Sunday, January 14, 2018

Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany (January 14, 2018)

Epiphany 2 – Series B (January 14, 2018)
“Knowing the Lord” (1 Samuel 3:1-10)

Hannah was the childless wife of a man named whose other wife had children.  Hannah was tormented because of her barren condition.  Every year, she and her family would travel from their home in Ramah to Shiloh where the tabernacle was at the time.  This was many years before David built his palace in Jerusalem and Solomon built the temple there.  There, at Shiloh, Hannah and her husband would worship the Lord.
On one particular visit, she prayed to the Lord with such fervor and with such tears that Eli the priest thought she was drunk.  He tried to shoo her away, but Hannah explained to him that she was “troubled in spirit” and was “pouring out [her] soul to the Lord” (1 Samuel 1:15).  What she had been praying for was, of course, a child.  Moreover, she promised the Lord that if she was given a son, she would dedicate him to the Lord’s service for the rest of his life.  And that is exactly what happened.  Hannah had a baby, and she named him Samuel.  After he was weaned, she brought him back to Shiloh and gave him to Eli to raise in the Lord’s service.  You may be wondering, “Didn’t Samuel need a mothering hand, too, rather than just an old priest?”  There were probably other women who served at the tabernacle who helped take care of Samuel, perhaps Eli’s own wife.  But Hannah also returned every year to visit and to give Samuel a new robe which she had lovingly made.  And the Lord continued to bless Hannah.  In 1 Samuel 2, we are informed that, “the Lord visited Hannah, and she conceived and bore three sons and two daughters.  And the young man Samuel grew in the presence of the Lord.”
Yet, in our text today it says, “Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord.”  How was this possible?  We just heard that he was “in the presence of the Lord.”  He lived with Eli the priest.  The first verse of our text says that Samuel “was ministering to the Lord.”  That probably means he performed some service in the tabernacle, perhaps like acolytes today or altar guild members.  He helped Eli with his priestly duties.  We also learn that he slept in the tabernacle itself, near the ark of God (3:3), where God promised his very presence would dwell.  Chapter 1 of 1 Samuel even says, “He worshiped the Lord” (1 Sam. 1:28).  With all this contact with the things of God, how is it possible that Samuel “did not yet know the Lord”?
It appears that Samuel served as Eli’s “eyes” in his old age, since the text mentions Eli’s eyesight that had “begun to grow dim.”  Perhaps that’s why Samuel thought that it was Eli who was calling him.  Eli probably often called to Samuel for his assistance getting around and taking care of things in the tabernacle.  But Eli’s failing eyesight points us to something else.  There was also a failure of spiritual sight, since there was “no frequent vision” from the Lord.  This is reflected in the way that Eli failed to rein in his sons.  The previous chapter of 1 Samuel tells us how sinful they were:  they misused the offerings that people brought to the Lord.  They slept with the women who served at the entrance to the tabernacle.  Eli’s sons certainly “did not know that Lord,” and that is the way they are described (1 Sam. 2:12). How, then, can the same thing be said about Samuel?
What does it mean here to “know the Lord”?  For Samuel, it meant that God’s Word had come to him in a personal way, and he responded to it in faith and trust.  Before God had revealed himself, Samuel might have been like those people who have a mild familiarity with the way things operate in church, but only have a surface relationship with God.  They come to church every Sunday, but they still don’t know the Lord the way he wants to be known.  They hear God’s Word, but it goes in one ear and out the other. They sing the liturgy, but their hearts and minds are not in it.  They come to the Lord’s Table, but they still hold deep-seated, hateful grudges in their heart against someone.  They come to the Lord’s Table, which is meant to forgive us and strengthen us, but they really don’t intend to amend their sinful life.  They return home on Sunday afternoon and things go on just as they always have.
“Knowing the Lord” is more than just knowing ABOUT him.  It’s more than just acknowledging that he is there.  “Knowing the Lord” is to be in a daily, penitent, prayerful relationship with him.  “Knowing the Lord” is to submit to his claims on our life.  It is a heartfelt trust and a desire to draw closer to him through his Word.
There is a danger in thinking we are so near, yet so far away from him.  Unless we hear and answer his call, like Samuel … and the disciples, in today’s Gospel lesson, where Jesus comes to them and says, “Follow me,” then we are no more alive than the walls of this building upon which God’s Word echoes.  We are spiritually dead and deserve nothing but God’s wrath over our sin.  We don’t really “know the Lord.”
And in fact, we can’t know the Lord unless He reveals himself to us first.  But our God is gracious and forgiving to call us in the first place.  He doesn’t have to call us to faith through water and the Word.  He is under no obligation to call us to be his followers.  He could just let us go off in our sin and self-satisfaction.  But he loves us so much that he doesn’t leave us to our own devices.  He knew us first, just like he knew Nathanael.  Nathanael asked Jesus, “How do you know me?”  Jesus replied, “Before Phillip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”  Just like he came to Philip and Nathanael and called them by name, Jesus comes to us personally in Holy Baptism and calls us by name.  Jesus comes to us through his Word … in the Bible, on the lips of your pastor, on the lips of whoever has told you about Jesus.  Jesus comes to you through his Word and says, “I love you.  I died for you sins.  I am alive forever.  Now come, follow me.  Be my disciple.  Be a life-long learner from me and my Word.  And I don’t just want to be a casual acquaintance of yours, someone about whom who you think only once a week on Sunday morning at 8 or 10:45.  I want to be close to you.  And the way that happens is for you to be in my Word all week long.”
You can hear the voice of Jesus calling you in His Word.  You don’t have to wait for “frequent vision” from the Lord, that which was lacking prior to the Lord calling Samuel to be a prophet.  We hear God’s voice, not in dreams, not in visions, but in the voice of Jesus.  Hebrews 1:1 says, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.”  We hear the voice of Jesus in the apostolic testimony given to us in Holy Scripture.  In the Bible, we hear his call, and the Holy Spirit empowers us to respond, “Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.”  Our hearts have been opened to hear God’s Word, to listen to it carefully, to meditate on it. 
Samuel came to know the Lord in a way that Eli’s sons never did.  In fact, the Lord graciously revealed himself to Samuel in a way he never did to Eli.  Note that the last time God called Samuel, our text says, “the Lord came and stood.”  This seems to be another one of those moments in the Old Testament where the Son of God appeared visibly, even before his incarnation … another “theophany.”  God personally appeared to Samuel like he did to Moses in the burning bush.  He called Samuel for a specific purpose … to be his prophet to carry his word to the people, to be God’s authoritative representative.
Even more so, the disciples came to know the Lord in way that even Samuel didn’t.  They saw him in the incarnate flesh of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ and Savior of the world.  He called the disciples for a specific purpose…to be eyewitnesses of his resurrection and to preach the Gospel to all nations as his authoritative representatives.
And that is what he calls his Church to do today … to carry the apostolic testimony of the Crucified and Risen Savior to the nations … by mouth, by supporting mission work with our prayers and with our pocketbook, by supporting the work of our seminaries to send laborers into the harvest, by encouraging the young men and young women in our congregations to consider entering into full-time church work … so that many more people in this dying world might come to “know the Lord” … knowing him as the one who bought them with a price … the price of the precious blood of the Son of God … the very same price with which he bought you.


Sunday, January 7, 2018

Sermon for the Epiphany of our Lord (observed) -- January 7, 2018

Epiphany (observed)/Baptism of Our Lord (January 7, 2018)

“An Epiphany Mashup” (Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12)


Do you know what a “mashup” is?  A “mashup” is where two different songs or music videos are combined into one new piece.  It’s kind of a recent pop culture phenomenon although there are examples from the past, too.  For example, I found one on YouTube that combined the disco song “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees with the rock song “The Wall” by Pink Floyd.  It was called “Stayin’ Alive in the Wall.”  There’s another one called “Billie Jean on the Storm” which combines Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” from the 1980’s with “Riders on the Storm” by The Doors from the 1960’s.  Surprisingly, they all work quite well together.  You’ll have to take the time to give them a listen, if you’re so inclined.

Well, today is a “liturgical mashup,” if you will.  We are observing Epiphany, which always falls on January 6.  Typically, this is the day we remember when the Wise Men visited the Holy Family.  Then, the following Sunday on the church year calendar we commemorate The Baptism of Our Lord.  So, today, I thought we would commemorate both Epiphany and the Baptism of Our Lord on the same day.  Really, this is not unlike what Eastern Orthodox Christians do.  For them, Epiphany is Christmas, Wise Men, and Baptism of Jesus all wrapped up into one … a “mashup.”

Epiphany means a “manifestation” or a “showing forth” or a “shining forth.”  For Eastern Christians, the feast is often called “Theophania.”  That may remind you of our recent Advent sermons.  During Advent, we learned about “theophanies,” or manifestations of God in the Old Testament prior to the Son of God becoming Man.  Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of God in the person of Jesus Christ, but not just to Mary and Joseph and those who met him in Bethlehem.  Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of God to the whole world in the person of Jesus Christ.  It shines the spotlight on Jesus, then God through his Word shines the light on us.  Through the preaching of Jesus, God’s favor rests upon us.  The Holy Spirit enlightens our hearts with the light of faith in our Savior Jesus.

God shines his light on us.  And this is so necessary, because we are in the dark without God’s revelation.  We would all be engaged in a futile grasping for truth, such as what so much of the world engages in.  Trying to make sense of all the things that happen to us.  Attempting to answer the questions, “What does this all mean?  Why am I here?  What is my purpose?  Does God really love me and care about me?  Can he forgive me?”

Because we are all mashed up.  Like a mashup song, we may be singing two songs together, yet they are certainly not in harmony.  There’s a part of us that says all the right things, all the God things, all the Bible things, but there’s another tune we sing that doesn’t match up … the tune we sing when we are away from church or away from our Christian friends.

And our lives are all mashed up.  All the pressures that weigh heavy upon us.  All the directions in which we are pulled.  All the temptations with their demonic forces behind them that claw at us and try to drag us down to hell.

            And so, God’s Word today shines the light for us.  It shines the light on the Incarnation, the inclusion of the Gentiles, the invocation of the Trinity, and the institution of the ministry of Jesus.  That’s a lot to cover today.  But here goes.

God’s Word today shines the light on the Incarnation.  Epiphany is really “Christmas, Part 2.”  When the Wise Men arrived, Jesus was still a baby or at most two years old.  And so we remember once again how God entered into this world for us in all humility.  But we also give thanks that he has not abandoned us.  He came to be obedient to his own Law and to do so in our place.  He came to suffer all that we endure, our weaknesses, our temptations, our death, and to overcome it all for us in his death and resurrection.

            God’s Word today shines the light on the inclusion of the Gentiles.  In the original Greek, the Wise Men are called magoi which is a Persian word.  Some Bible translations simply call them “Magi.”  This suggests that they were pagan sages from Persia, which is Iran today.  They were the first Gentiles to worship the Christ Child.  This is the mystery of which Paul speaks in our Epistle lesson from Ephesians 3 … which is no longer a mystery.  Paul was called to “bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages” … that the Gentiles – that means you and me – are fellow heirs, members of the same body, partakers of the promise in Jesus through the Gospel.  We’re not excluded from God’s promises if we are not Jewish.  It’s not by bloodline that we are brought into God’s family.  It’s by faith in the blood of Jesus.  Paul states in Galatians 3 that “It is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7) and that “there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal. 3:28-29), that is to say, when it comes to salvation, God makes no ethnic distinctions.  And in Ephesians 2, Paul writes, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and to reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross” (Eph. 2:13-16).

            God’s Word today shines the light for us on the invocation of the Trinity.  We would not know to call upon the name of the Triune God were it not for this fuller revelation of the New Testament.  There are hints of the Triune nature of God in the OT; for example, the threefold benediction that Aaron was told speak over the people from Numbers 6, and the threefold “Holy, holy, holy” that the cherubim sang in Isaiah’s vision in Isaiah 6.  But then, at the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus, we see a clear revelation of the Holy Trinity.  Jesus stands in the water.  The Spirit descends as a dove.  And the Father’s voice resounds from heaven, “This is my beloved Son.”

            So what’s the big deal about the Trinity?  Here we learn about God’s personal nature.  If God were a single, self-sufficient person, how could he be eternally love?  Love needs an object.  From all eternity, the members of the Holy Trinity have eternally love each other and are most certainly self-sufficient.  They need no other object to love.  Yet the Holy Trinity, in love, created this world in order to share divine love with us.  We are the object of his love.  And so we invoke the Name, we call upon the Name.  Every time we say, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” we remember this truth … that we are marked with that Name in Holy Baptism, that we are loved, that we are forgiven.  And as the Name of the Lord is spoken over us at the end of the Divine Service, we go from this place blessed, loved, forgiven, and empowered to serve our neighbors.

            Finally, God’s Word today shines the light on the institution of the ministry of Jesus.  Up to this point, Jesus lived a rather quiet life.  Born in Bethlehem.  Escaped to Egypt.  Lived in relative obscurity in Nazareth.  For a brief moment, we meet the 12-year-old Jesus in the temple, until we meet the 30-something Jesus in the Jordan.  This is the first time he publicly acted as our substitute.  How so?  He stood in line with sinners waiting to be baptized.  Jesus had no need to repent of anything.  But he acted as he did, as if he were a sinner, because he came to carry the sins of the world to the cross.  From there, he set off on his journey to the cross to carry out his public ministry … preaching, calling people to repentance, healing the sick, raising the dead, and casting out demons to prove his power over the devil and all the forces of evil that are opposed to God and his beloved creation.

So that’s Epiphany as many of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world celebrate it.  Another “theophany.”  A manifestation.  A shining forth.  Shining the light on the Incarnation of our Lord, the inclusion of the Gentiles into God’s plan of salvation, the invocation of the Holy Trinity, and the institution of the public ministry of Jesus … his public ministry by which we still benefit today.  In this mashed-up, mixed-up world … with our mashed-up, mixed-up lives … God shines his light upon us in Jesus in Word and Sacrament.  Now, with new clarity we can look beyond the darkness and see, with the eyes of faith, what Jesus is doing for us today through the ministry of the Church.  He still preaches to us through the preachers he gives to the Church, calling us to repentance and faith.  He heals our souls.  He raises us to new life in the waters of Baptism.  He has conquered the powers of darkness that fight against his Holy Church.


Monday, December 25, 2017

Sermon for Christmas Day 2017

Christmas Day 2017

“From Heaven Above: The Word Became Flesh” (John 1:1-14)


“What’s the good word?” you might hear someone say as they greet a friend.  The expected answer is something happy that happened.  A good word.  Not a rotten word.  Of course, if your day was lousy, then you would be stumped if someone asked you “What’s the good word?”

“The Good Word” also can refer to the Bible, which is God’s Word, God’s message to humanity given through prophets, apostles, and evangelists.  More specifically, the “Good Word” is the Gospel, the message that Jesus died for your sins and rose to life again to forgive you and give you everlasting life.

In and of themselves, words are used to communicate, to describe, to name, to identify.  And thankfully we are not left guessing what God’s will is for us.  He has clearly communicated to us through words.  Yes, at first, they were Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words.  But those words have been translated into many, many different languages and are still being translated today.

“In the beginning was the Word” are the words with which John begins his Gospel.  Who is this Word of whom John speaks?  Of course, he is speaking of Jesus.  “The Word became flesh.”  This is what we are celebrating today.  The Incarnation.  God became a man.  The divine Son of God received his human flesh from his Mother Mary.  He entered into the very creation in which he participated all the way back in the beginning.  As the living Word, he has come to communicate to us in his very life about God’s character, God’s will, and in particular his forgiving, loving nature towards us, his creatures.  This is what the author of Hebrews was referring to when he wrote, “Long ago, at many times and in various ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:1-3).

“In the beginning was the Word.”  He was there at the beginning.  He has always existed.  There never was a time when he did not exist.

“The Word was with God.”  He was present there with the other members of the Holy Trinity, the Father and the Holy Spirit.

“The Word was God.”  The Second Person of the Holy Trinity is equally God with the other two members of the Holy Trinity.  If he did not exist eternally, that would make him less than God, since being eternal is one of God’s chief attributes. 

“In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  All life finds its source in him.  This points us back to the very beginning, when Yahweh spoke everything into existence with his powerful, creative word.  “And God said, ‘Let there be … and there was’ or ‘And it was so’” is the constant refrain in Genesis chapter 1.  He gave light to all creation.  And he gives light to us in this dark world so full of sin and evil following Adam and Eve’s act of disobedience in the Garden.  The devil lied to humanity.  Death entered into the world.  Therefore, Grace and Truth had to be proclaimed to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ.  Life itself had to enter into the world to take death into himself and to conquer death and the devil by rising to life again.

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  The Word is God, but for a time, the Son of God humbled himself.  He allowed himself to be totally dependent upon his mother.  He became weak and lowly, even to the point of being born in a stable and given a manger full of straw for a bed.  He placed himself under the very Law that he gave to Moses and was totally obedient.  He submitted himself in faith and trust to his Heavenly Father, and not once did he ever waver or doubt.  And he did all of this for you and for me, for us who do waver and doubt, for us who in our weakness fall to temptation.  Jesus willingly placed himself in the hands of the governing authorities who condemned him to death.  The Almighty Son of God, the Creator of all things, allowed himself to suffer and die.  He offered his innocent life up at the cross as a perfect, holy sacrifice to cover over our guilt and shame.  That’s why we can sing with Luther in his famous Christmas hymn:

Welcome to earth, O noble Guest

Through Whom the sinful world is blest!

You came to share my misery

That You might share Your joy with me. (LSB 358:8)

By the way, when John writes that the Word “dwelt” among us, the original Greek word can be translated “tented” or “tabernacled.”  That points us back to the tabernacle that Yahweh told Moses to build when he received the Law at Sinai.  It was a big tent.  Inside, at one end, behind a large curtain, was the “Most Holy Place” or the “Holy of Holies.”  This was where the Ark of the Covenant was placed and where God promised that his gracious presence could be found.  The heavens cannot contain God, the Maker of heaven and earth.  Yet God also promised that he would dwell among his people on earth in the Holy of Holies.

That all changed when the Word became flesh.  The Son of God became a Man and entered into this world to dwell among us.  The temple curtain in Jerusalem was torn in two when Jesus died on Good Friday.  This signified that there is no more need for an earthly tabernacle.  The sinful barrier between God and Man has been removed in the sacrifice of Jesus at the cross.  The flesh of Jesus is now our Holy of Holies.  The gracious, forgiving presence of God is found in him.  So, now, for us, the altar becomes our Holy of Holies.  The Word who became flesh for us gives his flesh and blood to us here in the Eucharist.  Our hands become a manger where the body of Jesus is placed for us to eat.  Our mouths drink joyfully of the blood that was shed for us and for our salvation.

            At the risk of sounding terribly outdated and uncool … well, I guess it’s far too late for that, so here goes anyway.  A few years ago, the hip hop crowd would say “Word” to affirm what another speaker was saying or to express agreement with them.  For example, one person would say, “Man, that guy can really rap” to which the other person would say, “Word!”  Another slang response might be “True dat.”  It’s kind of like the way we use the word “Amen.”  When you say, “Amen” you are expressing agreement with what was just said in the liturgy or the sermon or the prayers.  “Amen.  I agree with what was just said.  That’s my prayer, too.”

            Now, certainly John did not use “The Word” in this modern slang sense of the term.  John may have been borrowing an idea from Greek philosophy, but that discussion is beyond our scope here.  But this modern sense works, don’t you think?  Jesus is the Word.  He is truth.  He is the living Word in whom all of God’s promises find their fulfillment.  We are in agreement with this.  That’s faith.  That’s what St. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 1: “For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you … was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Cor. 1:19-20).

            So let’s celebrate Christmas for the next 12 days.  Remember, Christmas isn’t over when the radio stops playing Christmas music or when you put the decorations away.  Christmas is over when Epiphany arrives.  But that’s not really true either, is it?  Christmas lasts throughout the year.  The Son of God became incarnate for you.  And still is.  The Incarnate Son of God is present for you every day … and especially every Lord’s Day.  Why else do we sing the song of the angels in the liturgy, even when it’s not technically Christmas?  “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth.”  Those words echo throughout the year in every church season and down through the centuries.  The song of the angels reminds us that Christ is present for us even now with his grace and truth and peace.  He’s not just the Baby in the manger.  He’s the Word made Flesh.




Sermon for Christmas Eve 2017

Christmas Eve 2017

“From Heaven Above: A Savior Is Born” (Luke 2:1-20)

            “From Heaven Above” has been our theme this Advent and Christmas.  We looked at three times when God appeared as a man in the Old Testament.  This was prior to the time when God really and truly did become a Man in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth.  The Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Son of God, entered into his own creation to walk right alongside of his own people, to bear their burdens, to heal their diseases, to release them from their bondage to sin and death and hell, to point them to himself as the source of forgiveness and everlasting life.  A thousand years before, his birth was promised to King David of Israel.  The Lord told David that an offspring would come from him whose kingdom would last forever.  This offspring, this Son of David, is the King of Kings.  Christmas tells the story of the birth of this King.

“From Heaven Above” came a humble king.  This is in sharp contrast to Caesar’s kingdom.  Caesar Augustus was the emperor of the mighty Roman Empire, ruling with an iron fist from western Europe and into the Middle East and northern Africa.  Caesar Augustus also welcomed the title “divi filius,” which means “son of a god.”  The seeds of worshiping the emperor as a god were sewn at this time.  And here in Luke chapter 2, the power of the mighty Roman emperor was felt all the way in the tiny, backwater town of Nazareth.  A new tax plan had been put in place!  But just like today, not everyone was thrilled about it, especially since everyone had to travel to their ancestral home to register for tax purposes.

            “From Heaven Above” came the true Son of God who humbly took up residence not in a palace or a castle, but in the womb of the Virgin Mary.  The Son of God allowed himself to become completely dependent upon his mother, growing within her like all other babies do … cells multiplying, body parts developing and growing week after week.

Knowing she was obviously close to her delivery date, why would Joseph take Mary on such a journey?  Perhaps there was hardly any family in Nazareth to care for Mary had she stayed at home while Joseph traveled to Bethlehem.  It turned out that there was hardly any place left in Bethlehem appropriate for a woman to deliver her child.  Just a stable.  Again, a humble place for our humble king from heaven.

It was about a hundred-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  It would have taken them 8-10 days to walk.  We have pictures of Mary on a donkey, but Scripture doesn’t tell us whether there was a donkey or not.  I like to think there was, though.  People traveled in caravans for safety in those days.  Someone must have had a donkey among them.  What a beautiful preview that would have been of Palm Sunday when, about thirty years later, Jesus rode as the humble king into Jerusalem and to his crucifixion later that week.

            The Son of God allowed himself to be carried by his mother.  He also allowed himself to be carried along by the whims of the forces of worldly power … although this was all in God’s plan.  Jesus was not a mere helpless pawn to be used by the power brokers of this earth.  Caesar Augustus ordered the taxation which forced Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem where it was actually necessary for Jesus to be born.  The prophets declared it to be so.  The prophet Micah said, “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth from me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days”  (Micah 5:2).  Later, the Jewish rulers brought him to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea and nailed him to a cross where it was necessary for him to die.  The prophets declared it to be so.  The prophet Isaiah said, “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Is. 53:5).

It's clear this humble king is a heavenly king.  The birth of a royal child is usually announced by heralds.  The announcement resounds throughout palaces and castles, in public squares throughout the kingdom.  This still happens today at the birth of a prince or a princess.  It’s plastered all over the news.  But that wasn’t the case with the birth of Jesus.  No one except Joseph and Mary seemed to care that Jesus was born.  No one except the herald angels that announced the birth of this royal Child.  But even then, their announcement was not to everyone, but rather to poor shepherds on the hillside outside of the city.  Another example of the humble way in which this heavenly King entered our world.

            The glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.  That’s a natural reaction when the glory of the Lord shines upon you.  With the holy, righteous glory of God shining brightly, all the unholy, unrighteous, ugliness of humanity is exposed … sin, guilt, shame, all our wicked acts, all our evil thoughts.  There is no hiding from God.  And maybe you recognize yourself in this.  Maybe you’ve thought you could hide from God.  The glory of the Lord is shining upon you through these words tonight.  But the very first words from the angel are “Fear Not.”  Take courage.  He has come to bring good news of great joy for all the people … a Savior has been born.  There is now no need to be afraid.  God’s favor has fallen upon you.  This Savior will rescue you from all that separates you from God and his love … the walls that each of us have built by our disobedience and unfaithfulness.  This Savior has come to tear those walls down.  He has come to forgive you of all your sins.  He has come to bring peace with God and humanity.  This is God incarnate.  God in the flesh.  Love incarnate.  Love in the flesh.  St. John wrote in 1 John 4:8, “God is love.”  This is love like it has never been demonstrated before.  St. John continues, “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.  In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:9-10).  God has entered into our world to become one of us, to be weak for us, to suffer for us, to shed his blood for us, to bear our sins for us, to reconcile us to himself through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Good news of great joy for all the people.  Perhaps there are some who respond, “Really?  For all people?  Even for someone like me?”  Perhaps the shepherds thought that way.  They were on the fringe of society.  They were smelly, dirty, living among the animals, unclean, often coming into contact with dead carcasses, living outside the city.  They may have compared themselves to the city dwellers and considered themselves unimportant and unnoticed.

            Perhaps you feel that way sometimes, too.  You feel unimportant, insignificant, unnoticed.  You may have a loving family, but there’s no else who cares about you.  Or maybe you feel like an outcast even amongst your own people.  Does God even notice me?  How can God love someone like me?  Jesus is the Savior of the world, a Savior for all people, but I feel like I get lost in the crowd, I’m nobody in particular … like those shepherds.

            The angel speaks directly to those shepherds and says, “For UNTO YOU is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  UNTO YOU.  YES, YOU!  Specifically, particularly, you.  Jesus is the Savior of all people.  He is the Savior of individuals, too.  Like you.

            God gave the shepherds a sign of his love for them … a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.  He gives you a sign of his love for you … water, spoken words, bread and wine … these are the swaddling clothes in which he wraps his love up for you and delivers it to you personally.  Water that washes away your sin.  Words that declare you are forgiven and free.  Bread and wine that are the very body and blood of the Baby born in Bethlehem, shed for you at the cross of Calvary.

            He is your humble King sent “From Heaven Above.”  A Savior for all people.  A Savior for you.


Saturday, December 23, 2017

Sermon for Advent Midweek 3 (December 20, 2017)

Midweek Sermon for Advent 3 (December 20, 2017)


TEXT: Genesis 32:22-30

Psalm 24

LSB 352: Let the Earth Now Praise the Lord

Talk about having bragging rights.  Men in Jacob’s day might be able to brag about wrestling a bear, or a lion, maybe.  But Jacob?  He could brag that he once wrestled with God … and won!

But his wrestling didn’t merely begin there at the ford of the Jabbok, the place that came to be known as Peniel, which means “the face of God.”  Jacob’s wrestling with God started much earlier.  In the womb, Jacob struggled with his brother Esau.  Esau was born first.  He had the birthright as the firstborn son of Isaac and Rebekah.  But as Esau came forth from his mother’s womb, his twin brother’s hand was hanging on to Esau’s heel, as if to anticipate the struggle to come over his brother’s birthright.  When they were a little older, Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for a mere bowl of stew.

Jacob’s wrestling with God continued when he attempted to deceive his father out of the blessing due to Esau.  Mom was in on this, too, since Jacob was her favorite.  They conceived a plan to make Isaac think that Jacob was really Esau, dressing Jacob in Esau’s clothing and covering his exposed skin with goat hide, since Esau was extra hairy, unlike his brother.  While Esau was off hunting, Rebekah prepared the goat meat and had Jacob present it to Isaac, who was now old and practically blind.  Thinking Jacob was Esau, he blessed him with the blessing due to Esau. When Esau returned and Jacob’s deception was found out, Esau was devastated and furious, of course.  His father was unable to take his word of blessing back.  He had nothing left to give him except word that Esau’s descendants would serve those of his brother.  And so, Esau determined to kill his brother Jacob after his father was dead.  Jacob had truly lived up to his name:  Jacob, which means “deceiver.”  Esau lamented this when he said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob?  For he has cheated me these two times.  He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing” (Gen. 27:36).  Rebekah learned of Esau’s plan to kill Jacob, so she warned Jacob and told him to flee, which he did.  He hightailed it to his uncle Laban’s house far to the north in Paddan-Aram where his grandfather Abraham once lived.

It was God’s will all along that Jacob receive the rights as firstborn, even though Jacob wrestled it away from Esau … and, if you will, from God, in a sense.  But no one knew this at the time.  God often does things in hidden and surprising ways, even working in spite of human foibles and human sin … in spite of Jacob’s conniving ways.  It was God’s plan that Jacob be the child of the promise, continuing in the line of Abraham and Isaac … and now Jacob.  The Seed of the Woman promised to Eve – the offspring that would be the coming Savior – would pass through Jacob’s family, too.

Many years pass.  Jacob marries Rachel and Leah.  His household prospers.  He has many children.  The time comes for him to leave Paddan-Aram and return to his home and to his father Isaac.  On the way, though, he had to pass through the land where his brother Esau was living.  Word came to him that Esau was coming to meet him with 400 men.  And Jacob was afraid.  He remembered his brother’s murderous promise.  This was one wrestling match that Jacob did not want to endure.  Moreover, Jacob seems to have had a change of heart since his days of being a “deceiver.”  He turns to the Lord in prayer, asking for deliverance.  He sends a truce offering of over 500 animals.

And that brings us to the smack down that Jacob gave to God, the third of our theophanies for Advent.  Jacob sent his family across the stream of the Jabbok and he was left alone.  That night, a man wrestled with Jacob all night long, but could not prevail over him.  The man then touched Jacob’s hip socket and put it out of joint.  At that point, Jacob seemed to recognize something unique about this man.  This was God himself.  And so, even with an out-of-joint hip, he takes hold of God and insists on a blessing.  The Lord responds by giving Jacob a new name … Israel, meaning “he strives with God.”  And although the Lord would not give Jacob his name, he still blessed him, leading Jacob to name the place where this wrestling match occurred “Peniel” … “the face of God.”  Jacob said, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.”  Following this, Jacob was prepared to meet his brother again, who had also had a change of heart.  There was no need to be afraid.  Not of God.  Jacob’s faith and trust in the Lord had been renewed.  There was certainly no need to be afraid of Esau.  In the next chapter there is a joyful, tearful reunion between the two brothers.

            In what ways do you and I wrestle with God?  We wrestle with him when we fight against his will.  The Law has a choke-hold on us, and yet we try to squirm our way out of it.  We know the Ten Commandments.  We know what we should and should not do.  And yet we often choose to disobey.    

            We also wrestle with our doubts.  Satan tries to sneak up on us when we don’t expect it and body slams us to the mat, filling us with doubt and despair and disbelief.  Satan is our deceiver who does all he can to get us to doubt God’s Word, doubt God’s love and care for us, make us think that he is absent and far-removed from us, make us wonder whether he even exists at all.

            We can also wrestle with God in prayer … and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Like Abraham who boldly came before God to intercede for the people of Sodom, we can boldly come before our Father in heaven.  We can bring our questions and complaints to him like the psalmists often did, questions and complaints such as “How long shall my honor be turned into shame? (Ps. 4:2), “Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Ps. 10:1), “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” (Ps. 13:10-2), “Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of my enemy? … my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me all the day long, Where is your God?” (Ps. 42:9).  I could go on.  There are other places such as Psalm 73 where the psalmist wonders why the wicked prosper but the righteous suffer.

We wrestle, because it does seem as if God hides himself from us.  It seems as if he is absent and silent.  Bad things happen to us or to our family and friends, and we wonder where God is in all of it.  We see images of horror and terror broadcast in the news, death and destruction brought upon seemingly innocent people, and we wonder why God does not intervene.

This is when we must trust in the way God has revealed himself to us.  We see the face of God in Jesus.  Jesus is our “Peniel.”  In him we see the face of God.  In Christ God’s loving character and saving will for us and all creation are most fully revealed to us.  In Jesus we see the face of God.  In him we are delivered from all our sin, from death, and from the power of the satanic deceiver.  In him, we know that God loves us with an everlasting love, even when our circumstances suggest otherwise.

We see the face of God in the baby in the manger.  We see the face of God in the man on the cross.  This is the man from whom the face of his Father was hidden.  With all our sins laid upon him, Jesus cried out with the complaint, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  God the Father turned his face away from his Son at the cross.  In Christ Jesus, God the Father hides his face from our sins. We are forgiven and cleansed by the blood of Christ.  We are righteous by faith in his work for us at the cross.  And he turns his face toward us.  He looks upon you with favor.  He lifts up his countenance upon you.  As St. Peter says in 1 Peter 3:12, “For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer.”

            The question Jesus asked from the cross, however, was not asked in doubt or unbelief.  He was always faithful … for us.  Therefore, the Father had no other choice but to raise his righteous Son from the dead.  And Mary Magdalene saw his risen face.  As did the two men on the road to Emmaus.  And Peter and the Twelve.  And Thomas.  And 5oo at one time.  And Paul on the road to Damascus.  And one day we, too, will see our Risen Lord Jesus face to face.

            At Peniel, Jacob was prepared to see his brother from whom he had been estranged for so long.  With the blessing of God upon him, and with a new name, he was prepared to humble himself before his brother and reconcile with him.  Esau ran to meet Jacob, embraced him, and they wept together.  Jacob demonstrated how his heart had truly changed, and said to his brother, “For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God.”

            With Jesus as our Peniel … in whom we see God’s face and by whom we are redeemed … we are prepared to reunite with our brothers and sisters.  With the blessing of God upon us in Holy Baptism, and with a new name – the name of the Triune God – upon us, we are prepared to humble ourselves before each other and be reconciled.  With a new heart created within us, we can look at our fellow baptized believers in Christ face to face, and it will be like seeing the face of God in them … and loving them as God in Christ loves us.


Sermon for Advent Midweek 2 (December 13, 2017)

Midweek Sermon for Advent 2 (December 13, 2017)

“By the Oaks of Mamre”

TEXT: Genesis 18:1-33

Psalm 85

LSB 798: The God of Abraham Praise

Abraham was camped out by the oaks of Mamre, somewhat to the south of Jerusalem.  He had been living here for a while after the Lord called him from his homeland far away in Haran and promised him land in Canaan.  Three men showed up at Abraham’s tent and like a good middle-easterner, he shows them great hospitality.  He runs from the tent door to greet them, bows himself to the ground, offers to wash their feet and refresh their bodies with bread and meat.  He invites them to sit for a while and rest under the shade of the tree under which he had pitched his tent.

            Who were these three men?  Abraham recognizes one of them as the leader of the three and addresses him, saying “O Lord.”  He hasn’t necessarily recognized yet that this man is God … another theophany … thought to be a pre-incarnate appearance of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.  That comes soon enough … in verse 10, where the text says, “The LORD said.”  Notice that.  All capital letters.  When you see that in the English text, that tells you that in the original Hebrew, it’s YHWH.  God’s personal name.  And the light seems to come on for Abraham when the LORD brings up all the talk about a promised baby to Sarah, even though she is far beyond child-bearing years.

            And Sarah laughs.  She can’t believe that in her old age she would have a baby.  And the LORD says to Abraham, “What’s so funny?  Why is your wife laughing?  Nothing is too hard for me.  Just you wait and see.  I’ll check back with you in about a year.”  Embarrassed and ashamed, Sarah denies that she laughed, and the LORD says, “Uh, yeah, you did!”

            Immediately after that, the other two men (who we find out in the next chapter are angels) head off to Sodom, a place that was no laughing matter.  This was the home of much wickedness that the LORD was about to put an end to.  And it was the home of Abraham’s nephew Lot, who had settled there some time earlier.  So, the two angels go there to rescue Lot and his family from the coming destruction that God had planned.

            But let’s get back to that promise of a child given to Abraham and Sarah, the promise that the LORD came to personally confirm here at the Oaks of Mamre.  This is another step along the way in the continual unfolding of the promise given after another couple without children – the first couple, Adam and Eve – had fallen into sin and brought sin and death into the world.  But God promised that the offspring – the seed – of the woman would bruise the serpent’s head.  Now, to Abraham and Sarah, the LORD confirms the promise he had given previously.  In Genesis 12, the LORD says to Abram (his name at that time), “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing … in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:2-3).  In Genesis 15, the LORD says, “Your very own son shall be your heir … Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them … so shall your offspring be” (Gen. 15:4-6).  In Genesis 17, God changes Abram’s name to Abraham.  Abram, meaning “Exalted Father,” now will be called Abraham, “Father of a Multitude.”  And to Abraham, God says, “I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you.” (Gen. 17:4-6).

            As old as they were, though, Abraham and Sarah got a little tired of waiting.  They tried to force God’s hand by taking things into their own hands.  Abraham had a servant by the name of Eliezer from Damascus whom Abraham had named as his heir since he had no children. In Genesis 15, Abraham asks God if Eliezer could be the child of the promise. But that wasn’t God’s plan.  The child was to come from Abraham’s own loins.  That being the case, Sarah offers her maidservant Hagar to Abraham and she gave birth to Ishmael.  Ishmael would be blessed as a child of Abraham.  But God’s plan was for a child to be born by Sarah.  Finally, Isaac was born when Abraham was 100 and Sarah was 90.  Isaac was the child of the promise.  The promised Savior would come through his lineage.

            Like Abraham and Sarah, you and I often try to take things into our own hands … the things of God, that is.  God’s plan is not good enough for us, and so we try to do it our own way.  We still like to think that there’s some effort involved on our part.  We think we have to do something.  Trust in a bloody man who died on a cross over 2,000 years ago?  What good could that possibly do?  I need to shape myself up and prove that I’m worthy.  Have a little water sprinkled on me with some words invoking God, and that brings me into God’s family and my sins are forgiven?  How can that be?  Besides, that happened when I was a baby.  What good does that do me now?  I just need to get really serious about my faith now and make a real effort at proving to God how much I love him by being obedient to him.  Eat some bread and drink some wine, and that’s supposed to be the body and blood of Jesus, given to me for life, forgiveness, and salvation?  Impossible!  Maybe if I just meditate hard enough on the death of Jesus as I kneel at the altar, then it will be really meaningful to me. 

            And God says, “Nope.  I have a better plan.  The one I planned all along.  To save you without any effort on your part.  Don’t try to force my hand.  Don’t try to take things into your own hands.  I’ve already done it all for you.  It’s not your way.  It’s my way.  My way of grace and mercy through my Son whom I sent for you, the one whose hands made all the effort for you, his hands that acted in love and compassion for the sick and the oppressed, his hands which he stretched out and allowed to be nailed to the cross.  From that cross he cried out, ‘It is finished.’  And it was.  There’s nothing left to be done to save you from your sins.  And baptism?  That’s a gift, pure and simple.  What happened to you as a baby still holds true.  You belong to me.  And the Lord’s Supper?  It doesn’t matter how hard you think about it … it’s still my Son’s body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sins.  Like I said to Abraham after Sarah laughed, ‘Is anything too hard for the LORD?’”

Following on the promise of the child we learn about the premise of intercession (18:22-33).  Abraham was on a familiar basis with God.  He conversed with God in his camp … man to man, if you will.  God revealed his plans to Abraham to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.  And because of this relationship, Abraham was permitted to “negotiate” with God, to intercede for Sodom since he knew his nephew and his family lived there … and perhaps others who were still righteous by faith like Abraham.

God has graciously revealed his plans to us in the Scriptures.  Not all the details. But the details we need to know.  In particular, his plan to rescue us from the wickedness in our heart and from this wicked world around us through the Christ Child who was sent for us.  The Seed of the Woman.  The Offspring of Abraham.  The Son of David.  The Son of Mary.

As God’s beloved, baptized children, we are on a familiar basis with God. He invites us to converse with him.  Through Jesus we can pray, “Our Father.”  We listen to his voice in the Scriptures.  We respond to him in prayer.  We intercede on behalf of our city, our region, our family members and our friends.

With this promise of a Child fulfilled for us in Christ Jesus, and with the premise of intercession given to us so that we are on a familiar basis with the God of the universe, we can laugh.  Not like Sarah’s laughter at the Oaks of Mamre. That was an incredulous laughter … a laughter that says, “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”  More like her laughter after the birth of Isaac, whose name means “He laughs.”  Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me” (Gen. 21:6).

At the birth of her son, Sarah’s laughter turned from unbelief to faithful rejoicing.  At the birth of Jesus, the angels rejoiced.  Jesus, the Promised Seed of the Woman, completed his mission of giving his life for us so that we might be forgiven and brought back into a familiar relationship with God.  That Good News is proclaimed to us, and our laughter turns from unbelief to faithful rejoicing.  The LORD of all invites us to rest in the shade of the tree of Calvary.  And we feast with our familiar God, enjoying his hospitality at the table.


Sermon for Advent Midweek 1 (December 6, 2017)

Midweek Advent Week 1 (December 6, 2017)

“Walking in the Garden” (Genesis 3:1-24)

Scripture Readings: Genesis 3:1-24; Psalm 139:1-12

Hymn: “In the Shattered Bliss of Eden” (LSB 572)

            Christmas is about the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.  The Son of God took on human flesh.  He is God.  And he is a very real man.  Conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary.  Born in a stable with a cattle trough for a cradle.  Forced to flee to Egypt because of the powerful intentions of a murderous king.  Brought back to live and grow up in the region of Galilee, working side by side with his carpenter foster father.  Became a travelling rabbi around the age of 30, gathering a band of followers and offending the religious establishment … so much so that they plotted to put him to death.  And they succeeded.  Jesus was crucified and died on a Roman cross.  Laid in a borrowed tomb.  Rose again.  Ascended to the position of all power and authority in all creation.  Returning at his glorious Second Advent.

            But many years before God entered into this world as a baby – to live and breathe the same air we breathe, to get himself dirty with the same grime that accumulates on our bodies, to allow himself to be bloodied so that his shed blood might cover our sins – many years before all this, God manifested his presence in his own creation.  We call these appearances “theophanies” … taken from two Greek words: qeoz meaning “God” and fanhrow meaning “to make visible” or “manifest.”  A burning bush.  A pillar of cloud by day.  A pillar of cloud by night.

            But it wasn’t only spectacular appearances such as these.  It seems as though God also appeared several times as a man even before the Son of God actually became a man.  And it seems to have happened already at the very beginning.  In the Garden, after Adam and Eve had fallen into sin, God appears.  What did he look like?  The Bible doesn’t tell us.  The artwork on the cover of tonight’s service folder has him looking like an old, bearded man … depicting his eternal nature, God the Father, the Ancient of Days.  While I was searching for artwork on the internet, I ran across one that has Adam and Eve in the foreground, with God approaching in the background, and he looked suspiciously like Jesus has been depicted traditionally.  That would agree with many theologians over the centuries who have thought that these pre-incarnate appearances of God are not appearances of the Father, but rather of the Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. 

Whichever person of the Trinity this is, what this depicts is God’s relational presence.  He appears as a man in order to be able to relate to his creation and communicate with his creatures.  Of course, were he to appear in all his unveiled glory, sinful humanity would not be able to bear it.  They would be consumed.  And certainly, this was the first time here that God had to confront sinful human beings.  They had just disobeyed their Creator and were about to face the consequences.  And so he appears and veils himself.

            He veils himself, yet still makes the point that he, the Creator of all things, is active and present.  He made everything, but has not left it to run on its own.  He enters into his creation.  “They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden.”  He makes noise, rustling past the brush and branches.  He walks and talks.  A preview of the day when God’s only begotten Son entered into this world, filling the space in his mother’s womb, then making his first noise on the day of his birth.  Okay, I know the song says, “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes,” but I’m not so sure that’s how it went down.  Maybe.

God entered into this world and searched out his lost and fallen creatures, his sinful human beings who attempt to hide from his presence.  At first, he plays dumb.  “Where are you?” he asks, as if he didn’t know.  He’s God, after all.  He knows all things.  He calls out to Adam and Eve to draw out a confession from them.  But it’s not much of a confession, is it?  It’s the first round of the blame game.  Adam blames Eve and God: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me the fruit of the tree, and I ate.”  Eve blames the serpent: “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”  The only one who doesn’t get to speak in all this is the devil who had taken the form of a serpent.  An interesting choice.  Quite the contrast to the form the Lord had taken, his relational presence in the form of, we are assuming, a man.   

            And that leads me to speak of God’s redemptive promise.  The old evil foe is cursed.  There offspring of the woman will bruise the serpent’s head, a fatal blow delivered to the author of sin and death … even though he will nip at his heel.  That offspring eventually was born through Eve all the way down to Mary.  Jesus suffered the bruising of his heel when he was crucified, died, and was buried.  But a heel bruising is something you can recover from, which Jesus did on the third day, giving the fatal blow to all the powers of hell when he rose to life again.      

Still, there are consequences to sin.  Life gets messy from here on out.  There will be pain.  Dysfunctional families.  You and I try to hide from God’s presence.  We bear guilt and shame.  We may try to blame everyone else for our problems.  And there will be death.  Something God never intended to be a part of creation in the first place.

Paradise was lost to all humanity.  Apart from God’s intervention, we would all have to live east of Eden forever.  But God does not abandon his creation.  He gave them a promise a redemption, a promise to cling to and trust in and be forgiven.  And like his concrete theophany, he provides a concrete sign of his forgiveness.  He makes garments of skin for Adam and Eve and clothes them.  It’s as if he was making the point that in order for this guilt and shame of yours to be covered over, life has to be taken.  Blood must be shed.  This all points to God’s own sacrifice, the Father eventually offering his Son, the Son offering himself.  His shed blood covers over all your guilt and shame.  You are forgiven.

The tree of life was lost to Adam and Eve.  In fear and guilt and shame, they hide among the trees.  Jesus died on the cross for you.  His cross becomes a tree of life for all who trust in him.  You have no more need to hide from the presence of God.  In confidence and peace and assurance, you can rest in the shade of this tree.  And you can joyfully eat of the fruit of this tree, knowing that in the bread and wine, God is truly and graciously present with you in Christ’s body and blood.  And wherever God is with his grace and mercy, that is paradise for us … a preview of the day when Paradise is restored to us and all the painful consequences of sin will finally be done away with.  We sing in the Christmas hymn, “O Jesus Christ, Thy manger is my paradise at which my soul reclineth” … although we really don’t get to go to the manger except in our hearts and minds.  Yet we do get to go to the altar.  That is our paradise where our souls can recline in the presence of Jesus until he takes us to be with him in the new creation at his glorious return.