Sunday, February 11, 2018

Sermon for the Transfiguration of Our Lord (February 11, 2018)

The Transfiguration of Our Lord (February 11, 2018)
Mark 9:2-9
Fairy tales have imaginary stories of people or objects being transformed or transfigured into something else. Cinderella is transformed from a grimy, enslaved, abused step-daughter into a candidate for princess by her fairy godmother, along with a pumpkin turned into a carriage and mice turned into horses that will pull the carriage and take Cinderella to the royal ball. Beautiful Belle meets up with a prince and the residents of his castle who had been cursed by a witch. The prince was turned into a beast, his butler into a candelabra, his steward into a clock, his maid into a feather duster, his housekeeper into a teapot, along with a few other transformed characters in the story.
            But the account we heard in the Gospel reading today is no fairy tale. The transfiguration of Jesus really happened. Peter, in fact, makes this clear in one of his letters. In 2 Peter 1, he writes, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was born to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,’ we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain” (2 Peter 1:16-18). We were there. We saw it. We saw it all. We heard it all. That’s what Peter wants to get across. That this event really happened.
Jesus walked up the mountain appearing as a man, which he, of course, is. But his human flesh was transfigured. His appearance changed. His glory as God began to shine through his human body. His clothes became “radiant, intensely white,” whiter than anyone could bleach them. Matthew says “his face shone like the sun” (Matt. 17:2). Moses and Elijah appear there talking with Jesus, two of the greatest saints of the Old Testament. God’s Law was revealed to Moses, the Law that Jesus came to keep in our place … because in our sin we are incapable of keeping the Law and thus are under God’s condemnation apart from Christ’s perfect obedience on our behalf. Elijah was the prophet that John the Baptist was compared to, and John was the final prophet to appear on the scene and to announce the arrival of the Messiah. And Peter wanted to make three tents for each of these men, tents like the tabernacle where the Israelites worshiped and offered sacrifice. Peter would have loved to stay there for a very long time. Peter may have had good intentions, but, as St. Mark tells us, Peter was so scared he didn’t know what he was saying. A cloud, then, overshadowed them and a voice came out of the cloud, echoing what was spoken at the Baptism of Our Lord, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” Lastly, Jesus was left alone with the disciples and tells them not to say anything about this event until after he is raised from the dead.
What was this event all about? Why did Jesus choose to reveal his divine glory at this point in time? This was the beginning of Jesus’ final march to the cross, the final march that we will be contemplating during the season of Lent that begins this week. Jesus would come down the mountain and face his opponents who would mock him, flog him, and crucify him. Two of his closest friends would deny him and betray him. All along the way to the cross, Jesus would suffer tremendously. He would pray earnestly to his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane. St. Mark records for us that he was “greatly distressed and troubled” … that he was “very sorrowful, even to death” (Mark 14:33-34). Jesus prayed if there was any way possible to avoid such suffering and agony. Yet, as you know, Jesus prayed to his Father, “Not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). And so, it seems as if at this point, looking forward to the cross, Jesus reveals his hidden glory as a source of encouragement for his followers. It’s as if he wants to get across the point to Peter and James and John that “This is not all there is. This is not the end. We will go down the mountain and, yes, there will be trouble. There will be more opposition. There will be suffering and pain. There will be death. But behind the veil of my flesh, there is glory. Beyond the veil of death, there is eternal life and resurrection. Behind the cloud with its shadow, the voice of the Father offers his assurance of love … love for me as the one sent to do his will, love for you as I die on the cross as the atoning sacrifice for your sins.”
            Knowing the identity of Jesus as he suffers changes our perspective on his suffering. We see that there is more than meets the eye. There is divine glory behind all of it. There is divine love behind all of it. The Father’s love for his Son. The Father’s love for you because you are united to his Son in Holy Baptism. And his suffering is not without purpose. It has meaning. It has a goal. It is meant to absorb all the sin that has ever been committed and put an end to God’s condemnation over our sin, because Jesus bore that condemnation for us at the cross.
            Knowing the identity of Jesus as we suffer changes our perspective on OUR suffering, whatever it may be … addiction, arthritis, depression, dementia, congestive heart failure, cancer … whatever has invaded our lives, stolen away our joy, and threatens to snuff out the flame of faith. But there is more than meets the eye. In spite of your pain and discomfort, in spite of your doubts wondering where God is when you hurt so much, remember that there is divine glory and divine love behind all of it. You are not defined by your disease. Your identity is not wrapped up in your ailment or addiction. You are defined by your baptismal identity, as one who is dearly loved by God for the sake of Jesus. And he transfigures your suffering and gives it purpose even when it seems so purposeless, even when you feel so hopeless. He uses our suffering to draw us closer to him and to his Son’s cross, even as we look to him with the eyes of faith hanging on the cross, struggling for breath and bleeding to death. Listen to the words of the author of Hebrews: “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives. It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons … For [our earthly fathers] disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but [our Heavenly Father] disciplines us for our good that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:5-11). Moreover, the same author declares that because Jesus suffered so much, he also really and truly understands when we suffer. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15-16).
            Some folks today who respond to suffering are much like Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration. They speak without really knowing what they are saying. They mean well. But what they say is dead wrong. They may say things like, “If you just have more faith, things will get better” or “you must have done something wrong … that’s why this has happened to you.” People may have good intentions with these statements, but these statements are faith destroying lies. We live in a world broken by sin. That’s why bad things happen. We endure the consequences of sin … sometimes our own, sometimes that of others. But God does not punish us because of our sins. That was already taken care of by Christ on the cross. Things may get better. They may not. People are not always healed, whether by miracle or medicine. The amount of faith you have is inconsequential. Besides, how do you measure faith? Faith can’t be poured out into a measuring bowl or set on a scale to be weighed. Faith is a gift, poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God.
            But even if our bodies or our minds are not healed, we are still being transformed into the image of Christ. The verses that were omitted in today’s reading from 2 Corinthians speak of this. There Paul is talking about the veil that Moses covered his face with after coming down from Mt. Sinai. He compares that veil to the veil that covers the hearts of the unbelieving Jews of his day. Then, he writes, “But when one turns to the Lord the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face beholding the glory of the Lord are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:16-18).
Many people still have a veil of unbelief over their hearts. God the Holy Spirit removes the veil from our hearts and gives us faith to trust in Christ. Then, he continues to daily transform us into the image of Christ as we view his glory with the eyes of faith. To our natural eyes, things can look bleak and dim and hopeless. To look at the humble body of Jesus, you would see a mere man. But behind his humble body the glory of the Son of God was waiting to shine forth at just the right moment. To see the cloud overtake them on the mountain, you would see shadowy darkness. But behind that cloud was the Father with his voice expressing love for his Son, and he directs us to listen to him.
Jesus goes down the mountain to face the cross.
But we have been with him on the mount of Transfiguration. And so we know that behind the cross and behind his suffering, there is glory. Resurrection is on the other side of the valley.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (February 4, 2018)

Epiphany 5 – Series B (February 4, 2018)
Looking for Jesus … Going On for Jesus” (Mark 1:29-39)

Everyone is looking for you,” said Simon and the others to Jesus. Jesus had been busy in Capernaum on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Healing the sick. Casting out demons who had taken up residence in people. Not permitting the demons to speak. Apparently, Jesus did not want them to identify him as the Holy One of God. Instead, he wanted to draw forth faith and worship from people based on his word and work.
After such a busy time, Jesus went off to a quiet place for some solitude and prayer. Jesus needed to recharge his batteries, too. But his times of solitude never seemed to last long. People always demanded his attention. And that’s the way it was here in Capernaum. Everyone was looking for Jesus.
Wouldn’t that be great if that was the case today? Everyone looking for Jesus. The whole city of Capernaum was gathered together at the door of Simon’s and Andrew’s house. Can you imagine if the whole population of your city was gathered together at your door? Or at the door of our church? Our church would be filled, overflowing even. No more concerns with meeting budget. No more feeling inadequate when we compare ourselves to other larger churches. We could finally build a bigger building, a nicer building. We would HAVE to, if we wanted to fit all those people inside, to have enough pew space and classroom space and gathering space.
But why was everyone looking for Jesus? They had heard about his healing powers. They, too, wanted to be healed or to have their loved ones healed. They wanted to be released from the demonic powers that oppressed them. It soon becomes apparent that this is the only reason that the crowds were searching for Jesus. When they heard some of his more challenging teachings, the crowds began to dissipate. For example, in John 6, Jesus taught that he is the bread that came down from heaven, the Bread of Life. He said that the bread that he will give for the life of the world is his flesh, and that whoever feeds on his flesh and drinks his blood has eternal life. All this was too much for his hearers. Many turned away from him and were no longer his disciples. This prompted Jesus to turn to the Twelve and said, “Do you want to go away as well?” Peter replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” The Holy One of God. The very same title which Jesus forbade the demons to speak. And yet a short time later, Peter and the other disciples turned their backs on Jesus, hiding in fear. Jesus was finally left all alone … hung in solitude on the cross, giving his flesh and shedding his blood for the life of the world.
Crowds still come out today for similar reasons. It’s not so much about repentance. And the harder teachings of Jesus are often avoided … the ones that make people turn away. Instead, people simply want something from Jesus, as if he’s a heavenly vending machine. Just pray hard enough, believe hard enough, and like an Amazon delivery, God’s gifts will be sent straight to your doorstep. Healing, either physical or emotional. Help for my family, either financial or relational. That’s not to say Jesus never heals or helps. He certainly does, although his help is not dependent on using the right formula in prayer, nor is it dependent on the strength of your faith. His help is always a gift of grace and is given – or perhaps withheld – for your good, for molding and shaping you into the person God desires. And we can offer this same kind of help here in the Church, as we support one another and pray for one another and direct people to resources that can help them such as counseling or medical care. But this is not the sole reason Jesus came to be our Savior. Jesus came to die for your sins and to rise to life again, giving us everlasting life and the promise of resurrection and wholeness when he returns on the Last Day. His miracles are a foretaste of that wholeness … that Shalom … that we joyfully anticipate.
Is everyone looking for Jesus? There are still some very big churches out there … megachurches with over a thousand attendees with rock star pastors and a Sunday morning experience in an auditorium that looks more like a rock concert than a worship service, and all kinds of staffed programs for children, youth, singles, and every other demographic you can think of. But is everyone looking for Jesus? We are increasingly seeing this not to be the case. For instance, in a recent study, the Barna Group stated that “rates of church attendance, religious affiliation, belief in God, prayer and Bible reading have all been dropping for decades.” The study went on to list the top 10 “post-Christian” cities in America. The Seattle-Tacoma region came in at number 9 on the list. To qualify for the list, the people surveyed had to meet a series of factors, some of which included
  • Do not believe in God
  • Identify as atheist or agnostic
  • Disagree that faith is important in their lives
  • Have never made a commitment to Jesus
  • Disagree that the Bible is accurate
  • Have not donated money to a church in the last year
  • Have not attended a Christian church in the last 6 months
  • Have not read the Bible in the last week
  • Agree that Jesus committed sins
  • Do not feel a responsibility to share their faith
  • And so on…
Fewer and fewer people are coming to church. Fewer and fewer people are inquiring about matters of faith. There is a waning interest in spiritual matters, Christian or otherwise. And really, we shouldn’t be all that surprised when you consider the godless evolutionary viewpoint that is taught in our state schools … how that viewpoint teaches us that we are all the product of impersonal forces and natural selection that somehow, some way have brought us to this point … and that means that our lives are really pointless.
But the Church has a message, the message that we are not the byproducts of ooze and goo that somehow managed to become you. We are special creations of the Triune God, dearly loved by him, loved so much that even when we failed to live faithfully as his creatures, he promised to send a Savior, his only Son who would become flesh for us and suffer and die for us so that we might become one with him again.
The disciples find Jesus and tell him everyone is looking for him. And he says, “Let’s go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also for that is why I came out.” Jesus makes it clear that he didn’t come to be a miracle worker. He came to preach. To bring the Word of God. He went on from there and preached in other synagogues, the gathering place of each Jewish community, and would cast out demons, proving his divine authority as we heard in last Sunday’s Gospel. Because when the Word of God is preached, demons flee. The kingdom of God advances. Enemy territory is recovered. And that still happens today. Consider our baptismal rites where the candidate renounces the devil. “Do you renounce the devil and all his works and all his ways?” the candidate or sponsors are asked. An optional rite in the Agenda which the pastor uses actually has an exorcism … but not the kind you’re thinking about. There’s no head rotating around or levitating bed. It’s the simple, straightforward words, “Depart, unclean spirit, and make room for the Holy Spirit.” These words are not necessarily saying that the person being baptized is possessed by Satan. What they are acknowledging is that it is important to take sides against Satan. This is no child’s play. You are either with him or against him, in his kingdom or in God’s kingdom. And the devil becomes your lifelong enemy when by water and the Word the Holy Spirit takes up residence in you and gives you faith to believe in Jesus.
Why are you looking for Jesus? For healing? For feeling better about yourself and your life? For a Sunday morning pep talk to get you through the week? That’s all well and good. But above all else, we look for Jesus and look TO Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins, forgiveness in particular for forgetting and neglecting our role in preaching the Good News, for turning our congregation into a social club, for not making this a welcoming and hospitable place for visitors, for not being concerned with those not in the inner circle, those not here with us worshipping and praying to the One True God.
So, let us go on to the next towns to preach the Good News. I’m not talking about Everett or Snohomish or Arlington. The “next town” for us may be in our own family. It may be that person you see every day whom you know could use some Good News in their life. It could be far away across the globe, as we support the work of missionaries sent out to preach the Gospel. However we do it, whenever we do it, we do it prayerfully, relying on the Holy Spirit to work powerfully through the Word of God … bringing forgiveness and wholeness … and sending the devil and his demonic forces away from us.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany (January 21, 2018)

Epiphany 3 – Series B (January 21, 2018)
“The Kingdom of God is at Hand” (Mark 1:14-20)
Jesus announces the arrival of his kingdom.  The time is fulfilled.  The wait is over.  The Messiah is here.  Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah.  The kingdom of God is at hand.  God is on the scene in the flesh of Jesus.  He is staring you right in the face.  God has visited his people.  That’s what the priest Zechariah said when it was announced to him that he would have a son: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people” (Luke 1:68).  Zechariah’s son John would grow up and be the one to preach to the people and prepare them for the arrival of the Messiah.  Many people from Judea and Jerusalem went to him in the wilderness, confessed their sins, and were baptized by John in the Jordan River.  That’s why we call him John the Baptist or John the Baptizer.
But John stirred up more than just the water in the Jordan.  He got Herod Antipas ticked off at him.  At the time, Herod Antipas was the ruler of Galilee – up north – and Perea, the region to the east of the Jordan River.  John had been publicly criticizing Herod for his incestuous marriage to his brother’s wife, who also happened to be his niece.  And for all this, Herod locked John up in prison.  When you publicly speak out against the ruling authorities, you better be prepared for the consequences … even if you are speaking the truth, as John was.
Our text today begins after John was arrested.  Mark has Jesus heading into Galilee after John’s arrest.  It was time for him to begin his public ministry.  You’d think that Jesus would head to Jerusalem, the place of the temple and the religious establishment.  But for Jesus, it was not yet time to confront the leaders in Jerusalem.  That was coming, certainly.  Perhaps he decided to go to Galilee specifically at this time to challenge the authority of Herod Antipas, in his own territory.  Jesus goes to the place of Herod’s rule and reign to announce and to demonstrate the rule and reign of God.  Galilee does not belong to Herod.  It belongs to Jesus.  Jerusalem does not belong to the scribes and Pharisees or even the Romans.  It belongs to Jesus.  The whole world belongs to Jesus.  The whole universe belongs to Jesus.
But you and I and every other sinner in the world like to be in charge of our own kingdom.  We like to be the center of our universe, not God.  We like to rule and reign our own lives, doing what we think is right, doing what feels right.  The watchwords of the day are “listen to your heart” … “follow your heart.”  This, in spite of the fact that the prophet Jeremiah rightly declared, “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).  That does not sound like a sound source of direction.
We are also tempted to fear the kingdoms of this world more than we trust in God and his kingdom.  There are authorities and authority figures who challenge God’s authority constantly, who permit things that are contrary to Holy Scripture.  And as God’s representatives, Christians are caught in the crossfire … sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally.  We are to obey the authorities over us insofar as their laws do not conflict with the Word of God.  But when they do conflict, we must obey God rather than men.  The authority of Jesus challenges this world’s authority even today.  Both our hearts and our consciences must be captive to the Word of God.
The kingdom of God is present in the presence of Jesus.  How should one react?  If God is present, what is our rightful response?  Repent and believe the gospel.  It’s time to repent.  Don’t waste time in doing so.  Can you hear the urgency in Jesus’ words?  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.”  Can you hear the urgency in Paul’s words in today’s Epistle?  “The appointed time has grown short … the present form of this world is passing away.”  Paul and the other disciples were under the impression that the return of Jesus was imminent.  And even if the return of Jesus is still hundreds of years away, we should still have the expectation that he will return at any moment.  So, what do we do with the time we have?  Are you making the most of the time God has given you?  There’s nothing wrong with leisure and rest and vacation time, for sure.  We need that … to recharge and refresh.  Even Jesus got away sometimes to deserted places.  But laziness or complacency have no place in the kingdom.  If Jesus rules and reigns now, and if he is coming again soon, then this should certainly affect the way we live now.
So, what do we do?  We do what Jesus says.  Repent and believe the Gospel.
Repent.  That is, turn away from your sins.  Have a change of heart and mind.  Repent like the people of Ninevah did when they heard the preaching of the reluctant prophet Jonah.  Repent of our sins of laziness and complacency when it comes to the things of God and his Word.  Repent of the ways in which we have followed our heart when it has led us in courses of action that are not God-pleasing.  Repent of our failure to confess Christ clearly as individuals and as a church because of our fear of how the secular society around us will respond.
Repent … and believe the Gospel.  That word means “Good News.”  Now, I assume you all know what the Gospel is.  But before we say why it is good news here, I want to talk about how Mark unpacks it for us.  He doesn’t quite define it for us here … not just yet.  The Gospel for Mark is the reign of God in Jesus demonstrated, unfolded, unpacked in the chapters following today’s reading.
It begins with the kingdom being reconstituted through the call of the first disciples.  Today, Jesus calls four Galilean fisherman to follow him.  He calls more later…eight more, to be exact, to be his Apostles.  Twelve men … corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel, to be the beginnings of the New Israel, the Holy Church sent out to fish for men as they proclaim the Gospel … to catch people in the net of God’s grace in Christ Jesus.  And the Holy Spirit by the power of the Word pulls in to the boat those whom he will.
            The kingdom is reconstituted in the Apostles.  Then the rule and reign of God is demonstrated in the works of Jesus.  Jesus casts out demons to prove his power over Satan’s opposition to God’s rule and reign.  Jesus heals the sick, makes lepers clean, makes a paralytic walk, reversing the effects of living in a sin-broken world.  Jesus forgives the sin of that same paralytic, and thereby comforts the hearts of all those who think that they are broken because of their own particular sins.  Jesus has power over nature.  He feeds the multitudes.  He calms the raging storm.  All creation groans now, but Jesus pictures for us the way in which God will one day restore all things.  A new heaven and new earth is coming.  Jesus also raises the dead.  This is a preview of our Lord’s own resurrection and the resurrection to eternal life that he promises to all who believe in him.  All of this is a preview of the wholeness of body and soul and all creation that will finally be made complete when he returns.
Yes, all this is Good News.  It is the Good News demonstrated all the way to the cross.  Jesus foretold his suffering and death three times in Mark’s Gospel … in chapter 8, chapter 9, and chapter 10.  And finally, in chapter 10:45 – right before his Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem – Jesus reveals the meaning of his death.  He says, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  It’s only through the death of Jesus that our sins are atoned for.  It’s only through the death of Jesus that our sins are forgiven.  It’s only through faith in this death that we receive his forgiveness.  It’s only through faith in this death that we can enter into and live in God’s kingdom, now and in eternity.  And this kingdom is near to you today … present for you … staring you right in the face … in these words you have been hearing, and on this altar today. The kingdom of God is at hand. God is on the scene here in the body and blood of Jesus, given and shed for you.
God visits his people today. Repent and believe the gospel.


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.