we may call upon God as “Abba,” as “Our Father who art in heaven” (Gal. 4:4-5).  In His flesh, the Son is one with us, so that He fulfills God’s Commandments for us, in our place.  In His flesh, He becomes all that He redeems, flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone, born of the Virgin Mary, a Baby, a Child, a Man.  Flesh so that He can suffer.  Flesh so He can bleed.  Flesh so He can be nailed to the wood of the tree.  Flesh so God can die.  For you, for the forgiveness of sins. 
            And so that this flesh, dead and buried in a tomb, can rise from the dead, defeating sin, death, the devil, and hell, forever.  This flesh and blood God, Jesus Christ, seen and heard and touched by many for forty days after His resurrection, has now ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.  A Man, like us, reigns over all things.  He works all things for our good and for our salvation (Rom. 8:28).  He intercedes for us before the Father.  He sends His Spirit.  He is our access to the Father.  We pray through Him, in His Name, and in His Spirit, this flesh and blood Man who is God’s beloved Son.  And He is coming back, this Man born of the Virgin, our Savior and Brother, to raise us, to judge us, to give us life forever in His Kingdom.  The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.
            His dwelling: That is, He tabernacles among us.  Jesus is the new and greater Temple.  He is the dwelling place of God with and for His people, the one Mediator between God and men, the Man, Christ Jesus.  And He is with us always, to the very end of the age.  Not in some ghostly, ethereal sort of way, but in the way He came, and in the way He will come again.  In the flesh.  The Word made flesh.  Our Lord Jesus Christ, born among us this day, dwells among us with His flesh and blood.  He speaks in Scripture and Preaching and Absolution.  He tucks you into His flesh as He clothes you with Himself in Holy Baptism.  He tucks Himself into you as He feeds you with His true body and blood in the Holy Supper.  Flesh and blood God dwells in you, and you in Him.  Sins forgiven.  Life everlasting.  You behold His glory.  And from His fulness you and all of us receive, grace upon grace.   
            And that is why we feast and sing this day with great rejoicing.  The great Christmas Gift is God’s salvation, His own Son, all wrapped up in flesh and blood.  The whole accomplishment of our salvation depends on Christmas: The birth of God, who is a Man, Jesus, the Son of Mary.  The Word became flesh.  He dwells among us still.  Tidings of comfort and joy to the world.  The Lord has come to make His home with you.  Merry Christmas!  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.   

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Eve

The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Eve
December 24, 2019
Text: Luke 2:1-20
            I have an issue with one line of that last carol.  “But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes” (LSB 364:2)?  Can that be true?  Okay, maybe it’s true of this one little snapshot in time captured by the carol, but if the author (who, by the way, is not Martin Luther, in spite of what you’ve been told)… if the author meant to say that Jesus, unlike other babies, didn’t cry… that He was somehow above that sort of thing, that He didn’t undergo that part of the experience of infancy… then really, the song robs us of our salvation.  Because it makes Jesus less than fully human.  Babies cry.  And that isn’t sin in them, by the way.  Jesus was born without sin.  That is why He was born of a Virgin, so He did not inherit a human father’s sinfulness.  All other babies do have human fathers, and so they do have sin, as is evidenced by their utter self-absorption.  But it is also true that crying is their only way to communicate that they have a need.  Jesus didn’t come forth from the womb of the Virgin Mary already walking and talking and able to take care of Himself.  As fully Man, Jesus, the Son of God, had to learn to talk.  He had to learn to feed Himself, to clothe Himself, to soothe Himself, like all babies do.  As a little Baby, He was hungry, thirsty, tired.  He needed His mother to comfort Him and feed Him and rock Him to sleep.  He needed His diapers changed.  And the way a Baby communicates that is by crying.  So also, He felt pain.  Even at such a tender age, He was already doing the work of our salvation by suffering for us.  If He was cold out there in the manger, because there was no room for Him in the inn, He cried.  If one of those shepherds lately come from the fields tried to pick Him up, take Him away from His Mommy, He cried.  Only eight days old, He was circumcised, His first precious drops of blood shed for our redemption.  And you can bet He cried.  Babies cry.  That’s part of being a baby.  What we don’t need on Christmas Eve is a Son of God that is anything less than fully human.
            Now, this little Baby is fully God, of course.  He is one Person with two natures, Divine and Human.  As God, this Baby holds the universe in his little hands.  But this makes the mystery of His crying all the more profound.  In Jesus, God Himself, cries.  As a matter of fact, I can think of a number of times when this God, the Man, the Lord Jesus, well… crying He made.  He cries for us men and for our salvation.  O Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” He laments, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Luke 13:34; ESV).  He cries over those who reject His Word and His salvation. 
            He cries in the face of death.  Lazarus, His dear friend, had died, and Jesus, knowing full well what He was about to do, that He would raise Lazarus from the dead, nevertheless is deeply moved in His spirit.  Seeing the grief of Mary and Martha and the mourners, He is greatly troubled (John 11:33).  He knows your pain.  He is in it with you, and feels it with you.  And so coming to the tomb, He weeps (v. 35).  He cries.  Death was never how it was supposed to be.  God did not create us to die.  Sin did that.  And now Jesus has come to do mortal battle with sin and death, to forgive sin and unbar the gates of death, to free us from captivity.
            And, of course, Jesus cried out from the cross.  My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46).  I thirst” (John 19:28).  It is finished” (v. 30).  Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46).  And then, no more crying.  Having said this, He breathed His last.  He died.  In Jesus, God cries.  And in Jesus, God dies.  For you.  For your salvation. 
            God cries and God dies for all the things that make you cry.  For your sin, which separates you from God and is the cause of death and all suffering in the world.  For your grief at all that sin has wrought.  For your hurting and broken relationships.  For your guilt and shame and the sin that separates you from your loved ones and from other people.  God cries and God dies, and God rises from the dead, in the flesh, to dry your tears.  This is why He was born, a Man, for you. 
            So there He is, in the manger, because there was no room for Him in the inn.  There He is, born of the Virgin Mary, who cried out in travail, giving birth to God.  There He is among the bleating sheep and lowing cattle and the shepherds fresh from the fields.  And you know, He is so much a very human Baby in every way that these shepherds have to preach about who He is and what He has come to do, as it had been revealed to them by the angel.  They have to preach to Mary so that she doesn’t miss it in this little bundle of humanity.  And it is their preaching that Mary treasures up and ponders in her heart as she rocks and soothes her precious Baby Boy. 
            And for that same reason, shepherds are sent to you.  Christian pastors are sent to preach, so that you don’t miss it, that Jesus is wrapped up in the swaddling cloths of the Scriptures and laid on the feeding trough of the altar, for you, in your bleating and weeping, to eat.  Words and water and bread and wine.  It’s all so ordinary, so human.  Like a Baby crying, swaddled and cuddled up to His mother.  You have to be told, or you won’t recognize that this is God’s deliverance.  This is God’s salvation.  This is Jesus, Son of Mary, Son of God, for you. 

Away on the altar, as He Himself said,
“My body and blood is the wine and the bread;”
The Savior of sinners come down here to say,
Your sins are forgiven, your tears dried away.

Wrapped up in the Scriptures, the poor Baby speaks,
His faith to impart, your salvation He seeks.
He washes with water and Spirit, a flood,
Your robes to make white in the flow of His blood.

And so we pray:

“Be near me, Lord Jesus; I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever and love me, I pray.
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care,
And take us to heaven to live with Thee there” (LSB 364:3).

He does, and He will.  He was born for this, to be as near to you as your own flesh and blood, with His flesh and blood.  And as He is risen, He will raise you.  Bodily.  And He who cried for you and died for you, will wipe away your tears.  With those precious thumbs born of Mary.  Beloved, Merry Christmas!  Christ, the Savior, is born.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  

Monday, December 23, 2019

Fourth Sunday in Advent

Fourth Sunday in Advent (A)
December 22, 2019
Text: Matt. 1:18-25
            Joseph was a just man.  Just means righteous.  That means justified.  That is, Joseph is a man of faith, justified by faith alone.  Joseph believed God, believed in the coming Messiah, as all the Old Testament saints were justified and saved by faith in the One who was to come and save them from their sins.  Like Father Abraham before him, Joseph believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness (Gen. 15:6). 
            So that is the first point.  Joseph is a Christian.  And in this way, he is a model for us.  Mary is often held up as the great model of faith at Christmastime, and rightly so.  She also believed the Word of the LORD.  She received the news from the angel that she would bear the Son of God with a simple, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38; ESV).  And more than once we are told that Mary treasured up the words and deeds surrounding the birth and life of her Son and Savior, as every Christian should do, pondering them in her heart (2:19).
            But that is the Christmas Gospel according to St. Luke.  St. Matthew holds up Joseph as the model of the Christian who remains faithful under the heavy cross of circumstances that are impossibly trying.  There is a reason we use Luke 2 for the Christmas pageant, and not Matthew 1.  Matthew’s story is less Hallmark, more National Lampoon’s.  For Matthew, Christmas is a sordid affair.  There are rumors and shame.  A teenage, un-wed mother who actually claims she’s still a virgin, and don’t worry, God is the Father.  Her betrothed, who is heartbroken and doesn’t know what to do next.  The Law of Moses says he should stone her to death (Deut. 22:23-24), but he doesn’t want to do that.  He’s a good guy, right?  By human standards at least.  And that is because of his faith in Christ.  He is not a vengeful man.  But he also loves her.  So…  Divorce her quietly.  That’s the best plan.  Yes, divorce, because betrothal in the Bible is legally binding and substantially the same as marriage, except that the bridegroom had not yet come to take his bride from her father’s house, and the marriage had not yet been consummated.  So another failed marriage at Christmas time.  Over all of this, there is fear.  That is why when the angel comes to Joseph in his troubled dreams, he must begin by saying, “do not fear.”  Joseph, son of David,” heir to the throne of Israel, “do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:20).  “Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,” we confess it (Apostles’ Creed).  Two natures.  Divine and Human.  Son of Mary.  Son of God. 
            That is the mystery of the Incarnation, God’s coming in the flesh.  That is splendid enough, but that is not yet the whole of the Gospel.  The Gospel is the Name given by the angel:  Jesus: YHWH saves.  The LORD saves.  His very Name tells us who this Baby is and what He has come to do.  He is YHWH, the LORD.  And He has come to save His people from their sins.  And Immanuel: God with us.  This flesh and blood Baby is God come to make His home with us poor sinners.  In our sin!  In our weakness and death and misery.  In our mess of a life and our brokenness.  Do you get it?  There is a reason Christmas in your family is always so messed up.  It was messed up for the Holy Family, too.  And it is just for that reason, because the family is messed up, your family, my family, Adam and Eve’s family, you and I are so messed up, that Jesus came.  Advent.  Christmas.  Don’t you see that Christmas isn’t ruined by the brokenness of your life?  Christmas is the answer to the brokenness!  Jesus!  He comes!  Right into the midst of it.  Right into Joseph and Mary’s brokenness.  Right into yours.  To save you from your sins.
            And by the way, no, that’s not some kind of coming in your heart.  It’s a not a feeling.  It’s not an ambiguous “spirit of Christmas,” whatever that’s supposed to mean.  And while we’re at it, the true meaning of Christmas is not sharing or being grateful or giving generously, as wonderful as those things may be.  Those are all qualities we substitute for Jesus to justify ourselves.  Christmas is about God coming in flesh and blood.  Immanuel, God with us.  Christmas is about God coming in flesh and blood to save us from our sins.  Jesus, YHWH saves.  The Baby born of Mary is born to die.  For sinners.  In the place of sinners.  For you.  For the forgiveness of sins.  Christmas is all bound up in Good Friday and the cross.  God is born with flesh and blood to give that flesh into death and shed that blood as the sacrifice of atonement.  He is born to bury that body and blood in your tomb, and then, on the Third Day, to take it up again, risen and living.  Bodily. 
            And it is in that flesh and blood that He is with you, your Immanuel.  He isn’t with you spiritually, in a vague sort of way.  You know this.  I’ve told you so many times that when I say “I’m with you in spirit,” I’m telling you I’m not with you at all.  When the pastor says, “The Lord be with you,” when Jesus says He is with you always, to the very end of the age (Matt. 28:20), He means it for real.  Substantially.  Bodily.  Where?  How?  You know it.  Under the bread and wine.  His true body.  His true blood.  Conceived by the Holy Spirit.  Born of the Virgin Mary.  The very same body that suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, dead and buried, that rose again on the Third Day.  That is what He feeds you.  Every Holy Communion is a celebration of Christmas.  And it’s not for the righteous who measure up to God’s Commandments, whose lives are not a mess, who don’t have real sins.  It is for sinners, and sinners only.  Jesus comes for sinners in their sins.  To save them from their sins.  To save you from your sins. 
            So do not fear.  Do not fear, Joseph, to take Mary as your wife.  She is bearing God’s Son, and you will raise Him as your own.  Incidentally, see how adoption and guardianship are held up as a high and holy work.  We could add fostering, and even mentoring of children.  This is the vocation of St. Joseph, Guardian of our Lord.  Do not fear to fulfill your calling, Joseph.  Though there will be much suffering… the gossip in the town and in the family, a stable and a manger because there is no room for them in the Inn, celibacy at least until Mary gave birth, a midnight escape to Egypt while Bethlehem’s sons are slain, poverty in backwater Nazareth, that fateful trip to Jerusalem with twelve-year-old Jesus who disappears to be about His Father’s business, in His Father’s House.  And, it appears, for Joseph, an early death.  After that pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he doesn’t appear again in the Gospels.  His work is complete.  He raised the little Lord Jesus.  Brought Him up in the fear and admonition of YHWH.  Taught Him.  Protected Him.  Provided for Him.  He was a good father, even if not THE Father.  Now Joseph’s rest is won.  He fought the good fight.  He ran the race.  Now there is laid up for Him the crown won, not by his own fighting and running, but by His precious Boy, Jesus.  Joseph was a just man.  Justified.  By faith alone.  That is why he was faith-ful in his God-giving vocations.
            And you… Do not fear to be faithful in your own callings from God.  Honor your father and your mother.  Be faithful to your spouse.  Do not divorce them, quietly or otherwise.  Be good parents.  Raise your children in the fear and admonition of the Lord.  Protect them.  Provide for them.  Do not exasperate them (Eph. 6:4).  Pray for your leaders.  Pay your taxes.  Pray for your brothers and sisters in Christ, for the Church and her mission, for your pastor and his family.  Give an offering.  Give to the poor.  Go to work.  Do your job.  Suffer the cross, whatever cross your Father lays upon you.  Don’t do it to justify yourself.  Do it because you are just.  Justified by faith alone.  In Jesus.  Because of Jesus, YHWH saves, Immanuel, God with us.  He justifies you by His coming and suffering and dying and rising.  Do not fear. 
            Now, when you know that and believe that, Advent has reached its goal.  St. John the Baptist has done his job.  You are prepared for the coming of the Lord.  You’re ready for Christmas.  Even if you have a little more shopping to do.  Even if you still have the cooking and cleaning and the prepping for guests.  Even if your family and your life is still a mess (well… it is).  Jesus comes.  Right into that.  For that.  For you.  It’s almost here.  It’s almost time.  Blessed Advent.  Now come and get a sneak-peek of Christmas at the altar.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.          

Friday, December 20, 2019

Advent Midweek III

Advent Midweek III: “Advent with the Prophet Isaiah: The Ransomed of the LORD”
December 18, 2019
Text: Isaiah 35:1-10
            The August soil was parched and cracked in Wauneta, Nebraska, where my new bride and I were received for a potluck meal and big doings on our way through to the seminary for my fourth year.  St. Paul’s had supported me all through school, as their current pastor had been my Confirmation pastor, taught me the Scriptures and the Catechism.  I wanted to be just like Pastor Wellman.  Well, there was joy in the air that summer evening, but also a wisp of anxiety.  Drought.  For several years now.  To hear Pastor tell it, there were plenty of storms, but they hopped over Wauneta in favor of the Eastern part of the state.  The farmers’ wives still put on a spread like only Lutheran Church farmers’ wives can.  And there were speeches, and there was singing, and we didn’t notice it at first, that all the men had disappeared from the Church basement.  Where had they gone, and why?  The wives knew.  Pastor Wellman knew.  But two-generations-removed-from-farming Seminarian Krenz didn’t have a clue.   And then I heard it.  The rumble.  It was a good distance away, but the sound was unmistakeable.  The farmers were gathered on the Church lawn, staring up at the approaching black shelf and flashes of light.  They were silent, but you know they were praying.  Please, Lord.  Water the earth.  Make the dry land glad.  Grant the fields growth and fruitfulness.  Help us.  Save us.  Farmers, God bless ‘em, live by faith. 
            When the Word of God is preached, it is water breaking forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.  Luther compared the preaching of the Gospel to a rain shower.  The burning sand becomes a pool and the thirsty ground springs of water.  For spiritually, we live in a parched and barren wasteland.  The desert, of course, is the place of nothingness and death.  In the ancient world, and particularly for the Hebrews, it was thought of as the place of Azazel, the dwelling of demons and wickedness.  That is why, for example, on the Day of Atonement, there were the two goats, the one of which was sacrificed for the sins of the people, and the other sent out into the wilderness to Azazel, both goats being types of our Lord Jesus Christ in His bearing of our sin and His sacrifice of atonement.  The Children of Israel had to wander in the wilderness for 40 years before entering the Promised Land.  St. John the Baptist was preaching in the wilderness and baptizing for repentance and the forgiveness of sins.  Our Lord suffered His 40 days and 40 nights of hunger and temptation in the wilderness.  And here we are, in a fallen world, in our fallen flesh, sinners in the midst of sinners, and suffering under the very real persecution and threats of the devil and his demons, and we are in the wilderness.  The Church on earth is the Children of Israel between Egypt and their Inheritance.  We’ve been brought out of our bondage to sin, death, and that wicked Pharaoh, the devil; led in exodus through the Red Sea of our Baptism; and we know the Promise is coming, the Land, new creation, new heavens and a new earth and the resurrection of our bodies in sinless perfection.  But for now, the wilderness wandering.  Sin.  Idolatry.  Broken Commandments.  Plagues.  Death.  We hunger and thirst for righteousness, but find none in ourselves or in this wilderness waste. 
            The Prophet Isaiah is drawing upon the image of the Exodus in our text.  God, leading His people out.  God, leading His people through.  God, leading His people in.  And it is ever and always the story of the Redeemed.  In fact, for the New Testament people, which is you and me, it is the culmination of the story.  Led by God out of slavery to our enemies (sin, death, the devil, and our own flesh), through the wilderness of this life and this world, to the Promise of heaven and the resurrection.  What we need for this wilderness sojourning is water.  Water from the Rock, like the Children of Israel in the desert, and the Rock followed them, and the Rock was Christ (1 Cor. 10:4).  We need the water that comes from the Rock when it is struck with the staff, the water that flows with the blood from our crucified Lord’s pierced side, the water of the font that washes us clean and makes us righteous before God, God’s own child, I gladly say it.
            When that water comes in preaching and Sacrament, the desert blossoms abundantly and the people of God rejoice and sing.  That is to say, the Church rejoices, even in her wilderness wandering.  And she is fruitful.  She blooms.  She preaches the Gospel.  The water flows.  She does good works, works of love for her neighbor.  And she trusts that God will make good on all His Promises.  He will provide for her.  Manna in the wilderness, water from the Rock, bitter water made sweet by the wood of the cross.  He will bring her through.  He will bring her to Himself. 
            That is the Promise Isaiah preaches in our text.  You will see the glory of the LORD.  You will behold the majesty of our God.  And the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped.  The lame man shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.  These are, of course, the miracles our Lord performed during His earthly ministry, and as we heard on Sunday, they are the signs that show us who He is: Our Messiah, our Redeemer, the Savior of the world; and they show us what He has come to do: Save, restore, heal, make whole.  The Creator has broken into His creation to heal it of its brokenness.  He does it by being broken on the cross, suffering our death, submitting Himself to our bondage, only to break out of it, healed and whole, in His triumphant resurrection from the dead. 
            Beloved, you are the Ransomed of the LORD of whom Isaiah speaks.  Purchased, not with silver or gold, but with His holy, precious blood, and by His innocent suffering and death.  He redeemed you.  He bought you back.  At great cost.  And now, by His resurrection, He has opened a highway through the wilderness and through death itself into the Promised Land of heaven and the resurrection.  He is that Way, as He says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6; ESV).  His death is the black wall of clouds holding so much Promise, the promise of water, the promise of life.  As the Good News is preached that Christ is risen from the dead, the rain begins to fall.  And it’s a good old-fashioned gully-washer.  It is the Living Water of Christ that heals and restores.  Streams and pools and springs of water.  Where once there was only barrenness and death, there is lush, verdant growth.
            So even though you suffer in the wilderness pilgrimage of your earthly life; though there are droughts and illnesses, brokenness and besetting sins, be encouraged.  Have the courage put into you.  Or as Isaiah puts it, strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees.  No more trembling in fear.  No more anxious heart.  Jesus has come.  He advents.  And He delivers.  He saves.  When you are feeling guilty, as you should, because you are a sinner, confess your sin, and drink in the streams of consolation: your sins are forgiven, for Jesus’ sake.  When a loved one dies, and you are buried in grief, immerse yourself in this great comfort: Jesus died for your loved one, and for you.  And all who believe in Him do not die, but have eternal life.  When a relationship is broken due to sinners sinning against one another, wield this majestic truth: The Lord has buried all sin in His tomb forever.  He is risen, but our sins will never rise.  You are forgiven.  Your neighbor is forgiven.  Forgive, with this overflowing forgiveness, in the Name of Christ.  And when you suffer, as you most certainly will, the effects of creation’s fallenness… when you are sick, when your eyes and ears fail you, when you are unable to do what you once did, and even the powers of speech are lost to you, remember this: Jesus comes to heal and restore all that is broken.  And that is precisely what He will do when He raises you from the dead. 
            Like water in the desert, the Promise sustains you: “And the ransomed of the LORD shall return to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Is. 35:10).  You may not see it yet, but… Christians, God bless ‘em, live by faith. 
            We left the farmers in Wauneta that night staring up into the sky.  As we drove to our lodging, the first drops began to fall.  By the time we checked into our room at the Super 8, it was coming down in sheets.  Lutheran farmers aren’t known for emotional displays, but in my mind, they were dancing for joy.  As we should when the Gospel is preached to us.  Rejoice and sing.  Jesus comes on the wind of His Word.  He comes in the water and the blood.  There is water in the wilderness and the Way is opened for the ransomed of the LORD.  Behold, He makes all things new.  Let it rain.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.