Sunday, December 31, 2006

Sleepless in San Diego?

New Year’s Eve

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Luke 12:35-40

Are you going to be awake tonight when the new year begins? It will happen whether you are or not. For some people it’s fun to actually be awake for it. For others it’s nice to be able to get a good night of sleep and be refreshed for the first day of the new year.

In the Gospel reading Jesus exhorts us to be awake for His return on the last day. Now for tonight you know exactly when the time is you need to be awake if you want to greet the new year with your eyes open. But how in the world are we supposed to know when Christ will come again? We’re not. And we won’t know because then we wouldn’t have any reason to be vigilant.

And that’s what Jesus is talking about in being awake. He’s not saying we have to lose sleep over it. He’s saying that we must be prepared for when He returns. The end of one year and the beginning of a new one always seems a time to assess your life. What went wrong? What went well? What can I do better in the year to come? What should I get rid of?

Jesus isn’t necessarily exhorting us to write out a list of new year’s resolutions. But He is calling us to take stock of our life. Are we being vigilant when we continue to wallow in the same desires of the flesh we’ve grown secure in? Are we prepared for His return when we take lightly the Word of God, treating it as something that we just hear now and then? Are we sleeping at the wheel spiritually when we don’t see the opportunity ahead of us in the new year to share the remarkable mystery of God becoming a man to save the world from sin?

Jesus says He’s coming at an hour we do not expect. He also says something about Himself that we perhaps expect even less: “Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when He comes. Truly, I say to you, He will dress Himself for service and have them recline at table, and He will come and serve them.” Businesses of course use incentives to get you to buy their product. If Jesus isn’t giving us incentive here, I don’t know what incentive is.

But it’s not the kind of thing where He’s saying, Look, all you have to do is live a circumspect life, be prepared, and then when I return you’ll have it real good. No, what He’s saying is that He is the Master. We are His servants. He has brought us into His Household through His redemption of the cross and resurrection. If we get lazy and take His blessings to us for granted then we may find ourselves wandering away from His eternal Household. He wants us to be prepared. To remain vigilant.

If a member of the household doesn’t pull his weight around the household what happens? The other members begin to despise him. But you know what else happens? He begins to despise the household and the members of it. And if he’s honest, he begins to despise himself.

We are the children of God. And children have to pull their own weight around the house, right? We’ve already pictured the scenario of what happens if they don’t. But this is not a joyless calling from God. It is a blessed one. He is our master, and what a master He is! He rules us not in tyranny but in grace. Unexpectedly, He serves us!

If we think it’s a burden to be a servant of God, then we are sadly mistaken by our sinful flesh. Our sinful flesh wants to be a lazy slob. Why is God always putting demands on me? Jesus tells us something very different from the delusion of our sinful flesh: “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.” He delights in setting before us a banquet of grace. Coming in humility through the womb as we have. Suffering the humiliation of criminal trial and mockery by pagan soldiers. Suffering the consequence of our guilt and sin. Suffering the bitterness of being forsaken by His own Heavenly Father.

He lays before us riches of glory that we will fully realize in heaven. For now, they are a foretaste of the Feast to come. He in fact serves us so that we may be prepared. He comes to us so that we may be strengthened and lifted up. He blesses us so that we overcome in the time of trial and temptation and remain vigilant, awake. When He returns He will open for us the gates of glory, inviting us to dwell with Him face to face. Amen.

The Source of Our Peace

First Sunday after Christmas

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Luke 2:22-40

In today’s Gospel reading we see Joseph, Mary, and Jesus going to the temple. We also see two people there, Simeon and Anna. We have come to the end of the year and here we find ourselves in the house of God. We can learn from these five people in the temple for our own life and for our worship life.

The first thing we see is Jesus being brought to the temple in fulfillment of the Law of Moses. We saw in the Old Testament reading how God prescribed His Law that the firstborn is to be consecrated to Him. The reason God does this is for a way of reminding His people that He has saved them. He delivered them in a mighty way from their bondage to the Egyptians. His delivering them then into the Promised Land is a powerful display that He will deliver all His people of all time from the bondage of sin and into the Promised Home of heaven.

That’s what this is all about, Joseph and Mary obeying the Law of God, bringing Jesus into the temple. He certainly didn’t need to purified, He’s without sin. And yet, He did obey the Law of God in perfection, something we have not done. In this way Jesus came to be our Savior, and He was even in the process of saving us as an infant. Because of His righteousness before God the Heavenly Father, we are consecrated, made holy and acceptable in His sight.

But then we also meet this man who is there, Simeon. We learn much from Simeon because the Holy Spirit had a hand in him being part of this amazing plan of salvation which was unfolding before Mary and Joseph’s eyes. A prophecy had been given to Simeon, and we might think that that would be a pretty great thing to happen to us. Luke tells us that “it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.”

Wouldn’t that be great? It sure was for Simeon. He expressed gratefulness to God for such a privilege. The words that He spoke were preserved, in fact, by the very Holy Spirit who granted him this gift. And you can probably guess who they were preserved for: you and me.

That’s why we sing them often after we receive the Lord’s Supper. We’ll do so today when we come shortly to the altar of God to receive the very body and blood of Christ. Because this promise that was given to Simeon is also God’s promise to us. We also may depart in peace according the Word of the Lord. For in receiving the bread and wine that has been consecrated by Christ’s very Word, our eyes, too, have seen His salvation which He has prepared in the presence of all peoples.

You remember when the shepherds spoke to Mary and Joseph what they had received from the angels? Mary and Joseph were amazed. Here again, as they keep hearing startling things about their son, they marvel at the words of Simeon. Isn’t that the way it is with us also? Aren’t we continually amazed by the love of Christ? That He would die for us? That He would break the bondage of death by stepping forth from His tomb. That He would humble Himself for us by being born as we are. That He would continue to offer Himself to us in His Holy Supper.

We are privileged today as Simeon was two thousand years ago. We receive this very day, the last day of the year, the body and blood of Christ at this altar, in the House of God. Today He consecrates us. He breaks the bonds sin and guilt hold on us. He strikes down our enemy, Satan, in the body and blood that was given and shed at Calvary that He offers to you today.

What does this mean for us? It means that at the close of this year we can see what lies ahead in the year to come. And not only 2007 but what God has prepared for us eternally. Simeon spoke a specific blessing to Mary. Anna spoke generally to all there who would hear. They were both at the temple. And we all here know that there’s plenty of encouragement we need among ourselves in the faith. We need to continually be reminded of God’s love for us, which is why we need to continue to be here in the coming year. We need to continue to receive God’s love as He delivers it to us in the Supper Christ prepares for us.

At the last hour of our life we will say with Simeon, “Let your servant depart in peace.” Because He always fulfills His Word. When He says He’ll save us, He’ll save us. There of course is an element of the new year we don’t know. We don’t know when our last hour will come. It may come in the coming year; it may be far off. But whatever is in His holy will, we may depart from this temple of God here today in peace. The Gifts of God having touched our lips. The promises of God ready to spring forth from our lips.

We don’t know who all we’ll run across in the new year. Many old faces, some new. All need to hear. All need to know what Simeon rejoiced in. What Mary and Joseph marveled at. What Anna delighted in sharing with others. May our new year be filled with the blessing that God gave in this often overlooked event of the infant Jesus going to the temple. God grant you His peace that surpasses understanding because of and through His Son. Amen.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Holy Innocents, Martyrs

[December 28, 2006]

It has always caused me to wonder, even troubled me, why we Lutherans observe the commemoration of the Holy Innocents. If we hold to the doctrine of original sin and take seriously that we are conceived and born in sin, that our only hope is in Christ, then how is it that these boys two years and under who were murdered by Herod were “innocent”?

First of all, it is a tragedy what happened. In his insane anger and paranoia Herod caused untold grief to the parents of these boys. But as we have seen so many times throughout history, what God in His Word says about bearing the cross, enduring persecution, suffering on account of Christ, is part and parcel to being a Christian.

So what was it about these boys that they have been designated as the “holy innocents”? Well they were innocent to the degree that they certainly did not deserve to be murdered, as no one deserves this. But they most certainly were not innocent in terms of their standing before God. They were sinners just like every other person born other than Christ. So do we just give them an exemption? No, they are no different from us. In fact, we too are declared to be “holy” and “innocent” before God also. How that is is through Baptism. God is the one who declares us holy and innocent before Him. Those toddler and infant boys that were murdered by Herod could not be kept out of heaven because they were victims of another’s rage. They had been circumcised just as we in the Church today are Baptized. Circumcision was the rite God had given to His Old Testament people as the sign of His covenant to them.

Those boys met an untimely death, but were welcomed into heaven sooner than their parents had expected. When we are met with grief like this, our only comfort is in God Himself and His salvation through Christ. That is why we are Baptized, because we know it He who is saving us, declaring us holy, making us truly innocent, His children forever.

John, Apostle and Evangelist

Tradition has it that John was the only one of the twelve apostles (other than Judas of course) who wasn’t martyred. And yet, what happened to him? He was persecuted nonetheless, as we learn from Scriptures, banished to the island of Patmos. The apostles knew exactly what was in store for them after having been called by Christ and formed by Him for three years for the ministry. Do we know what is in store for us? Do we expect that since we’re not great men and women like the apostles we’re going to have an easy road as Christians?

John, as noted, was an apostle of Christ and also an evangelist. Evangelist is the term that designates the four Gospel writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Interestingly, only two of the evangelists were also apostles: Matthew and John. John also wrote four other books of the New Testament: 1, 2, and 3 John and Revelation. There is a remarkable coherence to his inspired books in the New Testament. The love of the Savior is really brought out not only in John’s Gospel account but also through John himself in his three letters. His appeal to the Christians of the first century reaches across the centuries to us today. It is only in Christ that we are truly loved and that we truly can love.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Stephen, First Martyr

Looking at it from purely a historical standpoint, Jesus would be considered the first martyr of Christianity. But Jesus did not choose to die in order to be a martyr. He chose to die to save the world from sin. Not only that, Jesus did not stay dead. He rose from the grave three days after His crucifixion. Kind of hard to be a martyr when you’re alive.

Stephen was the first Christian to die for being a Christian. Countless martyrs have followed him. We may not think it likely for ourselves. And it may not be likely. But every Christian may be called upon to confess their faith in the face of death. On the day we commemorate Stephen, the first to be so called, may our prayer be that of his: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

Then we will discover something about martyrdom. That Stephen is much more like Jesus than unlike Him. For Stephen, too, is not dead but alive. He lives with Christ forever in heaven, because the death of a Christian is the beginning of eternal glory in the Mansion our Lord has prepared for us. May our prayer also be that in life we remain in the faithful promises of God.

Monday, December 25, 2006

A Time for Eveything

A Time for Everything

The Nativity of Our Lord

Christmas Day

Sunday, December 25, 2006

Luke 2:1-20

There’s something about the account of Jesus’ birth in Luke that evokes a famous passage of Scripture: Ecclesiastes 3. It’s the one that begins with “there is time for everything done under heaven”. Then it gives many examples: “a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted”; and so on.

When you look at what all is in the account Luke gives us of the birth of Jesus you begin to see that there’s a lot of rejoicing in there and the telling of the Good News. You also begin to see that mostly this surrounds the experience of the shepherds in hearing the Good News from the angels and then telling others.

But surrounding these extraordinary events of the shepherds are moments of quiet. Not jumping up and down for joy; just simple quiet. The actual description of Jesus’ birth is told almost matter-of-factly. And then we hear about the shepherds and all the joy, and then it goes back to Mary and the description of her quietly pondering all that has happened.

So I thought there might be something in Ecclesiastes 3 about there being time for joy and a time for quiet. One of them says: “a time to mourn, and a time to dance”, but that doesn’t fit since Mary wasn’t mourning at all. She was quietly pondering.

The closest one is this: “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak”. Mary was silently taking all this in while the shepherds were hard at it in making it known. And this is important for us to know. The birth of Christ calls for celebration even as it calls for quietly pondering it. It calls for joy, even as it moves us to stand in awe of it, at times to the point of silently meditating on it.

There is a time for everything under heaven. We would do ourselves well if we balanced out our observance of Christmas with both joy and quiet pondering. Because it’s in this balanced observance that we begin to see the fullness of what it means that God became a man. There is a time for both, and we miss out on the fullness of what Christ has done for us by being born if we never exult in the pure joy of it. And if we never quietly consider the awesomeness of this miracle we might get stuck in pure emotionalism.

Perhaps this is why Ecclesiastes 3 puts all the things there is a time for under heaven into perspective when it begins saying: there is “a time to be born, and a time to die”. We love Christmas, don’t we? We often do very much feel the joy of the extraordinary event. Jesus was born! The Savior came into the world! There is a time for birth, and who doesn’t rejoice at the fruition of a long-expected pregnancy?

But as much as we like to think about birth and life and the joy it brings; as much as we rejoice in the Good News of the birth of Jesus Christ at Bethlehem; there is a time to die. Christmas might not seem the right time to focus on that. But there is never a bad time to be reminded that when it comes to Jesus, there was a time to die. His birth was about His death. His life was for the purpose of His death.

When it comes to God saving the world from sin, there is a time to be born and a time to die. And that’s why Jesus was born. So He could die. And that is reason to rejoice! He was born in order to live in perfect fulfillment of God’s Law as we have not done. And He suffered on the cross in order to take on Himself the curse that is ours for the sin we have committed against the holy God. There is nothing which can bring greater joy.

And yet, let us meditate on this also. If we ponder all of this in our heart, we will get a little taste of what Mary marveled at in the midst of those startling things the shepherds were saying. Marveling at the still unbelievable privilege of giving birth to the Savior of the world.

And in our joy as well as our quiet meditation, we will begin also to ponder all these things in our hearts. As we also take in all that has been said about our Lord who was born at Bethlehem. As we give honor to the one who was struck down at Calvary. As we ourselves partake of that very Body and Blood that had its beginning at Bethlehem and was given in sacrifice at Calvary. It’s in the Lord’s Supper that we experience what this passage describes: this joy that cannot be contained and this quiet marveling that God is so great that He comes in a humble baby in order to save the world from sin and death.

This is the sustenance for the new life we have in Christ. There is a time for everything. To receive from God and to rejoice in what He has given us. Amen.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

A Tragedy

The Nativity of Our Lord

Christmas Eve

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Luke 2:1-20

I imagine you didn’t come here this evening to hear about a tragedy. But I can’t get it out of my mind, so that’s what you’re going to hear about. The other day I was listening to a Christian radio show and a story was being told about a man who had reached the height of success. Power. Wealth. Popularity. Wonderful family. The only problem was that he was a Christian Scientist and therefore his belief was that there is no such thing as sin. So when he was caught up in criminal activity and was found guilty, this didn’t register with him.

His life was in shambles. He lost his position, his wealth, his power, and even his family. He got divorced. He became bitter and disillusioned. He ended up getting married again and his children finally gave up on him. The person on the radio show kept saying what a tragedy it was that he had no concept of sin and that we must acknowledge our sinfulness.

He tried reaching out to this man on several occasions. One particular time he gave the man a book he wrote called “Loving God”. The man responded, “Loving God… I need a God who will love me.” But the man who was offering the book corrected him: “You need to first acknowledge that we need to love God.”

Now it’s a heart-wrenching story of what happened to that man. It is tragic. But as I listened to the story being told and the offer of the book and the response that “I need a God who loves me”, I thought, what a perfect opportunity to share with a man who is beaten down the amazing love of the God of the universe who loves each one of us so much that He became a man. That He suffered and died in our place. That there is a God who loves you more than you could ever imagine. That if you think your life is a tragedy and all you see is hopelessness, then let me tell you about the God who loves you so much that He has undergone the kind of turmoil you have experienced.

The tragedy is that the man who was telling the story didn’t seize the opportunity! He said the exact opposite of what the hurting man needed to hear. If all he needed to hear was that he needs to love God more then where would that leave him? How could he really love God? After all he did. After not believing in Him his entire life. After denying that his actions in his life were in fact sins against the Holy God. Even if he could love God, could he love Him enough? And how could he make amends for all the things he did wrong and the people he hurt?

That unbeliever got it more right than the person telling the story: we need a God who loves us. The tragedy is that he may never have heard the best of all news, that God loves him. But how do we know? How do we know we have a God who loves us more than we could imagine? We look to Bethlehem. We look to the often lonely life Jesus lived. We look to the cross upon which He died.

You know what the tragedy is? The Savior of the world, the Lord Himself, being subjected to traveling away from home and being born in a stable because the Roman emperor declared it to be a good time to hold a census. The tragedy is that while He gained quite a following in His three-year ministry, every single follower of His deserted Him in His hour of need, when He was betrayed and handed over to the authorities to be arrested. What was tragic was Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great who slaughtered the boys two and under in the hopes of murdering the baby Jesus, seeking from Jesus to put on a show. It was tragic that as Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate he had the power to free Jesus or execute Him.

The tragedy is that the miraculous and joyful birth at Bethlehem ended in humiliation and crucifixion thirty years later. Why would God Almighty go through such pains to send His Son into the world?

Dear friends, it can only be one thing: there is a God who loves us. Do we need to love God? Of course we do. That goes without saying. And yes, we do need to exhort one another to love God more than we do. But the true tragedy of Christmas, of life itself, would be to reduce Christmas and what the Savior did to the need for loving God more than we do. There would be nothing more tragic than dying without knowing that God loves you and has sent His Son to die for you.

The true triumph of Christmas is the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The joy of Christmas is in the salvation He came to bring. But it came through the tough times of His parents’ hard travel to Bethlehem, Mary giving birth among animals, His ministry that was often despised, and deep pain, torture, and humiliation in being led to Calvary where He would be crucified.

God has brought triumph through tragedy. No matter where you’ve been, what you’ve gone through, who you are, there is a God who loves you. And His name is Jesus. He was born in Bethlehem so He could die for your sins. Rejoice that even in the tragedies of life, He has broken through them to bring you out of them and into heaven. Amen.

A God by Any Other Name…

Fourth Sunday in Advent

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Luke 1:39-56

A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet. In Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet are heart-broken that their families hate each other and that that’s between their love for each other. Juliet sees that who her beloved is, no matter his name, her love for him is true. And to a great degree, this is true. No matter what you call a thing, it is the thing that it is. A rose is a rose, even if you are taught it has a different name. It will smell just as sweet.

But at the same time, what we call God, what God calls Himself, matters. It’s true that God is God no matter what. But can we refer to Him in just any way we care to? Are the “gods” of other religions the true God, despite the fact they have a different name? What’s in a name when it comes to God?

In the Word of God itself there are many names for God. And since He’s the author of the Book, we can safely conclude that they’re all legitimate, and, shall we say, godly names for Him. Even in our Gospel reading for today we have a few names for God: Lord, God, Savior, the Mighty One. And Mary even says of God: “holy is His name”.

We of course know who God is because He has revealed Himself to us in His Holy Word. What He calls Himself in the Bible isn’t just so that we know what to call Him. The names of Himself He gives in His Word reveal to us what kind of a God He is. They tell us about Him, what He does, how He thinks about us.

This evening in our Christmas Eve worship we are going to be celebrating the coming of Jesus into the world in His birth at Bethlehem. But really God came into the world before the delivery of the baby Jesus in that stable. It was nine months before in His conception in the womb of Mary. For nine months the Savior of the world was peacefully at rest inside Mary.

It was even before His birth that the promises of the Old Testament had begun to come true. A virgin was great with child, and without the breaking of the sixth commandment. A young pregnant woman visiting with her cousin, who was also the recipient of a miraculous conception, caused the baby in her to leap for joy at the sound of the mother of the Lord’s voice.

Jesus had already begun saving the world. Because it wasn’t only in His death on the cross that He secured salvation for the world. It was also in His life. In His bringing to fruition all the promises of the Old Testament concerning God’s eternal love for mankind and His desire to send a Savior to take away the sins of the world. Jesus hadn’t even been born and already Elizabeth, her unborn son John, and the mother of Jesus Himself had received life-altering experiences. Not only were they changed for the rest of their lives, they were changed forever.

The names Elizabeth and Mary call God show us how. They both call their God “Lord”. This was the name that was the main one God and His people in the Old Testament called Him. Usually we think of the name “Lord” as a master. And He is our master. But He is more than that. The name God used of Himself also brought the idea that He is the eternal God, the one who will always be there for His people. This was brought undeniably close to home with Elizabeth and Mary as they were now living proof that God desires to dwell among men.

Mary also calls God “God”. And this almost seems a generic name for God and the one often used. But notice what she says about God: “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior”. What does it mean that God is our “Savior”? The obvious answer is that He is the one who saves us. And He does indeed do that. But don’t you love the way Mary brings this salvation to life in how she describes the salvation of God her Savior?: “for He has looked on the humble estate of His servant.”

Mary was rejoicing to God that everything she was receiving, everything that was happening to her, all that she was blessed with, was all of God. It was all from Him, by Him, and through Him. She deserved none of it. She couldn’t bring any of it about. If she was saved it was because God was saving her. All glory was to Him, not to her. Would people rejoice at what happened to her? You’d better believe it! What a great example of how God comes to us where we’re at, in our need, in our humble estate and does what only He can do—save us.

It’s all by and from Him because of His power. He is Almighty God. And so Mary rejoices in the “Mighty One” who has done great things for her. But you know what the greatest work, the most powerful thing God, the one who has all power, has done? It’s that He has extended mercy. It’s not in His reigning as King of the universe. It’s in His humbly sending His Son to be born in a manger. To rejected by men, to endure the beatings and scourgings and mocking and an excruciating death on a cross. His most powerful and awesome work was to suffer in our place in order that we may be saved.

And that’s why Mary can’t help but say “holy is His name”. That’s why we see who God is when we look at Jesus. When we see that God performed a miracle in bringing about the birth of Christ through a woman who conceived apart from the union of herself and another human being who is sinful as we all are, we see that the child in her womb was apart from sin. That that baby grew up without sin infesting His life as it does ours. That that man went silently to a cross to bear our unholiness, our sin, our guilt, so that we may be holy and reign with Him forever.

Now we can see as Mary did how great God is. Why He had to give us a bunch of names to refer to Him. His power and mercy cannot be contained in one name alone. A god by another name in any other religion is a god in whom there is no hope, no salvation, no life. The God of the Bible, by every name it rejoices in referring to Him, is the true God in whom there life and grace and mercy and glory.

God is God. Whatever people think of Him, believe about Him, or however they slander His name, He is the true God. He is God no matter what. But names do matter and He’s given us a host of them in His Word so that we may know Him. It’s in the name of Jesus that who God is brought home. We are blessed by God because Jesus is our God and Savior. He is the Mighty God who has done great things for us. Holy is name. Amen.


Thursday, December 21, 2006

Forever Mischaracterized--Thomas, Apostle

I have to say, I feel sorry for Thomas. “Doubting Thomas.” What did he ever do to deserve to be forever known as Doubting Thomas? That’s the way everyone knows him. He’s not just “Thomas”. He’s “Doubting Thomas”. And everyone knows why he’s called that. “Unless I see the nail marks, I won’t believe.”

Okay, so that answers my question. But it really doesn’t. Yeah, I know he doubted. But was he any different? I don’t think so. Every single disciple of the Eleven doubted. They heard the news of Jesus’ resurrection just like Thomas had. Some of them even saw the empty tomb. But nope, they didn’t believe it. Thomas just happened not to be there on that first day when Jesus showed up in the presence of the disciples. So he’s the one that gets to be known forever as “Doubting Thomas”. I feel sorry for him, except that, I’m also actually glad that the Holy Spirit immortalized the event of “Doubting Thomas”. Because I know I’m in good company.

But the other thing is that I really don’t need to feel sorry for him. Because he’s really not forever known as Doubting Thomas. He is forever known by His Heavenly Father as His own child. He is also forever known as our brother in the faith, a sinner like the rest of us who is now forever free from all doubt, standing before the very risen Christ, with those same scars in His hands and His side. We need not doubt either, because the same Lord is our Lord, to Whom we may say with Thomas: “My Lord and my God!”

Happy Winter!

Today is the first day of winter, although I’m sure many people in our country may beg to differ, being as they’ve already been pounded by severe winter storms. Actually, those of us in Southern California may not even notice that winter is starting. The changes of the seasons is fun, despite that it may be amplified in some parts and barely noticed in others. They’re also a reminder that God set things up so that they work a certain way. The cycle of life is not static. We need the different changes the seasons bring. In the winter the plants and the crops “die”, in the spring they will come back to life.

Yet through it all God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Even as we go through the winter of our spiritual lives in repentance, our sinful flesh dying to sin, so our Lord brings about spring in our life, giving us new and eternal life. Whatever the seasons bring us, whatever life brings, our Lord is constant in sustaining us.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Elizabeth

Third Advent Midweek Worship

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Luke 1:39-45

Mary was the recipient of Good News. The Savior long-promised was finally to come. She may still have been in a daze that the Savior would come through her. Coinciding with this was the coming of another baby, and it was to his mother that Mary would go for a while. Her husband, Zechariah, might not have been in a daze any longer, but he sure had a lot of time to think and pray and take care of his wife since he was not able to speak during her pregnancy.

With Zechariah and Mary we saw the recipients of Good News. God now uses Elizabeth to be the bearer of Good News. It’s amazing, though, that John the Baptist began his work even before he was born. What prompted John to leap in the womb of Elizabeth? It was words. Specifically, it was the words from the mouth of Mary, the mother of the Lord. At the greeting of Mary to Elizabeth, John leaped in the womb.

This then prompted Elizabeth to speak Good News to Mary. What was it that empowered Elizabeth to speak this wonderful message to Mary? She was filled with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit works through physical means. Obviously, being God, He can work in whatever way He pleases. But how we know He works is that He attaches Himself to certain means.

Here it is the greeting spoken by Mary. At these words of the mother of the Savior, both John and Elizabeth are impacted. John leaps and Elizabeth speaks. She gives voice on behalf of the one who in his ministry will speak even though it means his life. The confines of the womb could not keep him from leaping in joy. Just as at the end of his life the confines of his prison cell could not keep him from speaking of the Lord and His salvation.

That’s the way we’ve seen how God works, isn’t it? As the angel Gabriel said to Mary, “with God nothing is impossible”. And Elizabeth gives voice to the feelings Mary surely had: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” She was surely blessed. Of all the women in the world, she was chosen for this great privilege. And of course the fruit of her womb receives blessing and honor for eternity.

From the very beginning, even while He was in the womb of Mary, Jesus was hailed as Lord. He was praised as the one who is God forever, even as He chose to submit to the humility of being in the womb, and wearing diapers, and being fed by someone else. It’s important that we see that this happened, Elizabeth giving voice to the divinity of Jesus here at the outset of His earthly life. Because in many and various ways throughout His ministry He would be reviled.

Elizabeth had already received the best news of her life—she would have a baby. Why was she now so privileged to also receive a visit from the mother of the Lord God Almighty? Because that’s what God does. We know how He works, through means. And now we see why He works. Because He delights in coming to the ordinary, the needy, the ones who “don’t deserve it”. Which, by the way, is a good lesson for us here to see how Elizabeth simply receives the greeting and the coming of the one God sent in humility, unlike her husband. We should always be under the mindset that we don’t deserve anything good from God.

But He gives us what we don’t deserve. He comes to us where we’re at. In our need. And this brings joy to us. That’s why Elizabeth rejoiced. Because it was of the Holy Spirit. He brought it about. That’s what the Holy Spirit does. He brings the good gifts of God to us. Joy. Peace. And she shares this with Mary: “For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” This is also the way it should be with us. We shouldn’t keep the good news to ourselves. We’re joyful! Let’s give witness to the joy!

The last thing she says to Mary is almost a prophetic sort of thing to say. It’s almost like a blessing or a stamp of approval on this whole business of Mary being the mother of God. At first blush it seems a pretty straightforward remark. Almost as if we would say: “Of course the person will be blessed who believes that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to him or her from the Lord”. Yet there is so much here that perhaps even Elizabeth didn’t fully comprehend it all, nor Mary.

Because when we are dealing with the Word of God we are dealing with the work of the Holy Spirit. And that is something that cannot be comprehended fully even as it is apprehended by faith. Remember what the Bible says about how it is that we Christians live despite the enormous odds against us and the amazing amount of sin and evil there is in the world and in our own sinful flesh? “We walk by faith, not by sight.”

Did Mary believe what the angel proclaimed to her? Yes. But did she understand it fully? No. Did she have doubts at times? Yes. Nevertheless, she remained blessed, because the words Elizabeth spoke to her were true—we are blessed when we believe what God says in His Word. How do we believe? By faith, not by sight. Not on the basis of our comprehension of what is going on, but simply on the fact that God said it.

But is this blessing only for the mother of the Lord? No. Just as we saw how we are to learn from Mary herself in humbly receiving the Word of God with the response, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to Your Word.”, so we hear the words spoken by Elizabeth as true for all Christians. On one occasion a woman said to Jesus: “Blessed is the womb that carried You and the breasts which you have sucked.” In response, Jesus pointed the woman away from Mary herself and toward the Word of God He Himself proclaims: “Rather, blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it.”

How this is possible is through Christ Himself. He, in fact, did the very same thing moments before His crucifixion, praying to His Heavenly Father, “Let this cup pass from Me, but not My will but Yours be done.” We know what God’s will was. That His only-begotten Son sufferer and die. And we know that the Triune God rejoiced in this bitter pill because it brought joy to His heart from the salvation that was accomplished in it. We can see why the joy in this text is overflowing! It continues on with us. Amen.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

What Are You Coming to See?

Third Sunday Advent

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Luke 7:18-35

Last week we saw John the forerunner of Christ doing what the forerunner is supposed to do—he was paving the way for Christ, the Messiah. He was pointing the way to Jesus so that people would know from where their salvation comes.

Now this week we have something very odd. Jesus, the Messiah, the One to whom all the prophets pointed; the One prophesied from the beginning of the Scriptures; the One John the Baptist made abundantly clear was the promised Savior— was now pointing people to John.

What is this all about? When the disciples of John were finding out whether Jesus was the Messiah, and Jesus showed them that, yes He was, why then did Jesus start making a big deal about John?

Well we might not be surprised to find out that it’s all about helping us see what it means that He, Jesus, is our Savior. Because, let’s face it, we often have a distorted view of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Who He is. What He does. What He means for you and me. How who He is and what He does applies to our daily lives. What it means for who we are and how we live.

So Jesus asks a question. “What did you go out to see?” What were you expecting when you went out to hear that strange prophet in the wilderness? A reed shaken by the wind? You weren’t going out there just to see the foliage in the desert. No, of course not. You were going out to see the spectacle. Who was this guy out there in the camel’s hair? Were you expecting someone who would vacillate? Since he might have wanted to draw attention to himself, he might have tried to get a pulse on what the crowd wanted so that he could tailor his message to what they wanted to hear. Is that what you went out to see? If so, you quickly found out that John was not a reed shaken by the wind. He was there to proclaim what God had called him to proclaim, not anything anyone might have pressured him to say.

What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Might this curious prophet out in the wilderness have been one of those impressive court preachers that was specially commissioned by a king or prominent ruler? If so, he’d be well worth hearing. And it would be quite a sight there among the rocks and bushes and dirt to see a man dressed in fine clothes and delivering a fine message. But those who are dressed in splendid clothing and live in luxury are in kings’ courts. He wasn’t out there because of his status but his call from God.

What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. Prophets have a way of attracting people. Sadly, even a false prophet. But John being out there in the wilderness with something provocative to say was going to draw you out there. So you went. But what were you expecting this prophet to say? I tell you that this is who this prophet was, he of whom it is written, “Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your way before You.”

So why was Jesus telling the crowds about John when it was all about Him, Jesus Christ; the Savior, the Messiah, the Promised One, the One in whom is all our hope? Because He wanted them to see that what God had done in sending John had accomplished what He had intended it to. John paved the way. John pointed the crowds to Jesus. Jesus now stood here before them all, including John the Baptist’s disciples only moments before, fulfilling those very prophecies of the Old Testament of healing people, of bringing hope to those in need. John said this would happen, and now here it was, happening in the flesh in Jesus Christ.

But there was another reason Jesus was pointing out the importance of the forerunner: “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” Jesus says that there is no one who is greater than John. A stunning statement in and of itself. There were a handful of saints every good Jew could point to that could be “the greatest among men”: Moses, Abraham, David. And as far as prophets go, what about Elijah or Isaiah? But no, it’s John. Strange as it was to hear on its own, it was even more preposterous being as John was at the very moment in a jail cell. And on top of that, sending his own disciples to Jesus to ask if He was the Messiah or if they should look for another.

What is Jesus getting at? How is John the greatest among men? It probably won’t surprise us that it has nothing to do with him in and of himself. But rather what God had called him to. To be the first to proclaim the new era. The era in which the very Savior of God walked the earth. In which God Himself was among men in the flesh. This was a unique task of John, and he was the culmination of all the prophets who went before him, pointing the way to Christ, the Messiah.

Jesus never lacked for remarkable statements. After this doozy he tells the crowds: “the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than [John]”. So even though they could come to understand how John was the greatest, how could it possibly be that they could be greater? But here Jesus is showing the effects of this new era John was ushering in. It has to do, in fact, with Jesus Christ Himself, who is the source and center of this new era. He brings about this greatness.

What had they been coming to see? Healings? A spectacle? Some rousing preaching? Greatness? They would find it. But not in the way they would expect. It would come in the topsy-turvy way of Jesus lifting up the very lowliest of the lowly. The ones who didn’t have much. Who were looked down upon and probably didn’t even think much of themselves. These were to be made the greatest, because Jesus came to lift up the lowly. To raise the insecure, the poor, the sick in spirit.

What are you coming to see? Are you expecting out of worship an emotional or spiritual spark? Are you coming to God seeking success in your life or at least a smoother road? Are you looking for spiritual guidance that is catered to your needs and feelings? We hear a lot about God’s power and His love for us. What are you coming to see? What are you searching for and expecting to find?

The things John’s disciples came to him in prison to tell him were the healing of a centurion’s servant and another miracle. And while healing the servant was spectacular, it could have been a fluke. He could have been using magical arts. But then He did something beyond healing a disease. He raised a man from the dead. He was walking along when a funeral procession passed Him. The mother of her dead son was distraught. In compassion Jesus brought him to life. John’s disciples wanted to know, does this prove to us that Jesus is the Messiah? We must wonder what John thought through all of this. When his disciples asked Jesus, His answer was not, “Go tell John I’m springing him from prison.” After all the power He exhibited He certainly could have. But He doesn’t. And He doesn’t even save John from his ultimate fate later on of being beheaded by Herod.

What do you think John thought of Jesus now? After all his forerunning, pointing the way, paving the road for the hearts and minds of the people for their Savior— what was he in prison now seeking in that very same Savior? Luke calls John’s disciples “messengers”. They were sent by John and Jesus sent them back with a message. The message was the very same one John had been proclaiming—Jesus is the Savior. He is the One they had been seeking. There was no need to look for another.

We can search far and wide. We can try to mold Jesus and the Bible into our own little package. But Jesus’ message is clear: He is the Savior. Whether we’re locked up or roaming free. Whether we’re battling cancer or at the top of our game. If we’re feeling run down or the sky’s the limit. In anything and everything, He is the Lord. He is the Promised One, and God always keeps His promises. His power and love He comes to us with, though, don’t always match our expectations.

He did, after all, sufferer brutally. He wasn’t a powerful example of a ruler. He was beaten down. He quietly took the insults heaped on Him. He stretched His arms out so that they could be nailed to the wood, when He could have easily stretched them out in revenge. That would have shown Him in all His power. But it would have removed His love.

What are you coming to see? A Savior? You will find Him wrapped in a manger. You will see Him as a bloody mess on the cross. You will behold Him in glory and triumph over death. He doesn’t just show you who He is. He comes to you, His very Body and Blood, in His Supper so that you too may be healed, bound up, and raised to new life. Amen.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Mary

Second Advent Midweek Worship

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Luke 1:26-38

The last time Gabriel came on the scene was to visit a priest of God. Zechariah wasn’t exactly receptive to the message the angel came with. Now we see this same messenger of God coming to a person at the opposite end of the scale, a young virgin. Mary was preparing for a new chapter in her life, engaged to Joseph.

It would make sense to us that God would use a priest for the carrying out of His plan of salvation. But what was it about Mary that He would use her for this greatest of all things, the birth of the Savior? One clue is in the description of her fiancĂ©—Joseph was of the lineage of David. The Messiah would come from this line. But the main reason is shown in how this event unfolds of Mary receiving the news that she’ll have a unique baby.

How this begins to unfold is with the greeting of the angel to Mary: “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” What this means is that the Lord shines His favor upon her because of His grace. Who is she? She’s a nobody. That’s not meant in a derogatory way, but simply as the way it is. In other words, she was just like you and me. We’re nobodies. Most of the people in the world don’t know who we are and most of us, if not all, won’t be known in history. We’re just ordinary people.

This is who Mary was. There was no reason for her to be chosen for such a majestic role such as a priest might have been like Zechariah. And yet, it was for that very reason God chose her for this amazing role as the mother of God—it was Him choosing her, Him giving His favor to her through His grace.

And we see how very much of an ordinary person she was: “she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.” We would expect this from her, even as we would have expected the opposite from Zechariah. But they were very much alike in this regard.

As is so often the case in the Scriptures, when a messenger of God, or Jesus Himself, appears and there is fear, the exhortation is “Do not be afraid.” Now on the one hand we can understand the fear and wondering at what in the world is going on. On the other hand, look at what is usually said by the angel at the outset: “the Lord is with you!” Or in the case of Jesus Himself, it is clear that He is with them. So since we who are weak in faith are still troubled the reminder is given that God is coming to us with His peace and comfort.

Why does Gabriel come to this young virgin? For a remarkable purpose: “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus.” If Zechariah thought it was absurd that his wife would get pregnant, it’s even more so that someone who is a virgin would be able to be pregnant. But this is not even an issue with Gabriel, just as age wasn’t when he spoke with Zechariah. He plows right ahead with what is important: “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.”

What’s fascinating about these details Gabriel gives to Mary is that it sounds theologically technical to us. As if a seminary professor were describing the Messiah to another professional theologian. But nope, this is God’s messenger speaking to this ordinary girl as if she knows exactly what he’s talking about. And if her parents had taught her the Word of God and raised her in knowing who God is and what He does for us then she would know. What Gabriel is doing is showing her that what he is promising is in very fulfillment of the greatest of all prophecies of the Old Testament—the promise to send the Savior of the world. It doesn’t make any sense that God would send His messenger to someone and describe what he’s going to do if the person has no basis to understand what he’s talking about. Her answer, rather, gives us the impression she knew exactly what he was talking about. She doesn’t say, What are you talking about?, or, I don’t quite follow you. Rather, her response is: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

The amazing promises of Gabriel are not lost on her. But how will it happen? She knows that it’s impossible since she is not married yet. We are so much like her, wondering how God who created the universe by His Word will bring about the things He promises. You know what? Mary is right. It’s impossible. But with God, Gabriel says, nothing is impossible. He created the universe, He will bring about the conception and birth of His only-begotten Son. How He will do it Gabriel declares: “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.” And, as if to say, I’ll give you proof, Gabriel tells her that her “relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”

God is patient with Mary. For the priest Zechariah He wastes little time and strikes him mute for nine months. When a priest of God questions the messenger of God there is little room for patience. Even so, as we saw, God was gracious to Zechariah, still making good on His promise and giving him a punishment that lasted in the scheme of things a short while. We can take heart that with Mary our Lord was very patient. With Zechariah there was a tinge of contentiousness. With Mary there is not a quarrel that it can’t happen, but wonderment in how it will happen. And God does not punish her for that. Rather, He reminds her that He is God and therefore can do anything.

With this we are witnesses to one of the most beautiful displays of faith recorded: “And Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.’” There really is nothing better she could have said. Here was a humble peasant girl who rejoiced in her humility before her great and awesome God that would give her such great and awesome grace as this. He gave her His favor. He gave her the blessing of having a unique role in the salvation of mankind. And to her as well as to us He gave the greatest thing of all: a Savior for sin.

The baby born to her would grow up to make a similar confession to His heavenly Father as He made His way to the cross: Let it be to Me according to Your Word. His words were: “Not My will, but Yours be done.” Because it was His good will that Jesus Christ be born of the virgin Mary so that He would bring us life through His suffering and victory over the grave. Amen.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Qualification for the Gift of the Gospel

A great quote:

Jesus came to raise the dead. The only qualification for the gift of the Gospel is to be dead. You don't have to be smart. You don't have to be good. You don't have to be wise. You don't have to be wonderful. You don't have to be anything... you just have to be dead. That's it.

Robert Farrar Capon

Monday, December 11, 2006

What Are They Doing In There?

The Apostles’ Creed is about God, right? The three articles of the Creed specifically confess the work of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, respectively. But have you ever noticed that there are other people mentioned in the Creed? They almost might seem out of place when we are confessing the very faith of the most holy God. But there they are, Mary and Pontius Pilate. Two sinners, just like the rest of us. What are they doing in there?

But before we meet Mary in the Creed, the Holy Spirit makes an appearance in the second article (even before the third article), which confesses the work of Christ: who was conceived by the Holy Spirit. In this phrase we are taught (and at the same time confess) a valuable doctrine: the work of salvation is the work of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. God the Father sent His Son and sent the Holy Spirit to bring about His being sent. Jesus Christ became a man upon His conception, nevertheless remaining true God because He was not born of the union of a man and woman, but rather of being born of a woman and having been conceived by the Holy Spirit.

And this is where Mary comes in. It was not above Jesus Christ, the Lord of all creation to be born of a woman, a person just like you and me. It might strike us as odd that if in the Creed there is a person mentioned that it would be one of the “great” saints, not the simple girl Mary who isn’t mentioned nearly as much in the Scriptures as others. Think of some of the pillars of the Bible: Paul, Peter, Abraham, David, John, and the list could go on. Perhaps Paul’s statement about himself puts this into perspective when he said that he is the chief of sinners. These saints were great because God used them for His great purposes. They all were very much sinners in need of God’s grace. And Mary realized that, too. We give God thanks for all these saints, including Mary, for the blessings He gave through them. And we hold them in honor, remembering them so that we may follow their example.

So Mary makes sense after all. The point of putting her in the Creed was not to point to her but to show that God does amazing things through ordinary things (and people). But what about Pilate? Why is a pagan ruler in the sacred Creed of the Church? When we confess the Creed we are not confessing anything about him, but about what occurred historically which involved him. He was the one who gave the order for Christ to be crucified. This is a historical event, and the events of salvation are firmly rooted in historical events. Paul gives us a flavor of this when he says to Timothy: “I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in His testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession” [1Timothy 6:13].

What do the inclusion of the Holy Spirit, Mary, and Pontius Pilate give the Creed? An understanding that this isn’t just a theory that we are assenting to, but a creed; a real, factual confession of faith of who God is and the actual things He did to accomplish salvation.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Is It Worth It?

Second Sunday Advent
Sunday, December 10, 2006
Luke 3:1-20

Caesar, Pilate, Herod, Annas, Caiaphas. Some heavy hitters. And not exactly what we would call Christian rulers. Throughout history pagan rulers have sought glory for themselves, and when a guy in camel’s hair comes on to the scene we might wonder how much of a difference could really be made. Especially when you consider his message. Repentance? Are you kidding me? Live it up. Go for the glory. Indulge. Do what’s good for you. Don’t settle for having to live like you’re in a monastery.

And the talk about sins goes right along with it. Why do we always want to bring up our sins? And that we sin. Who wants to hear a message like that? Is it worth it? Does it make sense to call people’s attention to their sinfulness and need for repentance? We know what happened to those who did to the powers that be: they got thrown into prison or beheaded. So it is worth it?

Is it worth it if it’s going to offend people? If they’ll turn away because you are “judging” them? If they end up feeling worse about themselves than they already do? It is worth it if people will think that you’re being negative, or judgmental, or holier-than-thou?

But John had a call. He had a task laid on him, as Luke says it is written in the Book of Isaiah:

The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

John coming into the wilderness proclaiming a Baptism of repentance was fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah. John wasn’t spouting off his own opinions. He was proclaiming the very message of God. He was preparing the way for the Messiah, the Savior of the world.

He might have endeared himself to the crowds had he taken some time to schmooze it up. Maybe tell a few jokes, get them in a good mood. Build some rapport with them. But he doesn’t mince any words, he goes straight for the jugular:

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

Was this worth it? For the crowds to come out to be Baptized by John, only to get blown out of the water by this radical prophet who looked like he might be getting weary of the locusts and wild honey that passed for his daily meals? Was John the Baptist just an over zealous preacher that most people would just as soon not have to endure?

And many people don’t believe it’s worth it. When they are called on the carpet for their lying, gossiping, taking advantage of others, complaining, envy, greed, and any other thing they do that they consider to be nobody else’s business; they say, It’s not worth it. I don’t need this.

But those who recognize that there is truth in what John is proclaiming; who realize that deep in their heart is filth and corruption; that their thoughts are not always pure and inclined toward the good of others—they are convicted. They realize they are brought to account. It may not seem worth it, but they will despair if there is no hope. “What shall we do?” they ask.

He struck a chord with them, so he answers their plea:
“Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be Baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”

Now we might rebel against such restrictions. There are things precious to us that others might consider to be sin but that we look at as harmless characteristics. Why should I give away something that’s mine just because a person isn’t willing to do what he needs to to provide for his needs? Why shouldn’t I be entitled to a little extra as long as it’s not harming anybody? Why shouldn’t I be entitled to more than I’m given when what I have isn’t enough? Everybody fudges. Nobody’s perfect. Who are you to tell me that what I’m doing is wrong and I have to live differently, when you are imperfect yourself? And as far as that goes, is it really worth it to try to make all those changes when we know we can never be good enough or try hard enough?

It’s true we can’t achieve perfection. We can’t be who God wants us to be. But we need to look at the proclamation of John for what it is: it is the message of God to people who are sinners in need of salvation. We must live this way. We have no choice. Do you think you can be a Christian and live any old way you want? Do you think that you can continue to sin just by rationalizing it away, that God is merciful and will forgive you and so you can go ahead and do it? We must treat others as we ourselves wish to be treated. We must be a servant to others. No, we can’t be a Christian and live as though we are not a Christian.

But is this where we’re left? Is this the great message God sent His prophet John to proclaim? You must do this and you must not do that. Is that all there is? Yes, that is the answer to “What must we do?” But there is more. Not more for us to do. More to the story. John doesn’t leave them in this state of moralism, that as long as they’re good boys and girls God will be pleased with them.

As much as we need to hear this, what we must do and not do, that always ends up leaving us falling short. So while we should try to do better—love people selflessly, give of our money and possessions rather than seek more for ourselves, speak well of people rather than complaining about their deficiencies—at the same time we will find that we will continue to fall short of God’s holy expectations.

This ultimately brings us to the question of salvation. But not just being saved. Having new life and living that new life. In other words, living in the way described, as God desires for us to live. Where will we find our help and hope for salvation and in how we should live as a Christian? Our Savior. Is it any wonder that as John was preaching to them that “the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ”?

Salvation, and also our godly living, are always found in Jesus Christ. So John answered them:
I Baptize you with water, but He Who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of Whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will Baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, to clear His threshing floor and to gather the wheat into His barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.
At first blush we might be tempted to say to this, is this worth it? That doesn’t sound like salvation at all, but severe judgment. And it is that. For the one who loves his life more than the Lord, he will receive not salvation but eternal judgment.

But notice what John points us to when he points the way to the Savior: His Baptism. It is the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. It is new life and in order for new life to come into being the old must be done away with. He separates the chaff from the wheat. For the chaff this is judgment. For the wheat, sweet Gospel.

Is it worth it, to rely on something like that, our being Baptized? Is it worth it to strip off all notions that we must somehow build up ourselves in order to please God? To go against the grain and believe that God’s mighty power of repentance, of our lives being turned around, from self-centeredness to selflessness, is found in something as simple as Baptism?

It doesn’t seem so. It really doesn’t seem worth it to rely on something so simple. We think that there has to be more, that it can’t be that simple. But it is worth it. We know this because the Baptism that Christ Baptizes us with is the Baptism in which He gives us Himself. Him giving us Himself means all that is entailed in what He has accomplished for us. When He was led to the cross, do you think He wondered whether it was worth it? Certainly the temptation came His way.

But He kept His focus on the cross. He kept His focus on you and me and every sinner. It was more worth it for Him than we can ever imagine because He came not simply to point out our wretched state, but to save us from it. The price we have been bought with is greater than all the gold or silver in the world. It is the very blood of Christ, shed for you. To Him, you are worth it. Amen.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Pearl Harbor Day

I will admit I don’t know American history as well as I should. When I was growing up I just couldn’t relate to the “big deal” people made about Pearl Harbor. Well, I will forever understand now that we’ve had another “Pearl Harbor” in 9/11. Just as I’ve heard many times people who could tell me exactly where they were, exactly what they were doing when Pearl Harbor was bombed, I will never forget where I was and what I was doing when I saw the smoke billowing out of the World Trade Center towers.

In a way that seems like a long time ago. But we must never forget. Those who died from the attacks in 1941 and 2001 were victims of unjust men. We are blessed to live in a country that protects liberty. If we forget the past we will succumb to more unjust attacks. We must also remember in order to honor the fallen. Ours is a resilient nation and it is because there are people willing to sacrifice for the greater good.

As Christians we can be grateful for the blessings God has given us in living in a free country. Yet, even if liberty is taken away from us in this life, we are still free in Christ. Especially we remember the suffering and death of our Lord and Savior. If we forget that, where do we have hope for salvation? Just as our country rose from the ashes of Pearl Harbor and 9/11 our Lord rose from the grave on Easter Sunday that we may have freedom of sins forgiven. Those who died unjustly have not died in vain if we do not forget. Our Lord has not died in vain either because His unjust death means life for the world. Imagine, liberty from the bondage of sin and death. It is freely given by God in Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Zechariah

First Advent Midweek Worship
Wednesday, December 6, 2006
Luke 1:5-25

We’re often so ready to jump to Christmas that we may forget all the preparation of God that preceded the birth of the Savior at Bethlehem. We hear so much about the baby Jesus and Mary and Joseph that we may forget about the other people God used to bring His plan of salvation into effect. Christmas is definitely a wonderful time of year. But if we step back a moment and share in the preparation that went into Christmas, how God brought His salvation and love into the world, bringing it to bear on the lives of specific individuals, then we might be better prepared for our celebration of Christmas and our joy of the love our God has given us in the Savior born at Bethlehem.

Zechariah had a part in the workings of the bringing about of the Savior. Although it was kind of a dubious one. Although he was a priest, when met with God’s messenger and his declaration of the coming about of the Old Testament promises of God, he was skeptical. This is from a man Luke describes this way: “righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.” This should serve as notice to us that even the most faithful saints among us stumble. We ourselves do not always trust the message God gives us.

Now we can probably cut Zechariah some slack, as Luke informs us that the reason he and his wife Elizabeth had no children was “because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.” So it’s certainly understandable that he would doubt the words of the angel telling him he would have a son.

But we shouldn’t be so quick to defend him. This is what Luke says: “Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense.” If anyone was aware of the promise of God of the Messiah, and that He would send ahead of the Savior a forerunner, it was a priest. Called to serve on behalf of the people. Called to carry out the rituals of God according to how God instituted them in His Word. And Zechariah knew that God had sent angels to His people before and had come to them at times in more than ordinary ways.

He was serving before the Lord. Called to do the bidding of the Lord. But when the Lord called him to a specific duty he trusted his own judgment rather than the Word of the Lord. It’s telling how all the signs were there for Zechariah, and yet he looked past the purpose for his service as priest and instead relied on his own experience. Luke tells us that “there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.” What was Zechariah doing? Offering up incense to God Almighty. In the confidence that God Almighty would hear the prayers of His people. In answer to these very prayers, God sent His angel, standing right there at the altar of incense.

You know how it is. We’re waiting for something so long, we wonder when it will ever come about. The people of God in the Old Testament had continued raise their cry out to God. How long? When will You send the Messiah? Now here in response to that prayer God was answering and Zechariah was doubting. Luke says it this way: “And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him.” God’s messenger was ready for this, Luke says: “But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.’” The angel even tells Zechariah that he has come in response to his prayers.

But he doesn’t stop there. He fills in the details. He not only gives specifics of the nature of the blessing of God Zechariah will receive, he also backs up His promise by showing how this is in fulfillment of Scripture: “and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord.” At this point we might reasonably assume that Zechariah is thinking, yeah, right, how are my wife and I going to have a baby when we’re past child-bearing age? Perhaps he may not even have been listening as he should have while the angel continued: “And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.”

Because it’s at this point that the angel showed how this promise was in fulfillment of Scripture, as we heard moments ago in the Old Testament reading: “And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” We can certainly see how this was too surreal for Zechariah to accept. But shouldn’t we really be marveling at how Zechariah really didn’t know better? Did he believe the Word of God, or not? Did he serve the people of God while really just going through the motions?

He said to the angel, “‘How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.’ And the angel answered him, ‘I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.’” Gabriel doesn’t mince words. He stands in the stead of God, in the very temple of God to give to a man of God a promise that would bless him as well as multitudes. So he places upon Zechariah God’s punishment: “And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” If Zechariah did not believe it before, he will believe it now. He will pay the price for not believing the words of the messenger God sent.

And yet, even here, God’s mercy is abundant upon Zechariah. He still brings about His promise to him. He will not let Zechariah’s unbelief deter Him from the great things He has planned, the promises He will fulfill, the grace He will bestow. Zechariah will have nine months to ponder his unbelief of God’s Word in silence. But he will nevertheless be the recipient of the very promise of that Word.

On that day Zechariah wasn’t the only one wondering what was going on. Luke tells us what was going on outside the temple: “And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple.” Indeed he had. And instead of being able to have them share in the joy of it, he was unable to make it known to them. Luke says that “he kept making signs to them and remained mute. And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home. After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, ‘Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.’”

Now, granted, Elizabeth hadn’t been taken by surprise by the angel Gabriel, but what do you think her response was to Zechariah as he found a way to communicate to her what would come about? Do you think she readily accepted this amazing promise unlike him? Somehow I think she may have laughed at the prospect just as Sarah had done when she heard the Angel of the Lord telling her husband Abraham that she would give birth at age 90. But Scripture doesn’t tell us, so all we can do is enjoy the confession of faith she made that the Lord was gracious to her in her reproach of never having been able to have children.

And this is true for us, also. He has been gracious to us. He has taken away our reproach. But while it is never a promise of God that we will always have all the things we desire, whether it be children, or fame, or whatever, He has given us one who would point the way to the One who would take away the sins of the world on the cross of Calvary. When God blessed Elizabeth and Zechariah with John the Baptist, the world was also the recipient of a gift. For he was a messenger just like the angel Gabriel. He came to tell the world that there is a Savior, and He is Jesus Christ the Lord. Amen.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

The Lord Has Need of It

First Sunday in Advent
Sunday, December 3, 2006
Luke 19:28-40

First of all, today we begin the new Church Year, so Happy New Year! But it might seem odd that the Gospel reading for today is the Palm Sunday account. What does that have to do with the new Church Year, and for that matter, Advent and our preparations for Christmas?

This question can be answered by the words Jesus tells His disciples they might need to use when they would commandeer the colt: “The Lord has need of it.” This phrase describes many things Jesus used in His ministry of coming to this earth to save the world from sin.

As we see here in today’s Gospel reading, the familiar event of Palm Sunday saw Jesus making use of a donkey. It certainly seems quirky that the Lord of all creation would use such a peculiar creature as a donkey for His premier work of salvation for mankind. And yet, here we have Him, the Savior of the world, having need of an animal most of us would probably just as soon not want to be around.

But when the Lord has need of something it’s not because He needs anything. It’s because He wants to use very ordinary things in life to bring to us rather extraordinary blessings. It all started out with a manger. No, actually it started with an ordinary teenager. A girl none of us would have known about had the angel Gabriel not informed her that her womb would be the home of the Savior of the world for nine months. Does it surprise you that God Almighty would enter a womb as a nascent human life just like the rest of us?

And then there was the manger, of course. Which sounds so nostalgic until we remember that Mary and Joseph used what was available, namely, a feeding trough for filthy stinking animals. But here was Jesus, laying in the manger, already as a baby very much humble in order to bring to us the rescue we need from our sin. The Lord had need of that manger, even if it meant being in that dirty stable.

There were many other things Jesus used in His Ministry of reaching out to souls, proclaiming the Gospel to them, healing their infirmities. On some occasions He used bread and fish to feed people, but especially to show us that He uses things like that to provide for us. Sometimes He had need of mud to heal someone. But not because He couldn’t heal the person without the mud. But because He likes to use these ordinary physical things to show us that His eternal blessings are never so out of this world that they are eternally removed from us. When He gives us something it’s actual. It’s real.

And would you ever expect the eternal God to have need of an instrument of unspeakable torture for the dregs of society? The Romans knew how to punish wrongdoers. Being crucified was enough to make even the most hardened of criminals to second-guess their life of crime. But Jesus had need of a cross. He didn’t use it on those who deserve it. The worst terrorists in the world. The most vile molesters. He made use of that cross by hanging on it in their place. And in the place of every vile sinner. He alone really knew how He had need of it. He chose to hang on that cross in the place of every sinner; every person who has walked the face of the earth.

There’s a whole lot more there to Jesus telling His disciples that He has need of a donkey. What He desires more than anything is to have need of—make use of—the very sinners He died for. If you wonder what your place is in the Kingdom of God, hear the words spoken of the disciples to the ones questioning them about the donkey: “The Lord has need of it.” Dear friends in Christ, the Lord has need of you.

No, He doesn’t really need you. He’s God, after all. He doesn’t need anything. He loves you though. He wants you to enjoy eternal glory with Him. He wants to bless you and keep you in His care as you face daily decisions and challenges. He has need of you because He wants to use you for the glorious work of furthering the Kingdom of God.

Have you ever been in a parking lot and a person asked you if you could jump their car? Yeah, non-Christians would chalk that up to just people helping people. And there’s something to that. But it’s also great to know that God uses us for simple things like that to help out people in need. There are many many ways, of course, that we could help people out in similar ways.

But the important thing is to remember there’s nothing beyond the scope of God’s eternal power and glory. If He could use a donkey, He can use you. If He’s not above sleeping in a manger and being humiliated on a cross, He’s got no hesitancy about using you in big but often very unspectacular ways to serve others. We don’t have to just help them out when they’re in need. We can also tell them about the Lord who has need of them. In other words, the God who loves them and sent His Son for them.

Don’t worry, though. It’s not all on your shoulders. Jesus getting into Jerusalem so He could die on the cross wasn’t really up to the donkey. He was guided all the way; from the very first act of being loosed from his post, to being led to Jesus, to being ridden by Jesus Himself into Jerusalem. Jesus simply used this humble animal for His glorious and gracious purposes.

We aren’t expected to “have it all together”. God doesn’t place the tasks He has for us on our shoulders and then say: “Have at it!” No, He has need of many things along the way to help us, strengthen us, and give us the fortitude we need to follow Him and serve Him as He has called us to do.

Think of all the ways God makes use of ordinary things to do this for you. Simple words, on a page, spoken. Always at your disposal is His Holy Word, the Bible. Trapped in your own thoughts of negativity and complaining and doubt? The Word of God is the antidote, giving you the Words of God Himself, Words that aren’t just encouraging, but life-giving and life-sustaining.

And what about water? We wouldn’t survive without it. God has blessed us with water to live. And so that we may live forever with Him He has washed us with the water of our Baptism, which has forgiven us of our sins and cleansed us from all unrighteousness. Likewise with bread. We couldn’t live without eating either. In His Holy Supper our Lord uses the basic food of life, bread, and a common drink, wine, to bring us food that nourishes our soul—His Body and Blood. So there you have it! He even has need of Himself, delivering to your mouth His very Body and Blood to forgive you your sins and strengthen your faith.

We’re all pretty familiar with each other here in our congregation. So familiar that we’re especially familiar with each other’s foibles and eccentricities. We might wonder if our congregation is all it’s meant to be. Shouldn’t we be stronger than we are? Why do we seem so lacking in some ways? It’s because we don’t just have foibles but are actual sinners. It might seem there’s not much here to work with. And yet, the Lord has need of it. This congregation. Prince of Peace Lutheran Church. With all its foibles, shortcomings, and weaknesses. We are part of the Body of Christ. And He uses us as an outpost here in this part of San Diego to be a bright light of the Gospel to this community. Remember, He used a donkey. He can certainly use us!

And that’s because He so loves using all those little things like words, and water, and bread and wine in order to lift you up, set you up high, and give you a future that is in need of Him even as it is sustained in Him. Everything in your life you can do like the disciples did and remember that the things you use you use because your Lord and Savior has placed them there for you to use. He has need of it. If you just sit there, the very stones will cry out. He would use even those. If He would do that, how much more of a blessing do you see you have in your Lord and Savior using you. And if you think the cries of praise that went out on Palm Sunday were something to behold, just wait till you see what is in store in heaven! Amen.

Saturday, December 2, 2006

The Adventing Christ

Those who know what Advent is know that it’s the season of the Church Year that begins the Church Year (it begins tomorrow). It is the time of preparation for our celebration of Christmas—Christ’s first advent, or coming.

At Bethlehem Christ ‘advented’, He came to earth to save us from our sins. He promised to return—that is what we call His Second Advent, which will be the Last Day. Christ has come and He will come again to take His people home to heaven.

But He doesn’t stay away while we wait. He continues to advent. He comes to us often because we need a Savior who continually helps us.

Christ first came physically, He was born a baby. He will return on the Last Day physically, in the same way He ascended into heaven. Until that day He continues to come to us physically through the means by which the Holy Spirit delivers to us forgiveness and salvation.

We tend to think of the Gospel in terms of words that we hear or read and intellectually understand. But the preached Gospel is actually an event God uses to bring Christ to us. He is the Word made flesh. The Holy Spirit brought Christ to the world as a baby through the womb of Mary. He brings Christ into our hearts and minds through the Gospel.

He comes to us in another physical way in Baptism. The language the Scriptures use to describe how Christ comes to us in Baptism show us a God who doesn’t leave us out in the cold. “We are clothed with Christ.” The very spiritual garment we wear is Christ Himself. He covers our sins with the robe of His righteousness. And He comes to us to do this, not from afar.

Probably the most familiar way to us that Christ continues to “advent” is in His Holy Supper. He gives to us His body and His blood. Just as He came at Bethlehem in the little body of a baby, just as He will return in the full grown body of a man, and just as He gave His body on the cross and suffered His blood to be shed, so in this amazing advent at the altar in church He gives His body and blood for us to eat and drink.

Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, is the God who not only came at Bethlehem and who will come again, but is the God who continues to advent to us. We never need to wonder if He’ll be around. He keeps coming to us. He keeps forgiving us and strengthening us. He is the adventing Christ, the one who never leaves us or forsakes us. He is the Christ who has come, will come again, and who continually comes to us. That’s really what we celebrate at Christmas. And forever.

Friday, December 1, 2006

My Turn to Complain

I don’t know if it’s any different than usual, but lately I’ve noticed a lot of complaining in various blogs, letters to the editor, and, well, just about everywhere I go. So it’s my turn.

What I’m going to complain about is all this complaining. You know, I can identify with it. Many times, in fact, I agree with the complainer. I think, wow, that’s a great point, we need to listen and take heed. But then by the time the complainer has made their point I’m just plain tired of the complaining (and maybe even the complainer). So their point almost ends up getting lost because I don’t want to deal with it anymore.

Why am I complaining about this? Because I complain. I have to say, when I hear people complain I realize what I must look and sound like when I complain. I know I need to take a different approach when I address situations. I sometimes wonder why God puts up with our complaining. He is certainly patient with us. Jesus Christ did not complain as He walked that path of suffering to the cross. He did something we so often do not do when we feel like complaining—He rejoiced. He saw in the opportunity to save the world from sin joy. Next time we feel like complaining we should try to remember to give thanks to our Lord who loves us even when we’re complaining.

Oh yeah, and if you hear me complaining tell me to shut up.