Saturday, December 31, 2011

Dressed for Action

New Year’s Eve
Eve of the Circumcision and Name of Jesus
December 31, 2011
At the close of this year we are reminded that time doesn’t stop. It will when our Lord comes again in glory. But for now, time keeps ticking; and in a few hours it will be a new year. Next year may be just like this year in that in one year from now we will be closing out the year here in God’s House on New Year’s Eve. In other words, our Lord may not elect to come again in glory at some point in 2012. But He may. Whether or not He does we know He’s coming again to put an end to this world and to time as we know it. We don’t know when it will be we just know it will be.

Our Lord’s command to us is to stay dressed for action. It would be one thing for Him to exhort us to dress ourselves for action. But He doesn’t do that. He tells us to stay dressed for action. That tells us something about ourselves. We are already dressed for action. We are in a state where we are ready. What we need to do is stay ready. We need to stay dressed for action.

In order to do that we must see how it is that we are clothed, dressed, for action. Our Lord is the one who clothes us. He clothes us to serve. The Bible has many places where this imagery is used for Baptism. We are clothed with Christ. In repentance, which is the daily living out of Baptism, we put on Christ. In other words, He is the garment of salvation that we wear in the new life we have in Baptism. In Baptism our Lord clothes us. He is the new clothing we wear even as we live in this fallen world and are still wrapped up in our sinful flesh.

What does it mean that we have this clothing of salvation? That we wear Christ as our daily clothing? It means we are called to new life. We are called to serve. We are clothed in Christ, in salvation, and that new life is lived out in serving. Serving is done is action. That’s why our Lord in the third reading exhorts us to stay dressed for action.

Jesus is telling the way we are to be ready. He says, “Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks.” These men are servants. Their master is gone but he will return. They need to be ready for when he returns even though they don’t know when it will be. The way they are dressed is in robes. The robes men wore in that culture prevented them from impulsive action. Trying to run in them would trip them up. In order to stay dressed for action they would tuck the flowing part of the robe in their belt so that they could be ready at any time.

This is Jesus’ command to us. Stay dressed for action. Be ready at any time. Since years come and go it is tempting for us to think He will not return in glory in our lifetime. But it could happen in our lifetime. It could happen at any time, that’s what we know. Not knowing exactly when shows us why we need to stay dressed for action. We need to live as we are called. We need to live out the life our Lord has given us in Baptism. That means serving. God’s people serve. We are always dressed for action. Ready to help others in need.

Maybe you’ve looked back on the past year and regret some of the opportunities you passed on to help others in need. Maybe you’ve thought about those times this past year where you were called upon to serve in a capacity and you immediately thought of a list of ten things preventing you from doing it rather than taking some time to consider it and pray about it, even if you ended up declining. Maybe you’ve looked back on this past year and realize that you have mostly gained enjoyment in your life from fulfilling your own needs and wants and not much from helping others in their needs. Maybe you plan on seeking more opportunities to serve in the new year.

Seeing where you have fallen in short is valuable. It’s part of repentance. That’s how the Lord’s people stay dressed for action, by being repentant people. It’s one thing to talk about all the many ways to serve, and we should talk about those things. And of course we should actually do those things as well. But we also must remember that we can only serve by staying dressed for action. There is no action, no serving God, without staying dressed for it.

That’s why in the new year we will ask our Lord to bless us to be repentant people. To be in His Word, both in daily personal and/or family devotions and also with our brother and sister Christians in Bible Class. To continue to be here in our Lord’s House to hear His Word, to partake of His Holy Supper, to confess together with our brother and sister Christians, to exhort one another, to encourage and comfort one another.

We don’t know when our Lord will return in glory, but we don’t need to. What we need to know is what we already know. We know that He is our Lord and our Savior. We know He has already come and that He has dressed Himself for service. He came dressed in servant’s clothing and put on the filthy garment of our sins in His suffering and death on the cross. He was clothed in glory when He exited the grave three days later. Though remaining in glory He continues to dress Himself for service as He comes to us in Baptism and as He hosts us at His Table and receive Him in body and blood.

He has clothed in Baptism, we were the passive recipients of eternal salvation, clothed in Christ. Dressed in this way we are dressed for action. We stay dressed for action by the same receiving of His grace and mercy in His Gospel and His Sacraments. This is what He has done for you this past year and will continue to do in the new year, even to eternity. Amen.


Sunday, December 25, 2011

Birth. Death. Life

The Nativity of Our Lord
Christmas Day
December 25, 2011
 The order is birth, then life, then death. We celebrate birth, we live life, and at some point comes death. With Christ, however, there is birth, there is death, and there is life. We cannot prevent the death after life. Christ came in order to live and die. But He followed up death with life. Today, of course, we celebrate Christmas. What that means is that there doesn’t have to be the normal order of birth, life, and death. With us in Christ there is birth, death, and life. Our celebration of Christmas revolves around the fact of how we go from ending up in death to being in Christ and forever being in life. That is what the apostle John tells us today in the Gospel reading on our celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord: birth, death, and life.

You see, Christmas is not about keeping Jesus as a cute little baby in that manger in the stall. It is about getting Him up on the cross where He bled and suffered and died. I don’t imagine Mary was gazing down at her newborn Son with any thoughts of torture and suffering. I imagine her face glowed and her lips smiled as she looked down upon her precious baby and thought of all the wonderful days and years ahead of seeing Him grow and learn and doing all kinds of wonderful things. For Mary, I imagine Christmas was about what too often we think of Christmas as. And that’s not wrong. Mary wasn’t blasted out by God for enjoying the wonder of the moment of her giving birth to her firstborn Son.

No, God the Father was rejoicing as well. In that, surely. But also in something more. In something bigger and far greater. In the very reason Jesus was born. And that thing was to get Him to the cross. To suffer. To bleed. To be dealt the blow of the hammer of the Law, that He was pronounced guilty of all sins ever committed. It may seem odd to think about that on Christmas Day. It seems even more odd to think that this is what God the Father was rejoicing in. But if you pay attention to God’s story you see that it’s not odd at all but actually rather amazing.

What you see is that God is love and His love knows no bounds. It moves Him to send His eternally begotten and eternally loved Son to earth in a baby and to the cross in a beaten and stricken and forsaken manner. This is why Jesus’ life was for the purpose of death. You and I, well, our life is for the purpose of life, but it ends in death. That’s because we have chosen that. That’s what John makes clear in the Gospel reading. We love darkness rather than light. We love sin rather than the holy will of God. In the end, we love death rather than life. So our life ends in death.

This is how we see God’s eternal and amazing love. Jesus comes in with life in order to go to death. But while the end of our story is death, it’s not so with God. Jesus’ story doesn’t end in death. It’s not over at the cross. It ends in life. That’s actually kind of funny to say, because it doesn’t end at all. Life comes after death. The resurrection follows the crucifixion. Life is what it ends with; or rather, with what it remains as, forever. This is what is at the heart of Christmas. True, Mary wasn’t able to comprehend all of that at that moment. But we are. We are able to see in that baby the Savior. We are able to see in Him birth, death, and life. And in that baby we are able to see for ourselves that very same birth, death, and life.

John tells us about this new way it is with us, the new way with us that is the way it is with Christ. John tells us that even though we are of death, we now have this new life in Christ. This is the way he describes it: “But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” God is eternal. But when we are born we are born in sin and are born into death. In Christ we are born anew. Interestingly enough, this happens through death. Not by dying in the flesh, but by dying in Baptism. In Baptism we die to our sinful flesh. We are united with Christ in His death. His death was a death of dying in sin. We are united in that death in Baptism. Just as Jesus didn’t stay dead, but rose from the grave, we are united with Him in His resurrection. In Baptism we are raised up to new life in Baptism.

This is how we now have birth, death, and life, just like Jesus. Instead of birth, life, and death, which is what we naturally have in our birth and in this life, we now are born anew, and in new birth in Baptism we die and rise to new life. Unless Christ returns in glory before we physically die, we will physically die. Even in Baptism we are not rid of the sinful flesh we carry around all our days. But in Baptism we are rid of the eternal condemnation we were born into. That means that on the day you physically die you will not be consigned to the grave or to eternal damnation. You will once and for all be rid of the sinful flesh you carry in this life. You will see in all its glory what it means to be born, as the Gospel reading says, “not of men but of God.”

You may not have thought that you would be considering your death on Christmas Day. The thought of her Son dying may not have crossed Mary’s mind that day He was born. The joy that came through birth was what was on her mind and heart. Consider, though, that it became clear to her soon enough not only what was on her heart but on God’s. That was that her Son’s birth meant death. It meant He would make His way to the cross. But it meant this because what was on God the Father’s heart was you and me and the world. It was life eternal for all of us. And that’s why Christ was born. That’s why He died. And that’s why He rose.

That’s the blessing we have today. To consider what is on God’s heart and mind. When we consider today that Jesus was born we are considering the fact of God’s eternal love for us. That means we are considering an even greater thing, that Jesus’ birth was followed by His death. We are considering this because it means that our life does not have to end in death and eternal suffering. It ends in life when it is new birth in Christ, being born of God in Baptism.

John tells us about another John. John the Baptist came as a witness. He made known who this Jesus was, the one who was born in order to die for the sin of the world. What a great opportunity we have on this Christmas Day to consider the life we have a ahead of us, to make known to others what Christmas is really about. That it’s about birth, death, and life, so that we don’t have to end up in birth, life, and death. What a great opportunity we have to look back to that day and see in the baby Mary gazed upon one who would give His all, give Himself, in suffering and dying on the cross for the sin of the world. What a blessing we have that in looking back on that amazing event in which God was born we can see that He is the one in whom we are born, not of men but of God. What a privilege and joy for us to see that as He humbled Himself to be in the arms of a young girl who gave Him birth that He for us humbles Himself to be in and with bread and wine that we may eat and drink and receive Him in the flesh and thereby be sustained in the new and eternal life He has given us.

Without Christmas there is only birth, life, and death. With Christmas, and the suffering, death, and resurrection that goes along with it, there is birth, death, and life, now and forever. Amen.


Saturday, December 24, 2011

This Thing That Has Happened

The Nativity of Our Lord
Christmas Eve
December 24, 2011
 The shepherds talk in a very Lukan way. They talk about something that has happened. That’s one of the main things Luke sets out to do in writing his Gospel account. See, there were these things that happened and Luke set out to research them, to get the facts down on paper, to make them known to the world. The shepherds in the fields weren’t interested in that sort of thing. They were taking care of their sheep. But when something extraordinary happens, well, that gets their attention. And then they start doing a Lukan thing; talking about what happened. Going over to research it. Okay, for them it was more just simply seeing the thing that had happened. And then they did another Lukan thing and started telling people about what they had seen. And even that, that’s just a natural thing we do when we see something extraordinary.

You and I are here this evening because something happened. Specifically, this thing happened that everybody knows about but not everybody believes. Indeed, some of you here this evening may not even believe it but you’re here because one of the things people do at Christmas is go to church. Have you ever thought about those shepherds? Do you think all of them believed in God? Did the angels only appear to God-believing shepherds? Or did they just go to any old shepherds that were out watching their flocks by night? We can’t know for sure so there’s no need to speculate. But it doesn’t talk about their belief or unbelief. It does talk about their reaction to the news. Let’s go see it! Afterward there was definitely belief there. In seeing the little baby in that manger they had come into the presence of the Living God. They believed and glorified and praised God for all they had heard and seen. Luke then tells us the reason for this, it was just as it had been told them.

Now you and I are here tonight. We don’t see God wiggling around or cooing in a manger. It’s a very real temptation for us to say that we have not seen God. Apart from a relatively few people in history who lived at the time Jesus walked the earth for thirty odd years, no one can say they saw Jesus in the flesh, as a human being who walked and talked on this earth. What is it that we have to hold on to that is just as certain as what those shepherds had? Since we cannot see what they saw, can we believe with the same certainty they did? Can we praise and glorify God to the extent that they did even though we have not seen what they saw?

May I suggest to you that what we have to hold on to that is just as certain as what those shepherds did is the reason Luke gives. It had been told them and then they found it to be exactly as it had been told them. What is it we have? Well, we actually have something they didn’t. We have the Word of God in its fullness. We not only have the Old Testament, as they did, but we also have the New Testament, which they did not have at that time.

We have something that is along the lines of the angels making known to the shepherds what had happened. What we have is the Bible telling us something that has happened, and when we see it, we experience the same thing the shepherds did. We come into the presence of the Living God, Jesus in the flesh. What has happened is not just one event and they are not just one-time events. Jesus being born was a one-time event that made quite an impact on those shepherds. What happened to those shepherds afterward? Very likely they returned to the vocation of shepherding their sheep.

Did they continue to believe? Did they continue to partake of the riches of the grace of God by the regular hearing of the Word of God in worship? We don’t know, but it’s worth thinking about those shepherds and what they saw as the reason they believed. They saw the Living God in the flesh, it was exactly as it had been told them by the angels. But what was the reason they continued to believe? It could only be by the grace of God. They didn’t keep showing up to the home of Mary and Joseph so they could get another look at the cute little baby Jesus. It would only be by being in the Word of God and His grace that comes through the Word of God.

This gives us the perspective we need to see where we’re at and what it is that we can see that we have that gives us the same certainty they had. What is it the Word of God tells us that happened? First, it tells us exactly what we heard it say in the Gospel reading: Jesus was born. God came in the flesh. He was born of a woman and was raised in a family with Joseph and Mary His parents. He was born as we were born. He took on human flesh as we have human flesh. He did this because our being born in human flesh is being born into sin. He is God and without sin but has taken on our human flesh so that He could take on our sin. What the Bible tells us is that He has taken our sin onto Himself in suffering God’s punishment of sinners. It tells us this happened. Jesus took the place of every person in His suffering and death on the cross.

This is the Good News. It’s the greatest and most important event in history. It’s why Jesus was born and why we celebrate Christmas. But we haven’t yet looked at what exactly it is that the Bible tells us that has happened that we ourselves have seen and where we ourselves come into the presence of God in the flesh. It’s in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. When you have experienced these things you have experienced what those shepherds did when they were in the presence of Jesus lying in a manger.

In fact, what you have experienced is of even more consequence. This is not to take away the amazing event of being in the presence of Jesus as the shepherds had. It’s just taking the Word of God at its word. Peter says an amazing thing about us in distinction to the shepherds and everyone else who saw Jesus walking around: “we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed.” We don’t need to see Jesus lying in a manger. It’s not incumbent upon Jesus to show us Himself before our eyes healing someone or preaching the Word. What we need is what we see. We witness God in Baptism. We come face to face with Him in His Holy  Supper. We are in the presence of the Living God when we are making use of His Gospel in the Sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It’s through those things that we believe and in turn rejoice as the shepherds did.

This thing happened. Jesus was born. God came in the flesh. He lived and took our place on the cross. These things happened, although you and I never saw them. But we don’t believe because we have or haven’t seen them. We believe because that same Lord has come to us in the proclamation of His Gospel and in Baptism and in His Holy Supper. And just like the shepherds we can do a very Lukan thing and tell others what we have seen and heard and received.

Have you ever noticed how Luke concludes his Christmas Gospel account? He tells us that the “shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.” This isn’t just an informational bit simply because it happened. It tells us about life. It tells us about who we are as Christians. It shows us that when God makes Himself known to you you have reason to rejoice, to glorify God and praise Him. And how do you do that? By living out your vocation, in all the many ways that manifests itself. As a father, as a mother. As husband, as a wife. As a neighbor, as an accountant, who knows, there may even a shepherd among us tonight. As a friend, as a teacher, as brother, as a sister, as a son, as a daughter. Simply, as one God has called to serve in many ways.

Just as it was with those shepherds, it is with you. They returned to serving God because what they had heard and seen was “as it had been told them.” It is with you as well. Amen.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Where Let It Be Leaves Off

Fourth Sunday in Advent
December 18, 2011

Apparently even young people are fans of the Beatles so it’s possible that most everyone knows the song “Let It Be.” Though it’s a great song, at least for those who like the Beatles, there’s a reason we won’t be singing it in our worship service this morning. Where Let It Be leaves off is with, well, just letting it be. If you just let things be you are left without any certainty. There has to be more to letting things be than simply letting them be.

As Mary said in the Gospel reading, the ‘more’ is ‘according to your word’. That is, according to the Word of God. We must let it be but according to God’s Word.

Paul McCartney’s lyrics in the song Let It Be give us some helpful wisdom. But not much more than that. Ultimately they leave us without hope, without certainty. He tells of how he came up with the lyrics for the song. During a difficult time in his life he had a dream where his mother, whose name was Mary, spoke to him to give him comfort. He relates that she told him, “It will be all right, just let it be.” Again, that’s really good advice and there is tremendous wisdom in it. How often do we kick against the goads? How many times do we make matters worse by taking things into our own hands when we should just let things go and leave them be?

But there is another Mary who understood that there is no real certainty in leaving things at just letting them be. Her response to Gabriel was, “Let it be to me according to your word.” Mary trusted that what the angel Gabriel was telling her was the Word of God. She submitted to this Word; this Word that came from God. She let things be. But she let them be according to God’s way. I don’t doubt for a moment that Paul McCartney had a dream in which his mother Mary whispered words of wisdom to him. What I believe, though, is that the Mary we should be taking our cue from is the Mary who spoke words of wisdom in saying that she was the servant of the Lord, that she would let it be according to the Lord’s word.

Think for a moment what Mary was talking about. She was talking about the one she would give birth to. She was submitting to one who was yet unborn. One who would be born from her very womb, though she was a virgin. No wonder she was confused. But even when we are confused we can take God at His word. Even when we don’t understand we can let it be according to His Word.

This Saturday evening we will enter into the Christmas season. What so many people in December celebrate as the Christmas season is often something very different from what today’s Gospel reading shows us. Gabriel speaks of what Christmas actually is. “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus. 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.” When you see what God says Christmas is you begin to see how submitting to His way is the way to go.

Not that the lights and the parties and the malls should have no part of our Christmas festivities. We are free to enjoy these things as a society and with our families. At the same time, what we see from Mary is that there is so much more. If we just let it be then our celebration of Christmas will miss what Christmas really is about. For Mary it was now about nine months of waiting and pondering the amazing visit from an angel who told her she would conceive of a son in a miraculous way, by the Holy Spirit. She now saw that anything she might think or do could not bring about such an amazing thing as the promises of God being fulfilled in a common Galilean girl. We can safely assume she probably never had thought that the promises of the Kingdom of God would be carried out in her womb.

But she saw who she was. She wasn’t simply an ordinary girl. She was a servant. She was a servant of the Lord. Despite what appeared to be, she would let it be according the Lord’s word. She didn’t simply let it be; she let it be according to His Word.

The Holy Spirit inspired Luke to write these things down. This is more than just a story, just as the account of the birth of Christ is more than just a story. What we learn here from Mary’s response to Gabriel is something that should not only put our Christmas celebration in perspective but our life, and our eternity. We are servants. We should let it be according to the Word of the Lord.

What this meant for Mary was nine months of pregnancy, giving birth to Jesus, the Son of God, and raising this child in a Christian home. It meant also believing in Him, her Son, the Savior of the world. When she was submitting to the Word of the Lord she was submitting to her unborn Son. If it is going to be, it is best for it to be according to His Word. What we’re really talking about here is not how wonderful Mary was in submitting to God’s Word, but what a Savior we have in God submitting Himself to be born of a virgin and going the path of the cross. Mary’s point was not that she was such a wonderful servant of God but that she was unworthy of God’s favor but nevertheless rested in it. She rejoiced in His grace and mercy and so let it be according to His Word.

It’s not about Mary, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t get from this passage in the Word of God what we need to learn of Mary. In her our Lord is giving us a picture, even an example, of who we should be as Christians. We should submit to the Word of the Lord. We are His servants and we should let it be according to His Word.

Mary was rightly puzzled at Gabriel’s pronouncement. You’re going to have a child! How could this be?, she hadn’t broken the Sixth Commandment. What strange thing was God pulling here? Okay, so it was strange, or at least out of the ordinary, but as we see from the Scriptures, God likes to work out of the ordinary. But He does so in ordinary means. Here, through an ordinary girl. She’s the one who’s going to give birth to the Messiah, God in the flesh. And the Sixth Commandment? God is the author of that and He can take care of things in such a way that she won’t be committing adultery. The Holy Spirit will work His power and she will conceive of a son. The Holy Spirit works when the Word of God is spoken. Gabriel spoke it, it was so.

You and I are just like Mary. We have heard the Word of the Lord. We also wonder how it can be. The world celebrates Christmas with its lights and its parties and its malls. Hey, we know a good thing when we see it, so we join in with them. But we are also like Mary and see so much more. We let it be according to God’s Word and actually believe that God was born. That God was actually curled up in the womb of a girl who lived in a small area of the globe. That God actually was born and needed to be fed and hugged and tickled. We are servants of the Lord, of this one, the one who became a man and went the way of the cross.

And it doesn’t stop there. As servants of the Lord we continue to hear our Lord speak to us. When our Lord says, “Take and eat, this is My Body,” we wonder, “How can this be since it is bread that I am eating?” He speaks back to us, “The Holy Spirit is at work. He works when My word is spoken. He brought about My conception in the womb of Mary and brings about My body in and with this bread.” May we speak with Mary, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord, let it be to me according to Your word.”

When our Lord says, “Take and drink, this is My Blood,” we wonder, “How can this be since it is wine that I am drinking?” He speaks back to us, “The Holy Spirit is at work. He works when My word is spoken. He brought about My conception in the womb of Mary and brings about My blood in and with this wine.” May we speak with Mary, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord, let it be to me according to Your word.”

The Bible isn’t just a bunch of stories. It is the Word of God. The Lord’s Supper isn’t just a ritual. It is the Lord’s Supper. God came in the flesh, conceived in the womb of Mary. He comes in the flesh to us today, in and with the bread and wine. Yeah, we wonder how it can be, but we also give thanks that our Lord grants us the faith to rejoice that we are His servants and simply let it be according to His word. Amen.


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Stewardship Is Only Stewardship in Christ

Third Sunday in Advent
Commemoration of John of Damascus, Theologian and Hymnwriter
Commitment Sunday
December 11, 2011

Today you get to hear a stewardship sermon from John the Baptist. When you have a preacher such as he is it’s really best to let him do the preaching. Since today is Commitment Sunday it’s expected to have a stewardship sermon. And really, what better way to get a stewardship sermon than from the man who was sent by God to be the one to prepare the way for the Messiah. There is no stewardship in the Christian sense without the one who came into the world as the Messiah. That we are stewards of all that God has given us is because of the one who came to bring us the fullness of all things.

John’s stewardship sermon is actually pretty simple. The apostle John tells us about John the Baptist. He tells us that John “came as a witness, to bear witness about the Light, that all might believe through him. He was not the Light, but came to bear witness about the Light.” John’s purpose here is to witness. He is to make known the Light so that all might believe in Him.

We should listen to John. We should get over ourselves and all the wonderful things we can do for God and listen to John. We need to stop spending time thinking about all the things we should be doing for God and simply believe. Listen to John and look to the Light. Believe in Him. Jesus is the one John was pointing to and there is no better stewardship sermon than that. There is no other stewardship sermon apart from that. The only way we can be stewards of what God has given us is to believe in Jesus.

So John gives us the stewardship sermon we need to hear. John the apostle tells us that this was the testimony of John. This is what he confessed. People were asking John the Baptist about himself but he said, No, it’s not about me. It’s about Him. It’s about Christ. It’s about the one who is the Light. It’s the one in whom we believe.

Our problem is that we think of stewardship as what we do. Yes, it is what we do; we are stewards of what God has given us. But so often we don’t think about why and how we are stewards of all that God has given us. We think of believing as the starting point and then our lives as Christians as what we do for God. But that’s wrong. Believing is all the way through. It’s our whole lives long. It’s the main thing. Without it there is no stewardship. If we think about what we are to do for God then guess what we’re not doing? We’re not looking to the Light, believing in Him. We may think we are, but we’re not. Whenever we are the ones trying to do things for God we’re doing the opposite of what God wants of us. What He wants is not our best but our worst. Our best is what got us into the mess we’re in.

What He does is rescue us from the mess we’re in. The way He does that is by taking from us our sin and filth and guilt. When we think we have to do good things for God we are really offering Him our sin and filth. Don’t concern yourself with giving to God what you think He wants. Look instead to the Light and believe in Him. Jesus is the Light and He outshines the darkness of your sin and guilt. He is pure and sinless. It’s what He does that is what God the Father wants. He doesn’t want or need anything from you.

Does it seem like John the Baptist isn’t a very good stewardship preacher? Shouldn’t he be telling us what to do? That we need to give more? We need to spend more time serving on boards and committees at the church to do God’s work? We need to sacrifice more of our time to help the poor? As it happens, John was actually pretty good at that as well. It’s not written here in our Gospel reading but elsewhere in the Scriptures we find that John could preach a pretty mean stewardship sermon as we’re normally accustomed to hearing. Do this, don’t do that. Give more, sacrifice more, serve more. And all of that is good and doctrinally correct and we should take it to heart.

But in itself it’s not a stewardship sermon. In itself it’s not faithful preaching nor the message God wants us to hear and take to heart. When John preached those things they were connected to the Person and Work of Jesus Christ; you know, the Light, the one in whom we are to believe. A life of believing is a life of stewardship. It’s true that we at times, if not often, need to hear exhortation of what we should do and how we need to serve God with our time, our money, and our abilities. But without looking to the Light and believing in Him, what are you doing other than what any person can do who doesn’t believe in Christ? Nothing. In fact, there’s a lot of people out there who do many wonderful things, but they are not the things that God wants, because they are not done for God’s glory.

Things are not for God’s glory if they are not because of God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ and His suffering, death, and resurrection. This is the point John is making. That’s why it’s the stewardship sermon that actually shows us what stewardship really is. It’s living as God has called you to live. When you look to the Light and believe in Him you see what it is that God has called you to do. Everything God has given you has purpose because Christ died for you. Everything God has given you is blessings. If we think outside the box we will see what John was talking about, that stewardship is not about what we do but about what Christ has done. This certainly includes the blessings God gives us for our benefit, most definitely. But what are blessings if they are only for ourselves? The blessings He gives us are for others’ benefit as well. And that’s why we serve. That’s why we give. That’s why we do all those things that we know we should do but need to be exhorted to do. We do them not because we are supposed to. We do them because we look to the Light and believe in Him. We do them because stewardship is not about what we do but because of who Christ is and what He has done for us.

He is the Servant who has done all for us. What we do to serve others is pretty small in comparison but really greater than anything we could ever think to do ourselves. When we serve it’s really just what flows out of believing in Christ. Looking to the Light rather than to our own notions of what we should do for God.

When people hear about stewardship they usually want to hear practical things. How do the things John the Baptist is preaching practically play out? How does one look to the Light and believe in Him? How does this flow into being a steward of all God has given us? What the world sees as practical is worthless in the eyes of God. What God sees as practical is worthless in the eyes of the world. The way John the Baptist preaches stewardship is by pointing us to Christ, where and how He comes to us, not to our own works and what we should do. For us, then, what he points us to is Christ’s work in the Gospel and the Sacraments. Think about how immensely practical this is.

What we are talking about here are the Means of Grace. The Means of Grace are the means, the ways, in which God delivers to us what Christ accomplished on the cross. What He accomplished on the cross He accomplished two thousand years ago. That’s in the past. It’s a historical event. It happened. But how do you get what He accomplished there? How does it actually benefit you in your life?

The answer is the Means of Grace. The Holy Spirit delivers the forgiveness and salvation won at the cross to you in the proclamation of the Gospel, in your Baptism, and in the Lord’s Supper. The reason this is so practical is that you don’t have to wonder how you are to look to some Light that’s out there somewhere but know exactly where God delivers to you His blessings. It’s in the Means of Grace. When you look to your Baptism you are looking to Christ. In your Baptism you have everything you need in order to serve God, whether you’re rich or poor, talented or not, busy or have a lot of time on your hands. When you eat and drink the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion you are receiving Christ into your very being. How you serve others is that Christ is in you and accomplishes through you all those ways you serve.

A true stewardship sermon is not a shot in the arm. It’s not a motivational appeal and certainly not a guilt trip. What it is is what we always need, and that is the proclamation of Christ and Him crucified. What we need to hear and do is look to the Light and believe in Him. And all the ways you serve and carry out the stewardship of all that God has given you? Make use of the Means of Grace. You have no hope of being a faithful steward apart from the faithful partaking of the Means of Grace. In them you have life and in that life you can truly serve. Amen.


Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Life of Repentance Is Life in Christ

Second Sunday in Advent
Commemoration of John of Damascus, Theologian and Hymnwriter
December 4, 2011
 Before there was Jesus there was John. At least, the way Mark is telling it, Jesus wasn’t around until John was around. Mark is being specific here about the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It begins with John. We know, though, that before there was John there was Jesus. Mark is not telling us of the beginning of Jesus but of the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus. It begins with John. It was only when John the Baptist came on scene that Jesus came on the scene. John wasn’t around until he himself was born. Jesus has always existed, He’s God.

It’s remarkable, then, that Mark tells us here about this beginning of Jesus. Jesus, though God, is not afraid to have a beginning. This doesn’t mean He was created. He is the Creator, He’s God. But He entered into His creation. He had a beginning. We normally talk about that in terms of His birth. But Mark here is making a theological point. The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begins here with John the Baptist paving the way; preparing; calling out; calling people to repentance. When Jesus comes on the scene it’s to begin ministry. For thirty odd years He had been faithfully serving in the vocation of son and carpenter. Faithfully carrying out His vocation as a member of society.

Now was the beginning. The beginning of the Gospel. Mark tells us John comes on the scene. John tells us of the one who will come on the scene next and He’s the one who will carry out His ministry. Mark doesn’t spend time with the thirty years that preceded this. He doesn’t tell us of the birth. He doesn’t tell us of the teenage years. He doesn’t tell us of the early adult years. He goes right to the ministry of Jesus. The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Why is this? It’s because of the way God looks at things. Peter tells us in the Epistle reading that “the Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” So here you have it. Thousands of years had gone by before this day; before this day when John would come on the scene, carrying out the prophetic fulfillment of being the Forerunner, paving the way for Christ. Calling people to repentance. Preaching a Baptism of repentance. If the people of God had been waiting for thousands of years wondering if God was ever going to make good on His word, God Himself never gave a moment’s thought to slowness. For Him there is no time. But He makes good on His word in time. John the Baptist comes on the scene. Jesus comes on the scene. The Gospel is begun. Jesus enters His ministry.

You and I need to start thinking this way. Not thinking about God’s promises and blessings in terms of time while taking them in and enjoying them in time. God is spiritual and outside of time but saves us in time. God is spiritual and not bound by physical things and yet gives us His eternal blessings in physical means. John came baptizing. He came applying water to people and speaking words to them so that they would be forgiven their sins.

Most importantly, but really simply what flowed out of the Baptism he carried out, was telling them of the one to come. The one after him who was mightier than he, as he said, “the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but He will Baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” This is why John had come. To baptize, yes. To preach, yes. To pave the way, yes. All of these tasks were wrapped up in the one thing he was doing: making known the one to come. The one who was mightier than he. The one who would Baptize with the Holy Spirit.

John was taking his cue from Isaiah, where it was prophesied that he would be doing this work. In our Old Testament reading we heard it: “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.” Baptism is not a private thing. Salvation is not merely between you and God. The Gospel is not meant as something you keep to yourself. The Gospel Isaiah was prophesying, that Mark was telling about, and that John was proclaiming, was a public Gospel. It was a Gospel to be revealed. And that’s where Jesus belongs in all of this. He is in the flesh in which that glory that is revealed that Isaiah spoke of. He is the eternal Son of the Father who comes to Baptize in the Holy Spirit.

That day Mark was telling about wasn’t your ordinary day. People coming out into the desert to hear an itinerant preacher. People hearing of a message of repentance and confessing their sins. People stepping into the Jordan to be baptized. It certainly wasn’t ordinary when Jesus Himself showed up, the one John had been telling them about, the one who would Baptize them with the Holy Spirit.

How many of those people walked home that day never again to see the need for being in God’s House to hear that same message again, that Jesus is the one in whom is their salvation? How many of those people left that day having seen nothing more than an out of the ordinary event, but one that didn’t have relevance for the rest of their lives? How many people are there today who have been Baptized but never again see the need to hear the Gospel and regularly receive the Lord’s Supper? How many among us are here regularly but come here but don’t see anything out of the ordinary, as compared to something like what occurred out there in the Judean wilderness with a man clothed in camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey and baptizing people in a river and saying the Messiah would be there in their presence?

Too often being here is just that. We’re here because that’s what we do on Sunday mornings. Even when we understand the significance of it it can seem like we’re going through the motions. Too often we don’t see and take to heart that what occurred on that day in the Judean wilderness was what occurs every time we gather here in God’s House around the liturgy, the Baptismal font, the pulpit, the altar, and our brother and sister Christians. These things are not private and personal matters. The Gospel is not individualistic. These things are public. The Gospel is something that is revealed. It is made known. We are here because we need to be here. We get something here that we can’t get on our own.

What that is is what Isaiah, and then Mark, and then John the Baptist were pointing to. Christ. Jesus, the Son of God, the one who Baptizes with the Holy Spirit. What we get is God Himself in the flesh. We don’t see Him. We don’t see Him as the people on that day did. But He comes to us as He did on that day. John said Jesus would Baptize in the Holy Spirit. Why do we begin the worship service the way we do, with the Invocation? Because we are the Baptized children of God. We begin in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Mark said that what he was doing was the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; what we do when we gather in God’s House, is begin in the same way. Our beginning in the Gospel was in Baptism. That’s how we begin here.

What do the Baptized people of God do? They confess their sins. They repent, just as John was preaching. We confess our sins because we are always falling into sin. We are always wandering around in the desert of our lives not seeing Jesus there. We’re wandering around because we’re seeking fullness of life apart from things like confession and repentance. We make light of our sin rather than recoiling in horror at it. We don’t see the great need to be here rather than understanding that being here is the very sustenance of our life as children of God.

John the Baptist was in that awkward time where he was in the New Testament era but was an Old Testament prophet. He was the last in a long line of prophets who foretold the coming of Christ. But actually it wasn’t awkward at all. It actually was pretty much the same as what had been happening. And it was the same as what happens now. Preachers today don’t preach anything different. What Isaiah was doing, what Mark was speaking of, what John was proclaiming, is what Christian preachers of today do. They proclaim Christ and Him crucified. The fact that there are so many preachers that preach a message devoid of repentance and the need to confess our sins shows how it’s not just the average Christian that doesn’t see the need to be here. It shows that preachers themselves are not immune to the temptation of wanting to hear a message that skips the uncomfortable and deals mostly with the things we like to hear.

What exactly does it mean to be Baptized with the Holy Spirit? That’s what John said that Jesus would do, He would Baptize us with the Holy Spirit. Jesus is God and the Holy Spirit is God. God the Son is Baptizing us with God the Holy Spirit. What we need, my friends, is God. What we need is to be forgiven of our sin. That’s why God the Father sends God the Son and God the Son Baptizes us with the Holy Spirit, so that we can receive God. So that we can be forgiven of our sins.

It’s true that hearing this message over and over can make it seem like it’s not exciting or like we’re going through the motions in hearing it. But it’s what we need. It’s what God has given us. He doesn’t give us something new all the time. It’s what He’s given us for all of time and for eternity. Salvation is in the forgiveness of sins. Eternal life with God is through being forgiven. We need Baptism. We need Jesus. We need the forgiveness that God the Father gives us in His Son through the Holy Spirit. Baptism is a one-time event in our lives but we live it out daily. We daily die and rise in repentance and newness of life.

In the Epistle reading Peter has this take on it: “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to His promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by Him without spot or blemish, and at peace.” This is a description of living as a Baptized child of God. We know this because Peter talks of living in repentance. The Baptized child of God lives a life of repentance.

The Baptized child of God lives a life of repentance not simply because it’s commanded. And not because he’s supposed to be feeling bad all the time. And not because he’s not supposed to enjoy life on this earth. The Baptized child of God lives a life of repentance because he sees his need. He sees that he needs Jesus. As Baptized children of God we see that what God offers us is so much more than we could ever attain, or even seek, on our own, or any other source. I mean, the Holy Spirit! What more could you want or need? When you see that what Peter is talking about, that the Judgment Day could be any day, that Christ is soon to come again in glory, that all we see here will be done away with, you see that you have far greater needs than what we and so many often seek. Living in repentance is not morbid and it doesn’t mean we have to live somberly. But it does mean we take seriously the Word of God. That we are without that Holy Spirit on our own. That we are unholy on our own. That we need God to forgive us and make us holy. That we need salvation from our continual disobedience of the Ten Commandments.

When we see this then we can see what the people in that desert wasteland saw on that day. A man who came along in fulfillment of the preaching of John the Baptist. A man who came to Baptize with the Holy Spirit. A man who came in the flesh, not as a Lord and Master who dispenses with us as He pleases. Yes, He was and always will be the Lord and Master. John, and we, are unworthy to stoop down to untie His sandals. But He nevertheless came to the Jordan on that day to show us who He is and exactly what kind of Lord and Master He is. The one who has stooped down to untie the bonds of our sin. The one who walked those dusty roads to the Jordan in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy and John’s proclamation only to find Himself making His way on the dusty path to the hill of Calvary and the cross that stood there. The cross the Romans had planted there wasn’t meant specifically for Him, but He had known all along that He would be nailed to it.

A life of repentance is looking to this. It’s being sorry for your sins, yes. But even more and especially it is looking to the cross. That also is not a morbid thing. There’s solemnity in it, yes. But there is also the highest joy, God in the flesh suffering at the hand of God, the recipient of His wrath, all because of His eternal love for us. A life of repentance finds the comfort the Old Testament reading spoke of in the suffering and the cross of Christ. The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ culminated in that. Being Baptized with the Holy Spirit is being Baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. For you, that is the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, where you first received the Gospel and all that it entails—forgiveness of sins, eternal life, being a child of God forever, now and without end in heaven. Amen.