Sunday, December 27, 2020

St. John, Apostle and Evangelist

St. John, Apostle and Evangelist

December 27, 2020

Text: John 21:20-25

            The will of the Lord is always best.  But that is a statement of faith, to be revealed in the End.  For now, it is not always our human experience.  We cannot see what it is God is out to accomplish.  We can only trust the promise that He will work it for the good.  We often wonder why bad things happen to some, and not others.  And specifically, we wonder why bad things happen to us, and not others.  Jesus reveals that Peter is to be martyred (John 21:18-19).  When he grew old, Peter would stretch out his hands and be dressed by another and carried where he does not want to go.  That is the death Peter would die to glorify God.  And so it happened.  Peter was crucified, in Rome, reportedly upside down, because he did not consider himself worthy to die in the same manner as his Lord.  It is at this point that Peter turns to see John following behind, and he wonders.  What about this man?  If I must be martyred, what must he suffer?  Why must this bad thing happen to me, and not necessarily to him? 

            But that is not the question Peter is to ask.  That is to be none of his concern.  If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?  You follow me!” (v. 22; ESV). 

            We so often long to look into things that are none of our business.  What about this fellow?  Why don’t You teach him a lesson for once, Lord?  God knows he has it coming.  Why do you leave him alone, and afflict me?  Jesus answers you the same way he answered Peter.  “If it is my will that he be spared, what is that to you?  You have only one order of business to be concerned with.  You follow me.  Do not look to this side or that, or behind you.  Keep your eyes on me.  Go where I lead you.  Do what I give you to do.  Bear what I give you to bear.  Trust that it is all for the good.  I will work it all for my will, for your salvation, for the Father’s glory.  My cross is the model.  See how I worked that great evil for your redemption.  Your cross is light by comparison.  See how I will work it in ways unimaginable to you.  Your suffering will end.  The Kingdom is the prize.  Take the long view.  Follow me!”

            And what about John?  Today is his feast day, so we should say what is to be said about him.  It is not the case, as the rumor went, that John was not to die.  Jesus simply said, “If it is my will that he remain… what is that to you?  Jesus had His will for John, just as He had for Peter.  For John, it seems, the Lord’s will was that he live a martyr’s life, even as Peter died a martyr’s death.  In other words, John knew his fair share of suffering for Christ and the Gospel.  John, we remember, along with his brother James, was willing to drink the cup of the Lord and be baptized with His baptism, that is, to suffer and die a bloody death (Mark 10:38-39).  So boasted those Sons of Thunder.  The Lord promised they would do just that.  As it happens, James, Son of Zebedee, was the first of the Apostles to shed his blood (Acts 12:2).  But what about his brother, John?  According to tradition, he lived to a ripe old age, and was the only Apostle to die of natural causes.  He seems to have spent the bulk of his ministry in Jerusalem, and then as Bishop of the Church in Ephesus.  We know he cared for Mary in his own home, as our Lord bid him do from the cross.  A member of Jesus’ inner circle, the disciple whom Jesus loved, he was the only Apostle to stick with our Lord through His trial and crucifixion, and he was one of the very first eyewitnesses of the empty tomb and the risen Savior.  He wrote the Gospel that bears his name, and three epistles preserved in the New Testament.  He was exiled by the Emperor Domitian to the Island of Patmos, from which he saw his vision, being in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, and thus wrote it down in the Book of Revelation.    

            Exiled.  That is just one example of John’s suffering for Jesus.  We know he was arrested at least twice (undoubtedly more) for preaching the Gospel (Acts 4:3; 5:18).  On one occasion, being charged not to speak in the Name of Jesus, John was led to answer with Peter, “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (4:20).  On the second occasion, the Apostles answered the Chief Priests’ charges, “We must obey God rather than men” (5:29).  Whereupon they were threatened and beaten, yet they rejoiced “that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (v. 40).  And they steadfastly continued in the Temple and from house to house, teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ (v. 41).  The legend goes (and this is a stretch, but then again, who knows?  It is Tertullian who reports it, a pretty trustworthy source) that prior to John’s exile to Patmos, the Emperor tried to kill him in the Colosseum by plunging him into boiling oil, but he wouldn’t die!  His skin wouldn’t even blister!  And the whole audience in the Colosseum (aside from the Emperor) was converted to Christianity that day!  Okay, maybe, maybe not, but this was the age of manifest miracles, and it is not unlike the biblical examples of the three young men and the fiery furnace, or Daniel in the lions’ den. 

            But the point is, John did suffer.  Not according to Peter’s plan, but according to our Lord’s.  He suffered precisely the crosses our Lord laid upon him, and in this way, he glorified God and followed Jesus.  His whole life was a martyrdom, a taking up of the cross and following the Savior.  Incidentally, think what a gift it was to the Church to have this Apostle live to a ripe old age, probably into his nineties, which was very old in those days.  Just as the New Testament canon was being compiled, the Church, in her infancy, had a living eyewitness to the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  And some of the earliest Church Fathers, including Sts. Polycarp of Smyrna and Ignatius of Antioch, learned the faith at the feet of St. John himself.  And St. Irenaeus was only one generation removed, a student of Polycarp.  These were three of the most important Church Fathers after the Apostles.  That is the true apostolic succession; not a genealogical record of who laid hands on whom in ordination, going back to the Apostles, but the teaching of the Apostles passed down from one generation to the next.

            So what about this man, John?  Well… what about him?  The Lord had His plan for John, even as He had His plan for Peter.  And so He has His plan for you.  Don’t always be comparing yourself to others.  Don’t always be wondering why you suffer as you do, and the other man does not; why he has this and that good thing, while you must go without it.  He has his cross, and  you have yours.  The Lord has a specific plan for each one of us, and His will shall be accomplished on earth as in heaven, and His will is the very best. 

            Do you know that the Lord brought you to this time, and this place, among these people, and in these circumstances, precisely for this very moment?  As Mordecai said to Queen Esther facing the possibility of suffering and death for her people, “who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14).  Indeed, she had, according to God’s will.  You are right where God wants you.  To do what?  To follow Him.  To suffer, yes, whatever He permits, and whatever cross He lays upon you.  And also to rejoice in Him.  To love.  To confess.  To speak in His Name.  To serve faithfully in your vocations.  To love and act for those among whom He places you.  And you are not to look from side to side, or behind you, asking, “what about this man?”  Eyes on Jesus.  He has redeemed you.  He was born for you.  He died for you.  He is risen for you.  He lives for you.  He loves you.  You belong to Him.  And your every moment is sanctified by His blood.  We worry so much about what may happen, about sickness and death, suffering and pain, as though those things are in our control.  But they aren’t.  It is much better than that.  They are in His!  None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself.  If we live, we live to the Lord.  If we die, we die to the Lord.  So whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s (Rom. 14:7-8).  We are His martyrs.  Jesus died and rose again for us, that He may be our Lord in life and in death, and that death may have no power over us.

            So what about John?  He followed Jesus.  Take John as your example, and follow in his train.  And read his writings, especially the Gospel that bears his name.  Jesus, of course, did many more things than John or the other evangelists could record in their accounts.  Were every one of the to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books” (John 21:25).  (B)ut these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).  John was an eyewitness of these things.  Take him at his word, and so receive the Gift: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, for you.  Merry Christmas!  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


Friday, December 25, 2020

Christmas Day

The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Day

December 25, 2020

Text: John 1:1-18

            The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5; ESV).  Beloved, these are dark days.  An accursed darkness has descended upon us, a darkness, spiritually speaking, not unlike the plague of tangible darkness inflicted on Egypt, a darkness to be felt (Ex. 10:21 ff.).  You know this.  It is not just the pandemic.  It is not just our political turmoil or societal instability.  These are but symptoms of the darkness.  It is true that you always feel the disease by the symptoms.  You feel the uncertainty about the future in the air, the transitive nature of things, things of great weight… nations, governments, freedom, family, the Church.  Loved ones divided by chasms of darkness.  “You believe what?  You voted for who?  You didn’t respond to COVID the way I think you should?!  You must not care about anyone but yourself!  Unlike me.  I care about everyone and every righteous cause.  You can believe me, because I posted about it on Facebook.”  You know the darkness in your own life.  Perhaps you have suffered a sickness, or the death of someone close to you, or a broken relationship.  And you have your regrets, as we all do.  And you know guilt and shame.  You know you are full of pride and lust and covetousness and idolatry.  And in all of that, the darkness would blind you. 

            Groping in the dark, we search for light in all the wrong places.  Self-righteousness, self-justification, virtue signaling.  Laws that will bring us salvation from disease, from low self-esteem, and the bad opinions of others.  Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve noticed this year, more than any other, an emphasis on the winter solstice, the so-called rebirth of the sun, a turning from the darkness of the longest night of the year to the ever-increasing light.  As though the darkness of night is the problem!  But it is a deception!  In fact, it’s good old-fashioned paganism.  This is a symptom, but it is a big one.  Having turned away from the true Light which enlightens everyone (v. 9), and having shut Him out, the world turns instead to created luminaries.  The sun, the moon, the stars.  The conjunction of planets… which was pretty cool, I must admit, although it was decidedly not the Star of Bethlehem, and certainly not the light of the world.  It is, though a sign, as are all the heavenly bodies, of the true Light, who created light in the beginning, spoke it into existence, and then assigned the light to these very bodies.  And it is He alone who can enlighten us.  By His Word.  By His Spirit.  The symptoms of darkness point to the darkness itself, which is a power.  A power once, ironically, named Lucifer, Light Bearer, who removed himself from the presence of the Light by his rebellion against the Light.  For a short time, he has been let loose in the world.  He sows his darkness in discord and strife, along with his demons who wreak havoc among us.  He dragged Adam down with him, and so the whole world.  But it is all a sham!  He is a nothing!  He is a nobody!  For what is darkness but the absence of light?  And Jesus Christ is the Light of the world.  And it is this Light, the Son of the Father, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, wrapped in swaddling cloths, and laid in a manger.  He has been born into the world.  Where He is, where He shines, the darkness is dispelled.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

            Oh, the darkness tried.  He did his worst.  The dragon stood before the woman, to devour her Child (Rev. 12).  Possessing a maniacal king to chase the Light from Bethlehem with rivers of infant blood.  Assaulting Him in the wilderness, tempting Him to forsake His Father.  Opposition from the crowds, the political powers, and religious leaders.  Rejection in His home town, His home congregation, even His family.  Sweat like drops of blood in a garden, with no help from His sleeping friends.  Abandoned by one and all in His hour of suffering.  Even His Father.  Shrouded in darkness from the sixth hour until the ninth.  My God, my God… why?

            To defeat the darkness, by tricking it into swallowing the Light.  By His crucifixion, the Light did the darkness to death. 

            And then the Son rose on a bright Sunday morning and exposed the darkness for what he is… a liar!  A fraud!  A washed-up angel who can go to hell.

            But not you.  For you are a washed-up human, bathed in the Light, and the scales of darkness have fallen from your eyes.  The Light was born for you.  He has come to you.  His death is for you.  His life is for you.  And you are in Him, and He is in you.  In fact, He makes His home with you.  For the Light, the Word, became flesh, and made His dwelling among you.  Right here.  In this place.  Among this people.  And you have seen His glory.  Glory, as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth, which are His gifts to you.  It shines forth in His Word as it is read and preached.  And then, there He is, in the flesh born of Mary, enthroned on the Altar, your Lord and your God.  At one time you were darkness, but He rescued you from that.  Now you are light in the Lord, and you walk in Him (Eph. 5:8).

            In this world, the darkness may appear to overcome you.  That is to say, you still sin and you still suffer.  You can only see the truth of the matter as the Light of Christ dwells in you, which is to say, by faith.  You know that things are not as they appear.  Your sins are forgiven.  Your suffering is coming to an end.  The whole world thinks death has won with the COVID pandemic.  You know better.  Christ is born!  The whole world thinks the struggle between darkness and light is decided by who is in power at any given moment.  You know better.  Christ is born!  The whole world thinks that it must justify itself, save itself, pass a law to deliver itself from all transgression.  You know better.  Christ is born!  Even as the darkness touches you, as it does and surely will, you know better.  Christ is born!  He is born for you!  When you are tempted to give in to the darkness, sink yourself into the Word, which is a lamp unto your feet and a light unto your path (Ps. 119:105).  Read the Gospel.  Pray the Psalms.  Call your pastor.  Go to Church.  And then confess the faith.  And as you speak that Light into the void, you shine Christ into every dark and hopeless corner.  That is why, whatever is happening now, out there, you are to go forth from this place and wish everyone you meet a “Merry Christmas,” and smile and love and be generous with all the hope and Light that is in you.  And that is why you now rejoice and laugh and feast and sing.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

            And so, beloved, merry Christmas!  Repeat the sounding joy!  The angels sing with pious mirth.  Why don’t you join them?  The days are dark, but the first bright rays have appeared over the horizon.  In fact, there they are, on the Altar.  Christ has come, and He is coming again.  And here He is for you right now.  And in His brightness, there is no darkness.  There is only eternal Day.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.           

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Christmas Eve

The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Eve

December 24, 2020

Text: Luke 2:1-20

            “What child is this, who, laid to rest, On Mary’s lap is sleeping?” (LSB 370:1).  When I hear those words, I often think of a Facebook meme one of my dear friends posted a number of years ago.  I don’t know if he created it, or where he got it.  And you should know, I don’t usually recommend getting your theology from Facebook, or from memes, least of all Facebook memes.  But this one hits the mark.  It is an image of our Lord Jesus on the lap of His mother, Mary.  But it is a split-screen, divided down the middle.  On one side is half of the sublime 1899 painting, “Madonna of the Lilies,” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau.  If you were blessed to receive a Christmas card this year from Aaron Grahn, you may have in your possession a copy of this image.  On the other side of the division, though, is half of the heart wrenching portrait of “Our Lady of Sorrows” holding the limp Body of our Lord Jesus, asleep in the death of crucifixion.  The juxtaposition of these images, like the juxtaposition we sing in the Christmas carol, answers the question: What Child is this, whose birth we celebrate this night?  Is He just some mythical, magical figure, like a jolly old elf, another symbol of the season?  Is He perhaps an ideal fashioned by the longings of our hearts and the spirit of the times?  Is He an inspiring revolutionary or a great moral teacher, the pinnacle of human potential?  Or is He, perhaps, more?  What Child is this whom Mary bounces on her knee, with joy and contentment, as she sits among the lilies?  (Yes, the lilies, those are so important!  See if you can guess their significance.)  Who is this Child, hands upraised in benediction, eyes piercing your soul as He gazes upon you?  The answer is in the second painting, and more importantly, in the Holy Gospel as the Spirit unfolds it.  This Child is not born to reach the heights of our own ideals of greatness and glory.  This is the Child born to die.  And not just any ignominious death.  He is Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  This Child is born to die for you.

            “Nails, spear shall pierce Him through, The cross be borne for me, for you” (v. 2).  We sing it in the hymn.  “Hail, hail the Word made flesh, The babe, the son of Mary!”  That is the whole point of Christmas, isn’t it?  Not an ideal, not a myth or a legend.  Not simply the paragon of wisdom and virtue.  It’s not even just that a baby has been born.  Lots of babies were born in the world that night, all of them, certainly, reason to rejoice.  But only One was announced by an angel to shepherds in the field keeping watch over their flocks.  Only One whose birth announcement broke heaven wide open for the celestial host to sing the first Christmas carol.  Only One did the angel preach as Savior, which is Christ the Lord, the King, the Son of David.  Good tidings of great joy.  God has come down to rescue His people in this Child.  Unto you… unto you!... is born this day a Savior, and He is the answer to all that plagues you.  Your sin.  Your death.  Hell itself.  They all come to an end in Him.  He is the promised Seed of the woman, whose crushed heal crushes the serpent’s head. 

            It is quite a picture the Gospel paints, isn’t it?  And yet, the picture is historical.  It is factual.  These things really happened, roughly two millennia ago.  The Christmas of nostalgia and legends does us no real good, just as a Christ who is only spirit, and not flesh and blood, helps us poor, sinful humans none.  It was a night not unlike this one, though we’re not sure what time of year (the Church Fathers made a guess by some pretty specious calculations).  But there they are, the poor couple, out on the road, unable to secure lodging.  Holed up in the cold, probably hungry, the sights, sounds, and smells are very real for the Holy Family.  The emotions they must have felt, fresh from rejection in Nazareth for a scandalous pregnancy, gossip and cruelty, and incredulity (“No, really, I’m a virgin, and this is God’s Son I’m carrying!”).  The census and taxes, weighed down by the heavy hand of the government.  And, again, rejection.  No place.  No room.  Not even for a mother whose hour has come.  And then, the birth pangs and the labor in the straw and the filth.

            But God holds history in the palm of His hands, and the details of this painting are composed by the Spirit with purpose.  They have a meaning.  They point us to the picture in all its fulness.  The little Lord Jesus is wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.  Luther says, in the same way, He is wrapped in the pages of Scripture.  Yes, “Here you will find the swaddling cloths and the manger in which Christ lies, and to which the angel points the shepherds [Luke 2:12].  Simple and lowly are these swaddling cloths,” says Luther, “but dear is the treasure, Christ, who lies in them.”[1]

            And there are the beasts, with Christ in their midst, a reminder to us that, while the respectable world has no room for Him, Christ comes in the very midst of beastly sinners in their stinking barnyard filth, and for them, for us, to save us from our beastliness and filth, and restore in us His image.  “Why lies He in such mean estate Where ox and ass are feeding?  Good Christian, fear; for sinners here The silent Word is pleading” (LSB 370:2).  He lays there for you, to grow up and be the Sacrifice of Atonement that delivers you from death and hell and gives you righteousness and life. 

            And the manger…  Mangers were made of wood or stone.  And in either case, the manger points first of all to our Lord’s death for our sins.  From wooden manger, to wooden cross.  From stone manger, to stone tomb.  It doesn’t matter which it was. This, again, is what makes the birth of this Baby so remarkable.  This Baby is God born to die for you and for your salvation.  The shepherds (and let it not be lost on you that the word “pastor” simply means “shepherd”) preach what they’ve heard from heaven, for Mary to keep and ponder in her heart.  And Mary is the very picture of the Church, which does this very thing, keeping and pondering the preaching of God’s Word.  And so you.  This is what you do.

            But so also (and this is a very ancient interpretation): The manger is a feeding trough for animals.  And here we are, the beastly sinners for whom this Child is born to die, gathered into His stable, and what does He do, but lay Himself out on the Altar for us to eat and to drink, and so be healed?  That the little Lord Jesus is laid in a manger preaches to us that He is the Bread of Life, Bread from Heaven, born in Bethlehem, the “House of Bread,” that we may eat and live eternally. 

             The picture is worth a thousand words, or better, the words paint the true picture.  “What child is this, who, laid to rest, On Mary’s lap is sleeping?”  The Babe, certainly, but also the grown man pierced through, the cross having borne for me, for you.  In every picture of the Nativity, you should see a picture of the cross.  For it is the cross that gives Christmas its meaning.  On the cross, God dies for you for the forgiveness of your sins.  On the cross, God dies to reconcile you to Himself.  Oh, and don’t forget the lilies.  Okay, they are an artist’s embellishment, but you know what the lilies preach.  That is why you bring them to Church on one particular Sunday every year.  Mary’s Boy doesn’t stay dead.  Jesus is risen and lives for you.  And so you live by His death and life.  Do you get the picture?  “Raise, raise the song on high,” Mary lifts Him up before your eyes!  “Joy, joy, for Christ is born, The babe, the son of Mary!” (v. 3).  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

[1] Prefaces to the Old Testament, AE 35:236.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Fourth Sunday in Advent

Fourth Sunday in Advent (B)

December 20, 2020

Text: Luke 1:26-38

            For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37; ESV).  We love that verse, because it is true, of course.  It means the sky is the limit for God.  He is Almighty.  He is all powerful.  He can do whatever He pleases.  But this is not the best translation.  The Greek is so much richer.  A better translation would be, “For no Word from God will be impossible.”  The emphasis is on the Word!  By the Word Mary’s relative Elizabeth in her old age has conceived a son, St. John the Baptist.  By the Word this shall come to pass that the angel declares to Mary, what Isaiah prophesied: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Is. 7:14).  It is by His Word that God accomplishes His mighty deeds.  He spoke the world and the universe into existence.  By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible” (Heb. 11:3).  By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host” (Ps. 33:4).  The Word of the LORD is creative.  He speaks into existence.  The Word of the LORD is performative.  He speaks and it is done.  The Word of the LORD is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).  God promises that His Word shall not return to Him empty, “but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Is. 55:11).  The Word is powerful.  No Word from God will be impossible.”  When God speaks, it is.

            So it is that the angel speaks the Word of God to the Virgin Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).  He speaks, and in that moment, it is done.  The Holy Spirit does indeed come upon her, through the Word.  The power of the Most High does indeed overshadow her, through the Word.  Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is conceived in Mary’s ear, and takes up residence in her womb. 

            Notice the splendor of this Trinitarian moment.  The Holy Spirit will come upon her.  The power of the Most High, the Father, will overshadow her.  And that which will be born of her is the Son of God.  This moment of conception is when God takes on human flesh and blood.  At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Christ as His incarnation, His enfleshment.  This is certainly appropriate.  But His incarnation actually occurs nine months before His birth.  Here is a mystery beyond our comprehension.  As the angel speaks this Word to Mary, God is an embryo.  The universe is held together by this little forming Baby.  And already at this stage He is doing the work of your redemption.  He is fully human, fully one with your flesh.  As surely as you were an embryo, He was an embryo for you.  What He is, He redeems: An embryo for embryos, a fetus for fetuses, a newborn for newborns, a toddler, a child, a teenager, an adult, for you.  And yet, He is no less God in every stage of His development.  Fully Man, fully God, for you.  And so He is in the fullest sense of the word, “Immanuel,” God with us, for He is with us in the flesh.

            In our Old Testament reading, King David wanted to build God a Temple, a place for God to dwell with His people.  God responds that David is not to build a house for Him, rather, God will build a House for David.  That House will be where God dwells with His people.  And that House is the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth.  The Body of Jesus is the true Temple.  The Body of Jesus is where God dwells with us in the flesh, tangibly, concretely.  The Body of Jesus is that Temple they would tear down, and in three days He would raise it again.  The apostles saw Him, heard His voice, touched Him.  You see Him by faith, hear His voice in His Word, and touch Him as His very Body is given to you in the Supper. 

            This Body is conceived as the Word is preached by the angel and heard by Mary.  Think about what this means also for the sanctity of human life from the moment of conception.  The Word conceived in Mary’s ear and taking up residence in her womb, this tiny little clump of cells, is God.  Christians ought never speak of an unborn child as “potential life,” or as part of a woman’s body, or as anything other than a precious baby with a human soul.  Whatever our Lord Jesus is, He redeems.  The worth of the unborn consists chiefly in this, that Jesus lived in the womb of His mother for them.  And they now are image bearers, as you are, created in His likeness.  Jesus was conceived into a set of circumstances that today would very possibly have led to His murder in an abortion mill.  Unplanned pregnancy.  Unwed, teenage mother.  Scandal in a small town.  Poverty.  Why would He come into such a messed up set of circumstances?  To redeem those in those very circumstances.  There is very good news here for women (and men) who have made mistakes, who have not remained chaste (now, Mary did remain chaste, but it was assumed she didn’t), who have found themselves pregnant in a bad set of circumstances, who have considered an abortion, and even for those who have aided an abortion, or had an abortion.  Jesus was conceived into their circumstances to redeem them.  To redeem you.

            This same Word conceived in the ear of the Virgin and implanted in her womb, is spoken to you.  He enters your ear and implants Himself, not in your womb, but in your heart and mind, in your very soul.  He takes possession of you.  And what is conceived in you is faith… Faith, which holds Christ.  It is faith in this little embryo God who was born to grow up and die on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins.  It is faith in this little embryo God who died, but who is risen, and lives, and reigns, in the flesh, at the right hand of God the Father, for you.  It is faith that this little embryo God gives you eternal life.  And it is faith that says with St. Mary, no matter how unbelievable the promises of God, no matter how incomprehensible to human reason His Word may be, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (v. 38).  This is not simply the assent of Mary’s will to this crazy plan of giving birth to God.  It is a confession that Mary’s place before God is under His Word.  She is what the Lord says of her.  She is a highly favored lady, for the Lord is with her (v. 28).  Her sins are forgiven.  She is the mother of God. 

            Let it be to me according to Your Word.”  That is your prayer.  That is your confession.  For you are what the Lord says of you.  You are a sinner whose sins have been taken away by the Lamb of God.  You are holy and spotless, washed clean by the blood of Christ.  You are a saint, righteous, because God has spoken it so, and it is to you according to His Word.  You are God’s child, because He has spoken His Name over you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and says to you, “you are mine” (Is. 43:1).  Faith that speaks these words with St. Mary acknowledges that your place before God is under His Word, which absolves you.  And you have no need to doubt whether your sins can be forgiven, not even those blackest, secret sins you’ve buried so deeply within your heart.  For no Word from God will be impossible.”  “I forgive you all your sins,” He says.  And they are forgiven.  All of them.  “Take, eat, this is my Body, which is given for  you… Take, drink, this is my Blood, which is shed for you, for the forgiveness of all of your sins.”  And it is.  The Body of Christ placed on your tongue.  The Blood of Christ poured down your gullet.  Sins gone forever.  Christ in you and you in Christ.  Let it be to me according to Your Word.”  God has spoken.  It is done.  You are forgiven.  You are loved.  You are free.  You are most highly favored.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.           

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Advent Midweek III

Advent Midweek 3: “Jesus, the Life of Jesse’s Tree”[1]

December 16, 2020

Text: Matt. 3:13-17; Rom. 6:1-11

            This evening we get a little foretaste of the feast to come at the Baptism of our Lord, which we’ll observe of January 10.  That day we’ll get St. Mark’s account of the Baptism, along with this same Epistle from Romans 6.  Tonight, we hear St. Matthew’s telling.  Now, much of what is said tonight will bear repeating on that day, but for this Advent midweek mediation, I would like to focus in on three things: 1. All three persons of the Holy Trinity, our one God, are in the water for you!  2. As you meet Christ in the water of Holy Baptism, a blessed exchange takes place.  And 3. Your new life in Christ is a continual return to your Baptism, a daily death with Him in repentance and a daily resurrection to life with Him in the Holy Spirit, bearing the fruits of faith.

            You know that all three Persons of the Godhead appear in the Baptism of our Lord in the Jordan.  There is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in the water, to be baptized by St. John.  And there is the Spirit of God, descending upon Him as a dove and coming to rest on Him.  And there is the voice of the Father from heaven above: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17; ESV).  Heaven is open.  The veil is pulled back.  We catch a glimpse of the Trinity in action.  The encounter with God takes place in the water. 

            And now that is the pattern for Christian Baptism in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Our Lord’s Baptism fills our Baptism with all its substance and saving benefits.  There is Christ for us in the water.  He is baptized into us, that ever after we be baptized into Him.  There is the Spirit, hovering over the water of His New Creation.  Now it is true, in your Baptism He does not descend upon you visibly as a dove, but He is just as assuredly present.  And He comes to rest upon you, the Spirit of the Father, given you through Jesus the Son, who brings you to faith in Jesus, who restores you to the Father.  This is the Spirit who calls you by the Gospel, enlightens you with His gifts, sanctifies and keeps you in the one true faith unto the Day of Resurrection when He will raise all the dead and give eternal life to you and me and all believers in Christ.  And there is the voice of the Father.  He is making a declaration about you.  He makes this declaration because you are now in Christ, His Son, baptized into Him.  He says of you: “This is my beloved son, my beloved daughter, God’s own child, I gladly say it.  And in this one I am well pleased.”  That is a declaration of justification.  For, you see, in your Baptism, Christ washes away your sins.  He clothes you with Himself and with all His righteousness.  You put Him on like a garment, like a spotless baptismal gown.  So the Father sees you as He sees His Son, Christ.  Sinless.  Holy.  Beloved.  And He says so.  He calls it as He sees it.  And the Word of our God cannot be broken.  Heaven is open for children of our Father.  The saving encounter with God takes place in the water.

            So what happens at Jesus’ Baptism, happens at yours.  Now when you meet Christ for you there in the water, a blessed exchange takes place.  All that is yours, now becomes His, and all that is His, now becomes yours.  It is not as though Jesus needed to be baptized.  Not for His own sake, He who is without sin.  He is baptized for you, to take what is yours.  That is all your sin and unrighteousness, your guilt and shame, your death, your punishment, the condemnation you merit.  These all become His own.  He soaks all of these up from the water into Himself.  That in His flesh, He may be the Sin Bearer for sinful humanity, that He may expiate our sin by His death on the cross.  But He leaves something else behind in the water.  Namely, all that is His, for you to receive, when you enter the water to be baptized.  That is all His righteousness and holiness, His innocence and glory, His life, His reward, and the Kingdom He merits by His blood and death.  It is not unlike a Bride and a Bridegroom.  In fact, that is exactly what Scripture calls it.  All that is the Bride’s becomes the Groom’s, and all that is the Groom’s becomes the Bride’s.  He takes on your debt and pays it in full.  You receive His riches, and you will never lack.  He brings you into His Home, under His protection, and there He provides for you and keeps you in perfect peace.  The wedding ring of faith seals this exchange.  Faith receives all the benefits.  And joy everlasting is your inheritance.

            But for now, we live here, in this fallen world, the sinful nature hanging on for dear life.  Simul justus et peccator, at the same time righteous and sinner.  We have one foot in both realities.  In Christ, we are perfectly righteous, saints by virtue of His righteousness.  But in ourselves, in the flesh, we are miserable sinners, indeed.  It is this struggle between the you in Christ and the you curved in on yourself that marks the life of every Christian.  It is a cycle.  It is a pattern of continual return to your Baptism, of daily death and resurrection.  You are baptized into Christ.  That is the immovable fact of the matter.  But it is also true that you daily sin against your God.  So what are you to do with that?  St. John has been preaching it to us the past two Sundays.  Repent.  That is, die to yourself.  Confess your sins to God and thereby crucify the sinful nature.  Plunge Old Adam back down under the baptismal waters.  And believe the Gospel St. John preaches.  Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  That is, He takes away your sin.  And knowing and believing that Gospel, is resurrection from the dead.  The Holy Spirit raises you to new life by breathing the life-giving Gospel of Christ, the Holy Absolution, into you.  So now being raised to new life… live!  Live according to God’s Commandments.  Fear, love, and trust in God above all things.  Love and serve your neighbor as yourself. 

            And this cycle is always on repeat in this life, because you do not love God or your neighbor perfectly; because the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.  But neither do you jump out of the cycle.  You sin.  Okay, now what?  Repent.  Confess.  Be Absolved.  Believe.  Live.  Fight against temptation.  Love God and your neighbor, which is to say, obey the Commandments.  Repent, believe, live… Repent, believe, live… Daily.  Continually.  Death and resurrection.  This is just what Luther teaches us in his Small Catechism: “What does such baptizing with water indicate?  It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”[2]  In fact, this is simply what St. Paul preaches in our Epistle: “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).  You see, having died to sin with Christ, how can we still live in it?  We can’t.  Christ has died for sin, once for all, and He now lives eternally.  We died with Christ in our Baptism into Him, therefore sin no longer enslaves us.  We fight against it, resisting, confessing, believing the Absolution, living by the Spirit poured out upon us.  For we are already God’s beloved children with whom He is well pleased.  He already said so at the Font, and says so again and again in the Gospel.  So now, because we love Him, we live according to that reality. 

            Beloved, you are baptized into Christ.  The Son is in the water for you.  The Spirit descends and rests upon you.  God declares that He loves you and is pleased with you.  Christ takes away all your sin and condemnation.  He gives you all His righteousness and life in exchange.  And now you daily die and rise in Him until the Day when death will be no more and He will raise you bodily forever.  Christ is the life of Jesse’s tree.  Christ is your life now and forever.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.              

[1] The theme and some of the thoughts for this sermon are taken from Daniel Gard, Jesse Tree (St. Louis: Concordia, 2020).

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

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Third Sunday in Advent - Gaudete

Third Sunday in Advent (B)

December 13, 2020

Text: John 1:6-8, 19-28

            St. John the Baptist was a man sent by God to be a martyr for Christ.  That word, “witness,” or “testimony,” which occurs again and again in our Holy Gospel (and I do wish they had translated it consistently), comes from the Greek word, “martyr.”  Now, we, of course, associate the word “martyr” with someone who sheds his blood for a belief or a cause, particularly the Christian martyrs who are faithful unto death, and so receive the crown of eternal life (Rev. 2:10).  That certainly describes John.  In Greek, however, the word strictly means “one who bears witness, or gives testimony.”  And that is the special Office of John as prophet and forerunner, the voice crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord” (John 1:23; ESV).  And the two meanings are not unrelated, martyrdom as testimony and as death for a cause, as we see in the life and death of St. John himself.  What gets him killed?  His testimony to the Truth.  His preaching of God’s Word.  His calling to repentance.  His pointing to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  And specifically, his fearless calling upon Herod and Herodias to repent of their adulterous sexual union.

            And all in great humility.  This is what marks the life and ministry, and death, of St. John the Baptist.  Jesus says that among those born of women, none is greater than St. John – except the One who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 11:11; Luke 7:28), and that is Jesus Himself, Almighty God in the flesh, crucified for sinners to save us.  This teaches us that John’s greatness is the same as that of Jesus: Humility.  Humility is the true greatness.  Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave (Matt. 20:26-27).  John confesses… he does not deny, but confesses, in great humility, that he is not the Christ.  He is not in it to bring glory to himself, as he so easily could have done.  But he is sent only to bring glory to Christ, only to testify of Christ, to be a martyr for Christ.  And so even when they ask him if he is Elijah who was to come, he denies it (John 1:21), though Christ tells us John is Elijah who was to come (Matt. 11:14), as the one sent in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:17).  He dresses like Elijah.  He eats like Elijah.  He appears in the place where Elijah dropped his mantel as he was taken up into heaven, the far side of the Jordan (2 Kings 2).  But the Jews thought Elijah himself would come back in the flesh before the arrival of Messiah, and John doesn’t want them thinking that… because it isn’t true, and because that would deflect the honor due Christ to John, who is always pointing away from himself, and to Christ.  This, by the way, is why so many of the icons of St. John show him pointing… to Christ!  Behold, the Lamb of God!  Nor will John accept designation as the Prophet who was to come.  This is a reference to Moses’ prophecy that a Prophet like Moses would arise in Israel, and to Him the people should listen (Deut. 18:18-19).  That Prophet is not John.  It is Christ!  So with great humility, John testifies concerning the Christ.  I am nobody.  I am nothing.  I am simply the voice, sent by Another… sent by God.  As a matter of fact, I am not even worthy to do for Christ a service that would usually be considered beneath the dignity of slaves… I am not even worthy to untie the strap of His sandal (John 1:27).  So don’t look at me.  Look at Him.  I am nothing.  He is everything.

            In fact, everything I do, John is saying, is in preparation for Him.  It all points to Him.  It is all fulfilled in Him.  John’s whole life and ministry is a martyrdom, a testimony of Christ.  He goes before the Lord to prepare His way.  This is uniquely illustrated in a concept I find particularly helpful called “step-parallelism.”  It sounds more complicated than it is.  It is simply to say, all that John is and does as forerunner is stepped up in parallel as it is fulfilled in Christ.  So John is miraculously born to an old barren woman.  Jesus is miraculously born of a virgin.  In his humility, John is the greatest born of woman.  But as the least in the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus is the One greater than John.  John baptizes with water.  Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit.  John’s Baptism is in preparation.  Jesus’ Baptism fulfills all righteousness.  John preaches the coming of the Lord.  Jesus is the Lord who comes.  And so it goes, all through John’s and Jesus’ parallel lives and ministries.  John is a martyr, a witness, in all that happens to him, in all that he says and does.  And this includes even his death.  John dies a martyr’s death, executed by the state for his faithfulness to God’s Word.  Jesus, the Word made flesh, dies the accursed death of the cross, executed by the state for His faithfulness to God His heavenly Father, to redeem sinners, to redeem you.  John’s life points to Jesus’ life.  John’s death points to Jesus’ death.  And then the whole things is turned on its head.  For Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and He will raise John, and so He will raise you. 

            And that is important, too.  Just as there is a parallel between John and Jesus, so there is a parallel between John and Jesus and you.  You are a martyr for Christ.  Yes, you.  Which is to say, you are a witness.  You are one who gives testimony about Him.  Now, this is the part of the sermon where you probably expect a guilt trip about how you should awkwardly bring up Jesus at work and every time you meet a stranger, and go knocking door to door to ask people what would happen to them if they died tonight.  Well, you certainly may do that, though I’m not sure it’s all that effective.  The Mormons knocked on my door right at dinner time the other night, and I have to confess, it was all I could do to be patient and winsome.  Thank God, biblically speaking, that is not what it means to be a witness, a martyr. 

            The biblical way isn’t any easier.  In fact, it may be harder, but it is more natural.  Take your cue from St. John.  In humility, be always pointing away from yourself and to Christ as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  While you are not called to be a prophet, you are sent out into the wilderness of this world to prepare the Lord’s way by faithfully confessing Him and His Word.  And that simply means living your life and going about your daily tasks as a Christian… as one baptized into Christ.  There are some people to whom it is your responsibility to confess Christ directly.  So do that.  You should teach your kids the faith and raise them in the Church.  You should encourage and admonish your fellow Christians.  You should speak with Christian love and concern to your family members and friends who are separated from Christ by unbelief, and you should invite them to Church.  And of course, if God gives you an opportunity to speak… to anyone… speak!  But it doesn’t have to be awkward.  It doesn’t mean wedging Jesus into every interaction.  It means that as a Christ-bearer, baptized into Christ, covered by His blood, His resurrection life and His Spirit in you, Christ is already present in your interactions.  And people will notice this.  They’ll wonder why you don’t laugh at the crude joke that demeans other human beings for whom Christ died.  They’ll wonder why you don’t despair in the midst of tragedy, how you can be joyful even in the midst of great sadness, why you don’t hold a grudge, but forgive those who do you wrong.  They’ll wonder why you spend such a significant part of your weekend at Church, and how it is you aren’t here out of some sense of guilt or moral obligation, but because you love to be here with your Lord and your fellow Christians.  They’ll wonder at your language, when you hear bad news and say “Christ have mercy,” or when you hear good news and say “Thanks be to God.”  They’ll wonder when you tell them you are praying for them.  And they may even ask you about it, and this is where you will have to be ready to give an answer for the hope that is within you, with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).  And you already know what to say.  Because you know the Creed.  We say it nearly every time we’re together.  The Spirit has provided you the words.  You don’t have to be eloquent.  Just say the truth as it has been given to you.

            This is really just what St. Paul is bidding us do in the Epistle (1 Thess. 5:16-24).  Live your life in Christ as God’s redeemed child, always rejoicing; always praying, in constant conversation with God ("Lord, have mercy"... "Praise be to Christ”… “Jesus, help me”…); giving thanks in all circumstances (yes, even when bad things happen); gladly hearing and learning God’s Word; holding fast to all that is good; and abstaining from every form of evil.  The God of peace will accomplish this in you.  He is faithful.  He will do it.  This is simply your way of life in Him.  And as He does this in you, you are a living witness, a living martyr, to Him.  You are ever and always pointing to Him.

            And this is the hard part: Even when the world points and laughs and mocks you for it.  Even when the world reviles you and persecutes you and utters all kinds of evil against you falsely on account of it (Matt. 5:11).  Even when Herod demands your head on a platter.  Even when Pilate washes his hands of you and crucifies you.  Now we come to the specialized meaning of the word “martyr.”  Even if the world demands your death.  You bear it.  In faith.  You rejoice and pray and give thanks.  And you point to Him.  They can only kill your body for a time.  Your Christian life is parallel to John’s and Jesus’.  Your faithful death is parallel to John’s and Jesus’.  Now Jesus is risen from the dead.  He will raise John.  He will raise you.  In life and in death, it is good to be a martyr for Christ, one who bears witness to Him.  For unworthy though you are, even to loose the strap of His sandal, He gives you so much more.  He gives you to live for Him, and die for Him, and live with Him eternally. 

            Beloved, we are halfway through Advent.  It is almost Christmas.  Christ is coming.  Your sins are forgiven.  Gaudete!  Rejoice!  Rejoice always!  You have eternal life.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.