Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Following Jesus with the Saints in Advent

“St. Thomas: Confidence in the Incarnate Christ”

December 21, 2016


St. Thomas is admittedly an odd character to talk about this time of year.  He usually appears in our Easter narratives.  Advent is winding down this week.  Christmas is just around the corner.  And here we are, commemorating one of Christ’s apostles.  And not just any apostle, but one who has forever been tagged with the unfortunate moniker “Doubting Thomas.”  You remember how he was not present with the other disciples in the Upper Room when Jesus appeared to them the evening of the day Jesus rose from the dead.  They later reported to Thomas, “We have seen the Lord!”  Thomas replied skeptically, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the marks of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (John 20:25).  Yet Jesus was merciful to Thomas.  The very next week, the disciples were gathered together again, and Jesus showed up one more time, seemingly for the benefit of Thomas and Thomas alone.  “Put your finger here,” Jesus said to him, “and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side.  Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27).  Thomas answered, “My Lord and my God!”

            So, is this an appropriate account to hear only a few days before Christmas?  Tradition tells us that Thomas died on December 21 in the year 72 and his feast day was inserted into the church year calendar in the 9th century.  As late as 1969, though, the Roman Catholic Church moved his feast day to July 3 so that his remembrance would not interfere with the days leading up to Christmas.

            But it seems to me that it’s entirely appropriate to think about St. Thomas today.  Because with Christmas, the cross is always in view.  And with the cross, the resurrection is always in view.  Here’s how Ambrose would have us sing about it:

God the Father was His source,
Back to God He ran His course.
Into hell His road went down,
Back then to His throne and crown.

For You are the Father’s Son
Who in flesh the vict’ry won.
By Your mighty pow’r make whole
All our ills of flesh and soul.

            Doubt is certainly one of those ills of soul that we struggle with on a regular basis.  Thomas reminds us of those struggles.  We are no different from him.  We need to see things to believe them.  We have a hard time believing the words of the other apostles who have told us that the crucified Christ is risen … he is risen indeed!  We wonder if God will truly ever by his mighty power make whole all our ills of flesh and soul.

            In one sense, it is okay to struggle with our doubts.  It’s okay to admit them, to work through them, to battle with the big issues surrounding faith and belief and trust.  God is surely big enough to handle our doubts.  And of all places, the church should be a place where we can admit them and together struggle against them, like the man who cried out to Jesus, “I believe! Help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).

            At the same time, God calls us to faith.  Jesus had told Thomas, “Do not disbelieve, but believe” and “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).  He chastised Peter when he tried to walk to Jesus on the water, saying, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matt. 14:31).  And James in his epistle tells us when we pray to “ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6).

Gideon had his doubts.  He wondered if God had the right guy.  Midianite raiding parties had been terrorizing Israel for seven years.  God told Gideon that he would be the one to deliver Israel from the hands of the Midianites.  But Gideon decided to put God to the test, to see if he would deliver on his promises.  And so he played his little game with God with the fleece and the dew.  Now, this does not mean that we should do the same.  Nowhere in the Bible does it tell us that this is an acceptable way to discover God’s will.  On the other hand, it does does show how God graciously condescended to Gideon to prove himself to him.  The Lord gave Gideon concrete proof of his promises.

            In an even greater way, God graciously condescended to Thomas to prove himself to him.  He appeared to Thomas and gave him concrete proof of his resurrection.  He could have completely blown Thomas off, saying, “You missed your chance buddy!”  But that’s not what happened.  He invited Thomas to look at his wounds and to touch his pierced side, and Thomas was delivered from doubt and filled with faith.

“My Lord and My God” was his repentant cry and his confession of faith all wrapped up into one clear, bold statement.  It was the clearest confession of the identity of the Incarnate Christ that anyone had made up to that point.  The Man Jesus Christ is Lord and God of us all, the One who first condescended to enter his own creation to become one of us, to become a helpless little baby, to grow up and live in perfect obedience to the Law of God, to suffer and die for our disobedience, to be our substitute in obedience and in justice, so that you and I could be justified, declared not guilty, reconciled to God, forgiven.

Jesus also graciously condescends to us today with something concrete, something you can touch … the water and blood that poured forth from his pierced side.  These signify the means that give birth to Christ’s Church and which nurtures Christ’s Church … baptism and the shed blood of Christ.  And so we come to him here with all our doubts, with all our skepticism, and cry out “Forgive me, my Lord and my God!”  And he says, “put your hand here. I place my very body into your hand and my very own blood into your mouth.  Taste and see that I am good.  That I am here for you.  That I forgive you for all your doubts.  That I will strengthen your faith.”

Before Jesus rose from the dead, Thomas had made a prior bold statement as one of Christ’s followers.  Opposition to Jesus by the leaders in Jerusalem had been increasing.  Jesus was summoned to Bethany near Jerusalem where his friend Lazarus had died and told the disciples that he was going to there.  Heading into the eye of the storm in Judea where opposition to Jesus was greatest, Thomas said to his fellow disciples, “Let us go, that we may die with him.”  Perhaps not a confession of faith, but certainly a courageous resolve to follow his Master to the bitter end.

“Let us go, that we may die with him.”  Thomas had no idea how true this would one day be.  Thomas would certainly participate in Jesus’ cross.  According to tradition, Thomas went on a missionary journey to preach the Gospel in India.  To this day, there is a Christian community in India that claims to descend from Christians first converted through Thomas’ preaching.  Tradition states that Thomas was speared to death for what he preached.  What a blessed irony this is!  Thomas wouldn’t believe until he had touched the spear mark in Jesus side.  And it was a spear that Thomas would take in his own body for the sake of the name of Jesus whom he preached!

Because of his faith in Christ, the symbol now identified with Thomas is a spear. He shared in Christ’s death, and he will also share in Christ’s resurrection.  Thomas now dwells with Christ his Savior, awaiting the day of resurrection … concrete proof of which Jesus showed Thomas in his own resurrection.  And so it is also for you!  Like Thomas, you have been marked with the name of Christ.  In Holy Baptism, you received the sign of the cross on both your forehead and upon your heart – to mark you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified. Wearing the sign of his death – you also shall wear the crown of life that Christ has won for you.[1]

Blessed are you now because you have not seen and yet have believed.  But on that great day of resurrection, you will finally get to see with your own eyes.  And all doubt will finally be removed.


[1] This paragraph and the previous paragraph adapted from a portion of a sermon by the Rev. Jeffrey Ries.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent (December 18, 2016)

Advent 4 – Series A (December 18, 2016)

Matthew 1:18-25


You are a Jewish man living in the backwater town of Nazareth a little over 2,000 years ago.  You are engaged to a young woman.  Your family arranged the marriage, but you have grown to love and admire this girl, the epitome of purity and faithfulness – faithfulness to you, and faithfulness to God.  You are engaged, but according to the custom of the day, you are married.  You haven’t consummated the marriage yet.  That will wait until the day a few months from now when you bring her to your home in a joyful procession.  You are a poor carpenter, so neither you nor your parents can afford a really big shindig.  It will be modest, but it will be wonderful nonetheless.  You can’t wait for that happy day when you will take your bride home with you, to live “happily ever after”… “till death us do part.”

But then, your world falls apart.  Your fiancĂ©e returns from a three-month visit to her relative down south, and it’s obvious that she is pregnant.  You know that you cannot be the father.  It’s like someone has punched you square in the gut.  When you finally come to your senses, you ask yourself, “What do I do now?”

You’ve been in Joseph’s shoes.  Well, maybe not exactly.  But you have certainly faced various difficult, challenging, seemingly impossible situations in your life.  If you haven’t yet...believe me, you will.  There will be times when you feel like you are up against a wall, when you feel like you are between a rock and a hard place, and you ask yourself, “What do I do now?”

Put yourself in Joseph’s shoes.  What would you have felt?  You probably would have felt anger towards Mary.  If not anger, then certainly disappointment.  You may have felt embarrassed.  If you thought this was something that was forced upon Mary, you would of course be angry with the perpetrator.  Most definitely Joseph was confused.  You can imagine him thinking, “How could this have happened?  I had such great plans for our life together.  Why did you let this happen, God?  What do I do now?”

Although Joseph may have initially thought that Mary had sinned, there was no sin involved in the conception of Christ.  He is the holy offspring of the Virgin Mary.  He was conceived in a miraculous way, kept from the stain of original sin.  But not you and me.  Psalm 51:5 (NIV) says, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”  Therefore, sin—our own sins and the sins of others—must be taken into account when we consider the reasons for the messes we get into.  Whether the sins of others have affected us, or whether our own sin has put us between a rock and a hard place, we would feel the same emotions as Joseph…anger, disappointment, embarrassment, confusion.  And especially when we are at fault, we would have to add the knowledge of guilt and the feeling of shame.

Whatever your circumstances, you can relate to Joseph.  Whether someone else’s sin has caused you grief…whether your own sin has made things difficult for you…or whether you simply feel mired in confusion and consternation, stuck in uncertainty and anxiety, not knowing where to turn or what to do, you know the feeling: “What do I do now?”

St. Matthew tells us that Joseph was a “just man.”  He was a faithful Jew, and so he wanted to do the right thing.  The Old Testament Law of the people of Israel said that if a woman had committed adultery she should be stoned to death.  The least the Old Testament Law required was that if a man found some indecency in his wife, he was to write out a certificate of divorce and send her on her way.  This was the path of action that Joseph determined to take, but he took it one step further.  Still loving Mary, despite whatever she had done or whatever had happened to her, in spite of whatever unbelievable explanation she may have given for the fact that she was pregnant (like an angel telling her that the baby in her womb was conceived by the Holy Spirit), he decided to do things quietly.  He did not want to see her exposed to the ugly criticisms of a self-righteous community.

But before Joseph picked up his quill and dipped it in ink to begin filling out the divorce papers, God graciously intervened.  Into the sting of Joseph’s sadness, into the center of Joseph’s confusion and consternation bursts God’s gracious Word of promise: “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

What would have happened if Joseph had woken up from his dream and not believed the angel’s words?   What if Joseph had woken up and decided that it was all just a crazy dream, as some of our dreams often are?  I suppose we would have to consider him condemned and separated from salvation, for in rejecting the angel’s words about the Savior, Joseph would have rejected the Savior himself.  Despite the angel’s message, what if he had said, “I just can’t have Mary as my wife.  As much as I love her, and as much as I don’t want to see her publicly ridiculed, it just wouldn’t be right for me to marry her.  I want to remain faithful to God’s Law.  I want my wife to be one who does the same.  And I could never see that baby as my own.”

But you already know that’s not what happened.  God’s promise of a Savior came to Mary, and through that Word the Holy Spirit conceived the Savior in her womb.  God’s promise of a Savior came to Joseph, and through that Word the Holy Spirit conceived faith in his heart.  God’s Word gave Joseph the ability to receive the Word with faith and to trust God’s promises.

Moreover, God’s Word gave Joseph the strength and the determination to do the right thing even though facing a difficult, challenging, almost impossible situation.  Joseph probably knew that his wife Mary would be maligned as an adulteress.  He fully expected that his child would be called “illegitimate.”  In fact, it seems as if that’s what the Jewish leaders implied when they said to him in John chapter 8, “We were not born of sexual immorality” (John 8:41).  No matter how much ridicule he and his family might face in the future, Joseph was determined to take Mary as his wife and raise Jesus as his very own.

Likewise, God’s Word gives you the ability to receive his Word in faith and trust his promises.  You can trust that in spite of all appearances, that tiny little child growing in the womb of the Virgin Mary…that weak, poor, helpless little baby who was born in a barn…is exactly as the prophet Isaiah foretold:  he is “Immanuel”…he is “God with us.”  You can trust that in spite of all appearances, that baby lived up to his given name:  JesusYeshua…which means “the Lord saves.”  He lived up to that name by living a perfect, sinless life so that he could be the perfect sacrifice for your sins and mine.  What a difficult, challenging, almost impossible situation Jesus faced.  No matter how much ridicule he encountered in his life, no matter how often he was slandered, no matter how often he was rejected, no matter how many times his words fell on deaf ears, Jesus was determined to go to the cross for you and for me.

God’s Word gives you the ability to trust in Immanuel, to trust in Jesus.  And like Joseph, God’s Word gives you the strength and determination to do the right thing when you are faced with difficult, challenging, almost impossible circumstances.

            When you are faced with one of those “What do I do now?” moments, you can respond knowing that you have “Immanuel.”  God is with you.  Righteous indignation doesn’t have to get the best of you and turn into sinful hatred or a long-standing grudge.  Disappointment doesn’t have to get the best of you and turn into despair or doubt.

            When someone else’s wrongdoing has made your life difficult, you can forgive them as Christ has forgiven you.  Those who crucified Jesus sure made his life difficult (now there’s an understatement!).  But he was still able to say, “Father, forgive them.”  And like Joseph, who before he learned the real story, did his best to protect Mary’s reputation, you can defend the names and reputations of those who have hurt you.  There is no need to spread malicious gossip around about your neighbor, but instead, as Dr. Luther writes, you can “defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.”

When it is your own wrongdoing that has made a mess of things, you can confess your sin.  You can take advantage of private confession, unburdening yourself to your pastor, knowing that your confession is confidential.  More importantly, you can know that when your pastor tells you, “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” …you can know that in those words, Immanuel is present, wiping the slate clean.  In those words, Jesus applies to you his saving grace.

Whenever you are brought to any situation where you feel like crying out “What do I do now,” put yourself in Immanuel’s hands knowing that he is with you and that he will take care of you.  He is not just “out there somewhere.”  He is really with you.  He entered our flesh at Christmas.  He still enters into our existence today, giving us his body to eat and his blood to drink in his Holy Supper.

            And sometimes, when you cry out “What do I do now?” you still may not know what’s going to happen, you still may not know what to do, what path to take.  Even when confusion and consternation remain, you can still trust that God is with you.  You can still trust the Lord has saved you.  Despite your circumstances, you can still say, “I have Immanuel.  I have Jesus.”

Joseph, after God’s Word came to him, was able to do the right thing.  He took Mary as his wife and received her baby as his very own.

God’s Word has come to you.  Now you, too, can look into the manger and say, “That baby is my very own.  He is my very own Savior.”


Saturday, December 17, 2016

Sermon for Midweek Advent III (December 14, 2016)

Following Jesus with the Saints in Advent

“St. Lucy: Courage from the Light that Shines in the Darkness”

December 14, 2016


If you were raised with any Scandinavian traditions, you may have celebrated St. Lucy’s Day or Lucia (Loo-see-ah) as she would be called.  Her name means “light” taken from lux or lucis in Latin.  In the days when the Julian Calendar was used, December 13 was the shortest, hence the darkest, day of the year and Lucy the light-bearer became popular in the far north.  In homes, schools, and churches, a young girl is chosen to portray Lucy.  She wears a white robe with a red sash and a wreath with candles on her head, leading a procession of other children dressed in various costumes and singing songs.

Lucy was a courageous Christian virgin and martyr.  She reminds us of the struggle between light and darkness, even though some pagan traditions may have become mixed up with her festival.  The darkness was especially frightening to the ancient Swedes and Norsemen, with trolls and demons and the spirits of the dead that would be active outside.  But those old myths contain some truth, don’t they?  Demons are real.  The devil still does prowl around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.

But no matter how cute or pretty the fair maiden is who gets to be Lucy for a day, the circumstances of her martyrdom were neither sweet nor cute.  Lucy was born to a wealthy family in Syracuse on the island of Sicily late in the 3rd century.  She had dedicated herself to serve Christ and never to marry.  Her desire was to give her dowry to the poor.  But Lucy’s widowed mother arranged for her to be married to a pagan man who did not want Lucy to give away her wealth, so he reported his betrothed to the governor.  The governor ordered Lucy to burn a sacrifice before an image of the Roman emperor, since the emperor was considered divine.  As a faithful Christian, this was something she could not do in good conscience.  Her sentence was to be sent to live in a brothel.  As the story goes, Lucy refused to go.  When the soldiers who were sent to take her away could not move her, they hitched her up to a team of oxen.  Even then, she could not be moved.  When they piled wood around her and attempted to burn her alive, the wood would not catch fire.  Finally, a soldier plunged a sword into her neck and she died.  One later tradition also states that before she was put to death, her eyes were gouged out.

As in the case of all the martyrs, the darkness seems to win.  The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, as Jesus said, and the violent take it by force.  Christ’s followers face opposition, they are persecuted, maimed, and killed.  Jesus foretold this.  If it happened to him, it would happen to us.

The opposition that we face today is not always violent.  But it is a daily reality for our brothers and sisters in Christ in other places.  Yet we certainly face opposition from the world around us.  Sometimes it may come from our fellow parishioners.  It also comes from our own sinful heart that wants nothing to do with God and his Word.       

Our eyes may be just fine, but Satan loves to blind us to the realities of living as a follower of Jesus.  He tries to blind us so that we don’t see what’s going on behind the scenes, so that we are only concerned with what we can see right in front of us.  When this happens, we refuse to take seriously the forces of evil at work.  We begin to doubt whether God is really present.  We don’t really trust that his Word is powerful.  We don’t really trust in the efficacy of the Sacraments.  We think that we need to spice things up a bit.  We despair when our church is not growing.  We are tempted to think that the Holy Spirit must not be working here.  We blame ourselves and ask, “What am I doing wrong?”  We doubt whether God really loves us when rotten things happen to us.

But Jesus came to bring sight to the blind.  Jesus came to bring light into this world darkened by sin, evil, and death.  He has come to bring sight and light to you. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined” … “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given” … or as Ambrose would have us sing:

              From the manger newborn light
Shines in glory through the night.
Darkness there no more resides;
In this light faith now abides.

            The light of Christ enables you to look at the Baby in the Manger and by faith know that this is God in the flesh.  The light of Christ enables you to look at that Man suffering and dying on the cross of Calvary and by faith know that this is God loving you to the bitter end, paying the price for your sins so that you could be forgiven and reconciled to God.  The light of Christ enables you now to see beyond your own nose and by faith recognize the heavenly realities all around you.  To see God at work in your life.  To see Jesus present and active through his Word.  To see his Body and Blood present for you in the Holy Supper.  To trust him for all your needs of body and soul.  To encourage you when we despair.  To give you courage in the face of all the forces of darkness and to boldly take a stand for truth like Lucy.  Because Christ has already conquered the forces of darkness at the cross and the empty tomb. 

            Even John the Baptist may have had some issues here, believing that Jesus was the promised Messiah.  He sent his followers to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”  But Jesus pointed John to the works that he had done, reminding him that the Messiah to come would do the exact things that Jesus was doing … giving sight to the blind, making the lame walk, cleansing lepers, making the deaf to hear, raising up the dead, preaching good news to the poor.  All these things that Jesus did in his First Advent point us toward his Second Advent, when all the dead will be raised, all the baptized will live forever, we will be in the very presence of the Light where there will be no more darkness.  And there will be new eyes for Lucy, new eyes for you, restored bodies for all of you, no more glasses, no more contacts, no more meds, no more dentures, no more scars, except for the scars on Jesus’ hands and feet that prove eternally that he is the one who earned a place in eternity for you.

            So be inspired today by the witness of Lucy the light-bearer.  Take courage from the light that shines in the darkness, Jesus your Savior.  Go and be a light-bearer wherever the Lord sends you.


Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent (December 11, 2016)

Advent 3 – Series A (December 11, 2016)

“Joy” (Isaiah 35:10)

            The first two weeks of Advent have a penitential mood.  Jesus is coming.  So repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.  But this week is all about joy. 

            Listen to today’s readings:

            From the Introit: “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4).

            From the Old Testament reading: “And the ransomed of the LORD shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isa. 35:10).

            The pink candle is lit, reminding us of the joy we have in Christ.  With each successive candle lit on the wreath, the light becomes brighter.  Even the shade of the candle is lighter than the others.  Another celebration of our Lord’s First Advent is approaching.  That means we are another year closer to the Second Advent of Jesus.  And that gives us joy.  Restrained joy, for sure.  It’s not Christmas yet.  We’re still waiting for Jesus to return.  But joy nonetheless.

            Unfortunately, the closer we get to Christmas, the more we tend to think about the joyful promise of “presents” under the tree and less about the “presence” of God.  The gifts we get might be the only joy we will experience at Christmas.  For many people – perhaps for some of you here – underlying all the decorations of the season are a host of emotions other than joy.  Like Adam and Eve trying to cover up their shame and guilt with fig leaves, you and I try to hide our innermost feelings with festive lights, shiny tinsel, pretty paper, ribbons and bows.  Intruding upon our celebrations are loneliness, uncertainty, anxiety, sorrow, grief, bitterness, and pain.  And no amount of brightly lit trees or homes can lighten the darkness of your depression or gloom.  “Joy to the world” sounds like a clichĂ©.  

One of the purposes of Advent is to give us the “presence” of mind to be thinking about the right “presents.”  So you see, it’s okay to think about the joyful promise of “presents” … the gift kind.  Joy is a present … a gift of God’s grace.  It is a fruit produced in you by the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22).

            Time for a little linguistics lesson.  The words for joy in the Bible are varied.  One Hebrew word (simchah) means to be glad with your whole heart and soul.  It carries the sense of “to shine” or “to be bright.”  That might remind you how we say that someone or something has “brightened your day.”  Another word (ranan) means to shout aloud because of the joy in one’s heart.  There’s also the word sason which means “gladness, rejoicing, or mirth.”  Another Hebrew word (gil) has the sense of “to circle around,” indicating that joy often leads to enthusiastic expressions … jumping around, laughing, dancing, shouting for joy, fist pumping, and high-fiving.  Well, I don’t know if the Israelites knew about high-fives, but if they had, I’m sure they would have high-fived each other on certain occasions … like when Gideon defeated the Midianites, when David defeated Goliath, or when the exiles in Babylon heard that Cyrus the Persian was going to let them return to their homeland.

            That’s the joy of which Isaiah speaks.  God promised that a highway would be prepared for his people to return safely from their exile in Babylon.  The hot, dry desert will gil – rejoice – by blossoming and gushing forth with refreshing water.  It will be as if the effects of sin in the world have been reversed … the blind will see, the deaf will hear, the lame will leap like a deer, the tongue of the mute will sing for ranan.  No hungry lions or other ravenous beasts will attack along the way.  But the ransomed of the Lord will return and come to Zion … to Jerusalem, the Holy City, the place where God promised his presence would dwell.  Everlasting sason would be upon their heads.  They shall obtain sason and simchah.  And sorrow and sighing over their helpless condition would flee away.  God’s rescue has come!

            Isaiah’s words reach beyond the exiles returning from Babylon.  They reach down the centuries to you.  When Jesus came as the promised Messiah, he showed his power to reverse the effects of sin in the world.  He healed the blind, the deaf, the lame, and the mute.  But more than that … he went all the way to the cross, carrying our sins with him to rescue us, to redeem us, to save us, to purchase us with his own blood.  Apart from God’s love for us in Christ, you and I are in exile, far away from God’s gracious, forgiving presence.  We feel the effects of sin … the desert-like dryness of a spiritual life hampered by “sorrow and sighing” … by physical calamities and emotional agony and guilty consciences.  But the Holy Spirit came to you in the Word and water of Baptism.  The refreshing forgiveness of sins was personally applied to you.  “Rivers of living water” now flow from your heart filled with faith in Christ (John 7:38).  You are the “ransomed of the Lord.”  You come to Zion … not a city or a mountain, but a people … the Holy Christian Church, the assembly of all who are declared holy and righteous in Christ.  God dwells among his people here.  He is present everywhere, that’s for sure.  But you can be sure to find him where he has promised to be graciously present for you … in Word and Sacrament.

In Psalm 16, David says to the Lord, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” (Ps. 16:11)  In spite of what is going on around you or within you, you can find joy in God’s presence.  You can come here to hear his Word and to receive Christ’s body and blood, which assures you that he is present to forgive you and bless you in your sorrow and sighing.

You see, Christian joy does not mean that you are always going to feel like jumping up and down and hooting and hollering and high-fiving each other … like crazy fans at Century Link field after the Hawks score a touchdown.  Christians are aware of their sin and are ashamed of it.  Christians still get sick and die.  Christians still get depressed.  “The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy” (Prov. 14:10).

But Christians also know that the joy this world offers is fleeting.  The presents under the tree are going to break and wear out.  Sometimes the opposing team shuts you down.  Being a Christian is no guarantee of a constant, ongoing, happy-clappy life.  We may be tempted to get jealous when we see unbelievers living it up while we suffer.  But remember the words of Job: “Do you not know this from of old, since man was placed on earth, that the exulting of the wicked is short, and the joy of the godless but for a moment?” (Job 20:4-5)  At his first Advent, Jesus rescued us from our sin.  At his second Advent, he will once and for all rescue us from all our suffering.  Psalm 126 says “those who sow in tears shall reap in joy!” (Ps. 126:5)  And Psalm 30 says “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (Ps. 30:5)  Joy comes with the morning because of the joy of Easter morning, when Christ rose from the tomb, proving his victory over sin, death, and the devil … that greatest killjoy of them all.  That’s why Peter could write to those who were suffering for their confession of faith in Christ, “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith – more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”  (1 Pet. 1:6-9)

“Joy that is inexpressible.”  That really is the case, isn’t it?  It’s like old Vacation Bible School song says, “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart.”  It’s so deep down in there that it doesn’t always manifest itself in a smile or otherwise.  But it is there, and our hearts can rejoice in what God has done for us in Christ and joyfully anticipate our final release from the effects of sin which we still endure in this life.

In two weeks, we will gather together once again on Christmas to hear the angel’s message to the shepherds, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).  Good news of great joy.  A Savior is born.  A Savior whose heart was filled with so much joy over us that he was willing to become one of us and to give his life for us.

Where do you find your joy?  By “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2).  Until he comes again, rejoice in his “presence” in Word and Sacrament today, and enjoy his “presents” of love, hope, joy, and peace.


Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Sermon for Midweek Advent Service II (December 7, 2016)

Following Jesus with the Saints in Advent
St. Nicholas and St. Ambrose: Confessing Christ as Fully God”
December 7, 2016

In a speech to congress following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt called December 7 “a day that will live in infamy.”
            On our church calendar, December 7 is not a day that will live in infamy … but it is a famous day. It is a day on which we remember a very important figure in the history of the Church. St. Ambrose of Milan is commemorated today not because he died on this date (that actually occurred on April 4 in 397), but because he was consecrated as a bishop on December 7 in 374. And yesterday we commemorated another follower of Jesus who is significant at this time of year for various reasons … St. Nicholas of Myra, his death being on December 6, 343.
Let’s start with the earlier of the two, St. Nicholas. Much of what we know about Nicholas is shrouded in mystery and legend, but there are some things we can say about him. Nicholas was born to a wealthy family in a coastal town of what today is southwest Turkey. He eventually became bishop of Myra, a town not far from where he grew up. When his parents died, he inherited an enormous amount of money that he gave away secretly to the needy people of the city. In one of the most famous stories about Nicholas, he threw bags of gold through the windows of three girls who were about to be forced into a life of ill repute because their family could not could not support them. In one version of the story, Nicholas does this over a period of time, and one of the fathers stays up late to discover the identity of their benefactor. Nicholas learns of the poor man’s plan and drops the bag of gold down his chimney instead. In this way, Nicholas became famous for his care of the poor and needy in his community.
But even more importantly, Nicholas was a great confessor of the Trinity and the divine nature of Christ. Arianism was a widespread heresy in those days that denied the full deity of Christ. Arius was a priest who taught that there was a time when the Second Person of the Trinity did not exist, that the Son of God was created and came into existence at a point in time. His false teaching was the primary reason why the First Council of Nicea was gathered in 325AD and which condemned the teachings of Arius. There’s even a story about Nicholas being present at the council and slapping Arius in the face. It’s a great story, but it probably didn’t happen since Arius would not have been allowed in the council chamber because he wasn’t a bishop. But the point is this: Nicholas boldly stood up for the truth of Holy Scripture and the full deity of Jesus Christ.
About three or four years before Nicholas died, another great follower of Jesus was born: St. Ambrose. Ambrose was born into a prominent Roman family and was raised in the city of Trier in Gaul in what today is southwestern Germany. His father may have been the praetorian prefect there, sort of like a military leader and governor of a certain region of the empire. After his father died, Ambrose went to Rome to study and later became governor in northern Italy centered in Milan. Even after the Council of Nicea, the Arian controversy had not faded away, and it had affected Milan, too. Ambrose was no friend of the Arians, but he was well-respected by both parties in the fight. When the bishop of Milan died, Ambrose attended the meeting to elect a replacement, hoping that his presence would ease the tension between the two competing factions. When he stood up to address the crowd as governor, shouts of “Ambrose, bishop!” interrupted him. The whole crowd took up this cry and Ambrose was elected bishop, even though, at first, he strenuously refused. He was not trained in theology. As a catechumen, he hadn’t even been baptized yet. He finally conceded to the crowd’s request, was baptized, ordained, and consecrated bishop of Milan. A strange way to begin one’s ecclesiastical career, that’s for sure. But Ambrose soon became a solid theologian and churchman and is known as another bold contender for the truth of the Trinity and the full deity of Christ, like Nicholas.
We can also thank Ambrose for introducing congregational hymn singing to the western Church. He wrote many hymns that still survive to this day, some of which we are singing tonight, including our theme hymn “Savior of the Nations, Come.” He is credited with composing the Te Deum which we normally sing during Matins. He is also known as the pastor who baptized another great church father, St. Augustine. In fact, even the writers of the TV show The Simpsons know this. In one famous scene, Homer accidentally gets baptized (it’s a long story) and Bart asks him how he feels. Homer responds, “I feel like St. Augustine of Hippo after his conversion by Ambrose of Milan.”
Ambrose was also famous for standing up to oppressive civil authorities. In one instance, the Arian emperor Valentinian once sent troops to Milan and ordered the cathedral to be used for Arian worship. Ambrose and his congregation barricaded themselves in the church and Valentinian finally backed down. Ambrose had declared, “If you demand my person, I am ready to submit: carry me to prison or to death, I will not resist; but I will never betray the church of Christ. I will not call upon the people to succour me; I will die at the foot of the altar rather than desert it.”
Ambrose and Nicholas remind us of the struggles the Church endured against heresies that arose and how our creeds and confessions were forged in the heat of battle in order to confess the truth about God the Father and his Son.
            Consider the language of the creed forged at Nicea. The Son of God is “begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” You can almost hear the bishops at Nicea striving to find a way to confess this mystery, that the Second Person of the Trinity is eternally God. He is begotten, but not like you and me in time. He is begotten in eternity … outside of time. There never was a time when he did not exist. He is God and of God. He is Light and of Light. He is very and truly and really God. He is of one substance with the Father. What in the world does that mean? “Of one substance.” Substance sounds like a word you would use when you step on a slug: “What is that sticky substance on my shoe?” Here, though, the council used a philosophical term that means something like “essence” or “the true nature” of something. “One substance” is actually one word in both the Latin and the Greek. Consubstantia. Homoousias. Whatever makes God the Father God is exactly the same thing that makes the Son God. They are equal in terms of their deity.
            Here is how Ambrose confessed the deity of the Incarnate Christ in his great Advent hymn:
                Here a maid was found with child,
Yet remained a virgin mild.
In her womb this truth was shown:
God was there upon His throne.

Then stepped forth the Lord of all
From His pure and kingly hall;
God of God, yet fully man,
His heroic course began.

When you think of a throne room, what do you usually think of? A castle made of stone and mortar. A resplendent hall with gold ornaments and intricately woven tapestries. And in the center a magnificent, luxurious chair raised high on a platform where the monarch sits and presides over their kingdom.
But when the Son of God took on human flesh, the throne of God was the womb of the Virgin Mary … imagine that! Mary’s womb was our Lord’s pure and kingly hall. After his miraculous conception, had we been in Mary’s presence we should have gotten down on our knees and paid homage to God truly present there, no matter how small he was. All little babies are sacred in their mother’s womb, and so we rightly take care to guard each life even before they see the light of day. But this Baby … this Child … this was Life itself. The Creator of all things became a creature. The Son of God humbled himself not only in his birth … but also in his death, the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world at the cross. Jesus became poor so that you and I might become rich. Jesus humbled himself so you and I might be exalted … forgiven, redeemed, beloved, made to be children of God, given a place in God’s family, brought into communion with the Holy Trinity.
And we respond by joyfully confessing this truth … joyfully confessing the name of Jesus before kings and princes, no matter what the consequences, like Ambrose. We respond by caring for others, especially those in humbler circumstances than our own, like Nicholas. We respond by boldly confessing the full deity of the Son of God, like both Nicholas and Ambrose. Because Arianism is still with us today. There are those who still would make Jesus to be less than fully God. But this has grave consequences regarding the nature of our salvation and the meaning of the atonement. Jesus had to be Man so that he could live a perfect, sinless life in our place and so that he would be able to die for the sins of the world. But he also had to be fully God so that his sacrifice would have infinite value … so that the death of One Man would be acceptable for all men and women who ever lived or who are still to live. Only the death of Jesus, True God and True Man, would do. Nothing less would be acceptable. Because you are infinitely loved by God.
So give thanks to God today for Nicholas and Ambrose and their courageous task of keeping the Church focused on the full deity of Christ. Give thanks to God today that the Son of God entered into this world for you, to sit upon the throne in his mother’s womb, and to come forth from his pure and kingly hall to be your Savior.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent (December 4, 2016)

Advent 2 – Series A (December 4, 2016)

“Prepare the Way of the Lord” (Matthew 3:1-12)


Out in the wilderness, those who went to see and hear John the Baptizer preach would have been reminded of the wilderness wanderings of the people of Israel.  For 40 years they camped in the desert, following the Lord wherever he told them to pitch their tents and HIS tent, the tabernacle.  Over and over again, the Israelites tested the Lord’s patience with their unbelief.  It was their unbelief that had shut them out of the Promised Land for so long a time.  The wilderness may have also reminded John’s hearers of the time when the people of Judah were exiled in Babylon.  That 500-mile stretch of desert between Palestine and Babylon, with all its obstacles and hindrances, was like the obstacles and hindrances that separated the people from God … the obstacles of sin and unbelief in dry, barren hearts.  And there, at the Jordan River where John was baptizing, they would have been reminded of the way God brought them back to the land, passing through the waters of the Jordan, with the Lord always being faithful to his promises even when the people were unfaithful.

We chide the Israelites for their idolatry, for their doubt, for their covetous desire to return to the flesh-pots of Egypt.  But we, with our sinful nature, are no different than they were.  We, too, have our idols … whatever priorities, people, and possessions we place before God.  And you and I, too, have doubts that plague us and desires that haunt us.

John’s call to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” is for us, also.  It is necessary for us to “Prepare the way of the Lord” in order to properly welcome and worship him.  The Kingdom of Heaven had come to earth in the person of Jesus Christ.  All the blessings of the Kingdom of Heaven were centered in the manger of Bethlehem.  All the blessings of the Kingdom of Heaven were won for us at the cross of Calvary.  And through faith in the Christ Child, we will be ready to welcome our Advent Lord when he comes again and brings his Kingdom in all its glory.

So, “Prepare the Way of the Lord” by repenting of your sins (vv. 2, 6).

In the movie “The Princess Bride,” the kidnapper Vizzini constantly says that the events that keep happening around him are “inconceivable,” to which the swordsman Inigo Montoya finally says, “You keep on using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”  The same goes for the way we use the word “repentance.”  “I do not think it means what you think it means.”  Repentance is not merely saying, “I’m sorry,” or feeling regret about something you have done.  Neither does it mean walking around, beating your chest, berating yourself, and crying out, “Woe is me!  I am a sinner!”

Certainly, we should feel regret and sorrow over our sins which have offended God.  Certainly, we confess that we are “poor, miserable sinners.”  But real repentance is a change of heart … a turning away from going your own way to going God’s way … turning away from sin and guilt and turning towards the cleansing and forgiving grace of God in Jesus Christ.  Moreover, repentance is not just a one-time deal.  It’s a condition.  It’s a heart condition.  It’s a lifestyle.

You see, repentance is a like a two-sided coin.  Contrition – being sorry for your sin – is heads.  Faith – trust in God’s grace in Christ – is the flip side of the coin.  Both are necessary in this lifestyle of repentance.  In fact, the document that kick-started the Reformation begins with this very same thought.  The very first of Luther’s 95 Theses says, “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said ‘Repent,’ he willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.”

Regarding a lifestyle of repentance, St. John the Baptist also declared, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”  He said this to the Pharisees and Sadducees who were coming out to the wilderness to see him.  But John saw right through them.  He calls them a “brood of vipers.”  He recognized their false motives for coming to be baptized by him.  If the Pharisees and the Sadducees did not allow themselves to be baptized by John, they would lose their status among the people, since so many people were coming out to see and hear this popular wilderness preacher.  And so John saw that these so-called spiritual leaders were not truly repentant, and therefore they would not “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”  Their unchanged lifestyle would show that they not truly had a change of heart.

How do you and I “bear fruit in keeping with repentance”?  John answers that for us in Luke’s account.  The people asked “What should we do then?”  John told them to share your food and clothing with others and be merciful.  He told the tax collectors to stop defrauding people and be honest, be people of integrity.  He told the soldiers to stop shaking people down and be content with your pay.

What would John say to us today?  He would probably say something similar.  He would point each of us to our vocation and tell us to be faithful in our station in life.  Are you a son or a daughter?  Bear fruit in keeping with repentance by serving, obeying, loving, and cherishing your parents.  Are you a parent?  Then don’t exasperate your children, but bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.  Are you married?  Then honor your spouse, and be pure and chaste in all that you say and do.  Are you single?  Serve your friends and your family, and also be pure and chaste in all that you say and do.  Do you have a job?  Do it wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord.

“Prepare the way of the Lord” by repenting of your sins and being ready to welcome your Advent Lord who comes with all the blessings of His Kingdom.  

John said that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.  On the day of Pentecost, the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and tongues of fire rested upon them.  “Our God is a consuming fire,” the author of Hebrews wrote.  At Pentecost, however, God was present there in all his fiery-fullness, but the disciples were not consumed, just as God’s fiery presence did not consume the burning bush that Moses saw at Mt. Sinai.  And when you were baptized, God came to you in all his fiery fullness.  There were no tongues of fire.  There was no dove descending from heaven.  There was no voice saying “This is my beloved son.”  But God’s gracious, life-giving presence was there nonetheless, for he promises that in baptism “he saved us … by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.” (Titus 3:5-6)

For those unwilling to repent … for those who have not “prepared the way of the Lord” in repentance … this baptism with fire will mean the pouring out of an unquenchable fire.  John the Baptist calls these individuals “chaff,” the wheat husks that are gathered after the harvest and are burned up.  When our Lord Jesus returns at his Second Advent – when he returns for his final harvest – those who have been filled with faith and have borne the fruit of faith will be gathered into the barn of heaven.  But those who in this life stubbornly separated themselves from faith in the saving death of Christ our Lord will experience the unquenchable fire of hell.

We also learn from our text today that we “prepare the way of the Lord” by not assuming that we are saved by our bloodlines, our heritage, or our traditions. (vv. 7-10)  This is what the Pharisees and Sadducees assumed.  They figured that because they were descendants of Abraham, they were automatically in God’s favor.  But John said to them, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’”

Are we guilty of this assumption?  I think sometimes we are.  Some people are tempted to assume that because they were born into a Christian family, that automatically makes them a Christian … in spite of the fact that they despise their baptism by never giving it a second thought, by taking it for granted … in spite of the fact that they seldom come to church to hear God’s Word and receive the Lord’s Supper … and when they do, it’s just a ritual that they go through.  They don’t really think about what it truly means.

Closer to home, we may be tempted to think that we are just a bit closer to God because of our Lutheran heritage, our liturgy, and various church traditions.  Now don’t get me wrong, I love all of this and I will continue to uphold the richness of our Lutheran theology and worship and hymns and traditions.  But if we for a moment begin to believe that we have an automatic ticket to heaven because we are Lutherans, then we are dead wrong.  In fact, if we believe any of that, then we are as dead as a rock.  Stone-cold dead.

But God can work with rocks, too.  John said, “I tell you, God is able to from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.”  The Pharisees and Sadducees clung to their bloodline for their salvation, but John said, “That’s not going to cut it.  See these desert rocks?  God made them.  And he can make them alive if he wants to, and he can turn them into living beings with faith in the Savior.”

God can work with rocks.  He told the prophet Ezekiel, “I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them.  I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh” (Ez. 11:19).  He once worked with a stony guy named Peter, whose name means “rock.”  Peter denied Jesus, but by grace Jesus forgave him and gave him a rock-solid faith. 

Apart from the Holy Spirit working in us through the Word of God, our hearts are like those stones.  Cold and lifeless.  Dead.  With no place upon which seeds can take root and grow.  But God sends his Word of forgiveness through the death and resurrection of Christ, and he makes alive what once was dead.  He waters that hard, crusty soil in Baptism, plows it under and breaks it up, and he plants the seed of faith, and it grows and bears fruit.  That’s what he’s done in you and me.  He’s taken our stony hearts and made them alive by grace.  He has made us children of Abraham, those who have been declared righteous by faith in Jesus.

We “prepare the way of the Lord” by repentance.  But Jesus is the One who has “prepared the way” for US by being bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to us in his very own flesh … born of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, raised again on the Third Day, given to us in the Lord’s Supper, and coming again on the Last Day.