Sunday, October 22, 2017

Sermon for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (October 22, 2017)

Pentecost 20 - Series A - Proper 24 (October 22, 2017)

“What Can You Give to God?” (Matthew 22:15-22)

            There’s an old saying that goes like this: “A common enemy makes strange bedfellows.”  Sometimes nations ... and people ... who are sworn enemies get together when they have a common cause.  That was the case in today’s Gospel reading.  The Pharisees and Herodians were not the best of chums.

The Pharisees were patriots and no fan of the ruling Romans.  They hated the idea of paying taxes to the Roman Empire.   Every time they pulled a coin out of their pocket, they were reminded of the political situation in which they lived.  Caesar’s face was stamped right on the surface of their money.  And this wasn’t only a political issue.  It was a religious one, too.  Stamped on Roman coins in those days were inscriptions which gave Caesar divine honors.

The Herodians, on the other hand, were supporters of the family of Herod the Great, who ruled only because the Romans had put Herod’s family in power.  So, of course the Herodians would have been all in favor of paying taxes to Rome.

Either way, both the Pharisees and Herodians wanted Jesus out of the picture.

At this point in Matthew’s account, opposition to Jesus is increasing more and more.  His enemies are pulling out all the stops to trick him into saying something with which they can finally pin him to the wall.  And so they ask him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”  If he answered “No,” then the Herodians would have him nailed as a traitor and a rebel, and they could hand him over to the Roman authorities.  If he answered, “Yes,” then the Pharisees would have him nailed as an idolater and blasphemer, since he obviously supports the idolatrous worship of Caesar and his rule.  Under Jewish law, then, Jesus would be deserving of death.

When the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians first came to Jesus, they said, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances.”  Now, they didn’t really mean all that.  They were just messing with Jesus, buttering him up, and trying to trap him in his words.  But what they said is absolutely true.  Jesus IS true and teaches the way of God truthfully.  He is the only way through whom anyone comes to God the Father.  He doesn’t care about anyone’s opinions nor is he swayed by appearances.  Moreover, he sees right through self-righteous pretense and calls it what it is.  Hypocrisy.  And so he says, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.”  They hand him a denarius ... one of those offensive coins with a picture of Caesar’s head and the words “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus” and “pontifex maximus” ... which the Jews would have understood to mean “high priest.”

Everyone would have expected Jesus to blast the Romans for such blasphemy.  Instead, Jesus’ answer surprises everyone: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  And Matthew adds, “When they heard it, they marveled.  And they left him and went away.”  They were speechless.  Jesus had stumped them.  This was a new idea with which they were not familiar.  Back in those days, government and religion were intimately tied together.  Faithful Jews could not stomach the idea of paying taxes to foreign and pagan rulers.  And pagan rulers often demanded their subjects to not only pay taxes, but also to pay homage to the rulers as divine.  This caused no small problem for Christians in later years when it was demanded of them that they offer sacrifices to images of the emperor.    

            “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”  We get this ... especially here in our nation.  We have this idea of the “separation of church and state.”  And this really is derived from Lutheran theology which used the words of Jesus here in our text to clarify this concept at the time of the Reformation.  We call it the doctrine of the “two kingdoms” or the “two realms.”  Government we call God’s “left-hand kingdom” or “realm” and the Church we call God’s “right-hand kingdom” or “realm.”  These are the two ways in which God rules and serves the world.  He offers forgiveness and grace in the Gospel of Christ through his right-hand realm, the Church.  He maintains order through his left-hand realm, the government, so that people can serve one another with earthly goods and bodily care.  God even uses pagan rulers to do this, just like he did with Cyrus the Persian, who was mentioned in today’s reading from Isaiah 45.  Cyrus was used as a servant of God – even though he didn’t know the true God – to defeat the Babylonians and to give God’s exiled people permission to return to Judea and to rebuild Jerusalem.  So no matter who is in office in our land, they are “God’s servant for your good” (Rom. 13:4), whether you agree with them or not on all points in politics or religion.  We “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”  Honor.  Respect.  Obedience when it doesn’t conflict with Scripture (Acts 5:29).  Taxes.  And prayer ... not TO them, but FOR them (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Tim. 2:1-2).

            “Render to God the things that are God’s.”  This one’s a bit more challenging.  We know what we owe Caesar.  But what do we owe God?  What shall we give to God?

Give your heart to Jesus?  Well, that’s a fine gift.  The prophet Jeremiah described the human heart this way: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).  And here’s what our Lord Jesus says about our heart: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness” (Mark 7:21-22).

            Give your offerings?  We do this as part of our worship.  But does God really need your money?  Every beast of the forest is his, as well as the cattle on a thousand hills, as he says in Psalm 50.  God owns everything.  Why would we think that a measly few dollars – which belong to him anyways – would somehow be an appropriate gift?

            How about this one: Give your worship?  This is probably closer to what Jesus is getting at here.  Remember that image of Caesar on the coin and that divine honor was to be given to Caesar.  But the Lord said through the prophet Isaiah, “I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God.”  Worship God alone.  But do we always give our undivided attention and respect and awe and reverence to God in our worship?  Do we listen carefully to every word in the readings and in the sermon and to all the words in our hymns and liturgy?  I’m afraid not.  Our minds wander constantly, as we look at what the person in the pew in front of us is wearing, think about what we’re going to have for lunch later on, worry if our toddler is making too much noise, get upset by the rude guy in the car at the stop light outside with the booming stereo.

            God demands 100%.  We fall far short of that goal in the things we should give to God.  Our hearts are sinful.  Our worship is imperfect.  Our offerings are meager.  Even if we could give 99%, that still wouldn’t be good enough.  We owe him everything.  We owe him our very lives.  But our lives are full of sin.  And “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). 

            We have nothing to give to God.  All we can do is approach him empty-handed like beggars and rely on his mercy given to us in Christ Jesus, who gave to God the Father what was demanded of us.

The heart of Jesus was always given over to complete devotion to his Father and his will.  Jesus said, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38).

And Jesus gave to God the Father his life in exchange for ours.   Listen to how St. Paul describes this gift that Jesus gave for us.  He “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Gal. 1:4). “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2).  “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:25-27).

Through faith in Jesus, what Jesus gave to God is yours.  The perfect life of Jesus is credited to your account.  The shed blood of Jesus washes your sins away in Holy Baptism.  God now sees you as “holy and without blemish” because of what the unblemished Lamb of God did for you in his death and resurrection.  “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift” ... the GIFT, what God GIVES to YOU ... “is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).

And what do you give to God after all that?  Thanksgiving.  Praise.  Faithful worship which continues to hear his Word and receive often the Body and Blood of the One Crucified and Risen for the forgiveness of all our sins.


Sunday, October 8, 2017

Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost (October 8, 2017)

Pentecost 18 – Series A – Proper 22 (October 8, 2017)
“The Cornerstone” (Matthew 21:33-46)

Unless you are looking for it, you might miss seeing a cornerstone in a modern building … that is, if the building even has one.  In days gone by, brick and mortar buildings had a stone that was placed first.  The angles of the walls that meet at that corner must line up with that initial stone, so it was a significant part – if not the chief part – of the foundation.  Today, cornerstones are not always the first stone laid.  They are often decorative, with the year the building was built engraved into it and other important information about the building, such as who the builder was, what organization or business ordered the structure to be built, and so forth.  In some Lutheran churches, you may find a cornerstone with the initials “U.A.C.” etched on it.  That stands for “Unaltered Augsburg Confession” and displays the fact that the congregation confesses the Augsburg Confession of 1530 before Philip Melanchthon altered it.  He softened some of the language about the Lord’s Supper about 10 years later to appeal to Christians who denied the real presence of the Body and Blood of the Lord in Holy Communion.  As a professor in Wittenberg and friend and colleague of Luther, Melanchthon was a key figure in the Reformation, but altering the Augsburg Confession was not one of his brighter moments.
It’s also possible that a cornerstone such as the one described in our text today could refer to a large decorative stone placed at the top of a corner where two walls meet.  It gives the corner a beautiful, finishing flourish.  This meaning of the word “cornerstone” would also make sense in our text today, since it has the potential to do some damage when it falls on someone.  A cornerstone at the bottom of the building isn’t going to travel very far.  And it certainly won’t crush anyone.  Maybe a toe or two, if even that much.   
Jesus quotes from Psalm 118 after telling the Parable of the Wicked Tenants.  “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”  Now, why would you reject a stone from being a cornerstone?  Maybe it’s not substantial enough.  It’s not made out of lasting, durable material, but will crumble under pressure.  Maybe it’s not square enough.  Its edges are uneven.  It would be difficult to align the other stones with it after it’s set in place.  Maybe it’s not beautiful enough for its nature as a decorative part of the building.  A cornerstone must be perfectly suited for its task.
            Jesus was referring to himself as the cornerstone that was rejected by the “builders” of Israel, the chief priests and experts in the law and other leaders of the people of Israel.  He was rejected, even though he was perfectly suited for his task.  He was substantial enough … True God in the flesh … “of one substance with the Father” as we confess in the Creed.  He did not crumble under pressure when Satan tempted him and tried to divert him from his mission as the Messiah. He was perfectly aligned with his Father’s will as he perfectly obeyed the Law and willingly came to serve humanity as our Savior.  He did not appear to be beautiful to those who saw him, though, as the prophet Isaiah said, “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Is. 53:2).  He came in all humility, not appearing gloriously as the Son and inheritor of the One who planted the vineyard, but rather as the son of an insignificant virgin from a remote village.
            Yet he was rejected by the very ones he came to serve.  Israel was the vineyard that God planted.  It was all the Lord’s doing.  He chose them as his own special people.  They did not choose him.  The Lord built a fence around his vineyard for protection, a winepress for provision, and a tower from which to peer for approaching enemies.  In other words, God gave them the Torah to guide them in all truth.  He gave them the priesthood to intercede and offer sacrifices.  He gave them the prophets to call them back to the Lord when they would rebel.  But the people of Israel notoriously rejected the Lord’s Word given through the prophets and put many of them to death.  As Isaiah said, “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah  are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, and outcry!” (Is. 5:7).  The prophets preached against the unfaithfulness of the people, and the people responded with injustice, bloodshed, and unrighteousness.  The prophet Zechariah the son of Jehoiada was stoned to death in the temple court by command of King Joash.  According to tradition and possibly referenced in Hebrews 11:37, Isaiah was sawn in half.  In the time of Elijah, the wicked queen Jezebel had many unnamed prophets put to death.  And of course, there was John the Baptist, beheaded while imprisoned for publicly condemning Herod’s adultery (Matt. 14:1-12).
            Yes, God planted Israel as his vineyard.  But when he came looking for fruit, there was none.  Nothing.  The trees were barren.  There was no fruit produced.  No faith.  Instead, there was the rotten fruit of unbelief, demonstrated in injustice, bloodshed, and unrighteousness.  And the chief priests and the leaders to whom Jesus was speaking were about to demonstrate the same.  In just a few days after Jesus told this parable, they would kill the Son of God.  They “threw him out of the vineyard,” outside the walls of Jerusalem, as an outcast, as a criminal.  They handed him over to the Romans who had the authority to crucify him.  And in so doing, they failed to receive the Son’s inheritance … an honored place in the kingdom of God.  This would be taken away from them and given to a people producing fruit … those with true faith and true fruits of faith.  The very people whom Jesus came to save rejected him.  And Jesus said, “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”  There is judgment awaiting those who reject the Cornerstone.
“This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.”  God is the one who planted the vineyard, Israel.  He chose them.  Yet they stubbornly rejected God’s will for them.  At the same time, God is the one who knew that the rejection of his Son would mean the salvation of the world.  It involved plenty of injustice, bloodshed, and unrighteousness.  Christ’s blood was shed for us.  All our injustices and unrighteous thoughts, words, and deeds were placed upon him.  The cornerstone himself was crushed for our iniquities (Is. 53:5).
By baptism and faith, God plants you in his vineyard.  He places you as a stone in his building, the Church.  Yet we often reject God’s will for our lives, too.  We don’t align ourselves with the Cornerstone.  When you fall on the Cornerstone in repentance, you are broken to pieces.  But the Lord puts you back together again.  In Christ Jesus, you are made whole again.  Your sins are forgiven.  You are put back into alignment with Cornerstone.  This stone will not crush you.  But he does promise to crush all your enemies under him, your enemies of sin, death, and the devil.  They were crushed when another familiar stone was rolled away, the one that tried to keep Jesus in the tomb.  Those enemies still pester us and hinder us in this life and will continue to do so until Jesus returns in glory.  But because Jesus has won the victory for you in his death and resurrection, you can see those enemies not as giant boulders ready to bowl you over, but as tiny little pebbles being tossed at you, a mere annoyance that we can walk right past because we are aligned with the Cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.  Aligned with the Cornerstone, we can hold him high, decorating our lives with his beauty and truth.  We can stand on the firm foundation of the Word of God.  We will receive the inheritance of our Lord Jesus, not as something we have earned, but as something that is freely given to us … living eternally in the presence of God, seeing Jesus face to face.  And won’t that be marvelous in our eyes?


Sunday, October 1, 2017

Sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost (October 1, 2017)

Pentecost 17 – Series A – Proper 21 (October 1, 2017)
“Shine Like Stars” (Philippians 2.1-4, 14-18)
If you visit Hollywood, California, you’ll see a lot of stars there … if not in person, then certainly on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  All along Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street, you’ll see these big inlaid stars in the sidewalk under your feet as you stroll along.  On those stars are the names of prominent people in the entertainment industry.
But what makes someone a “star”?  They’re usually an actor or musician who is readily recognizable to most people.
Some of these stars are like huge suns.  Bright.  Attractive.  They have a warm glow about them.  On the other hand, one might be tempted to describe some of them as giant balls of gas, especially when they go on and on at awards ceremonies, touting their latest political agenda.
Some are like shooting stars.  Meteors.  Streaking across the sky, bright and spectacular, but only for a moment, quickly flaming and fizzling out.
Some are like distant stars in the sky.  They’ve been around a long time.  They are consistently sparkly.  No matter when they show up, they never disappoint.
But being a star doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with your character.  It just means you are a good actor.  You have the looks for the part.  You have a good agent who gets you good roles (and you have the money to pay that agent).  You’re in the right place at the right time.
St. Paul tells the believers in Philippi that they “shine as lights in the world.”  They “shine like stars” – as some translations have it, since the word “lights” here refers to the heavenly bodies in the sky.  Paul writes, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life” (Phil. 2:14-16).
“Shine as lights.”  “Shine like stars.”  This has everything to do with your character and behavior.  In the world – and in the human heart – there is darkness, evil, corruption, hopelessness, hatred, dread, and despair.  Paul is using language similar to Deuteronomy 32:5 where the children of Israel, during their wilderness wanderings, are described this way: “A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he. They have dealt corruptly with him; they are no longer his children because they are blemished; they are a crooked and twisted generation” (Deut. 32:5).  The Israelites also did their fair share of grumbling and disputing.  They complained to Moses and to God about their circumstances in the desert.  Ezekiel has them grumbling against God, saying “The way of the Lord is not just” (Ezek. 18:25).  And there must have been some grumbling and disputing going on in the church at Philippi for Paul to bring this up … and, in fact, in chapter 4:2 he singles two women out: “I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord” (Phil. 4:2).  What were they disagreeing about?  We don’t know.  Whatever it was, it was serious enough for Paul to bring it up in his letter.
Like the Israelites … like the Philippians … we don’t always act very star-like.  Our sinful hearts often obscure the light rather than shine it.  Some people can be a veritable black hole, sucking the light and life away from others and out of a congregation because of the gigantic gravitational pull of one’s negativity, criticism, gossip, etc.
Into this darkness, Jesus shines his light.  A star appeared in the sky to direct the Wise Men to him.  What did they find?  Not a newborn prince, but a humble child in the meekest of circumstances.  The verses omitted between the paragraphs of our text today tell us how Jesus humbled himself: “though he was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant being born in the likeness of men. And being in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:6-11).  Jesus entered this world in humility.  After thirty years of obscurity, he had what you might call a meteoric rise to fame … a short three-year ministry that just as quickly flamed out, ending in disgrace at the cross.  But it was there that he bore our disgrace, our shame, our guilt.  In his resurrection and ascension, he is now the brightest and best star who fills the universe with his love and forgiveness … who burns away all our sin and makes us innocent and blameless in his sight … who shines the light of faith in our hearts so we can trust in him and receive his forgiveness and eternal life. 
            Jesus said “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12).  And he tells his followers, “You are the light of the world” (Matt 5:14).  We shine because we reflect the light of Christ.  Note how Paul says, “You shine.”  He doesn’t say, “you should” … “you must” … “you need to shine.”  He simply says, “You shine.”  It’s what we do as God’s baptized people.  That reminds me of those recent GEICO commercials with the catch phrase, “It’s what you do.”  One of these ads has Prince Charming kissing Sleeping Beauty, but she doesn’t wake up.  After he leaves, she carefully opens her eyes, sits up, says, “I thought he’d never leave,” turns the TV on with the remote, and proceeds to watch her favorite show.  The announcer says, “If you want someone to leave you alone, you pretend like you’re sleeping.  It’s what you do.  If you want to save 15% or more on car insurance, you switch to GEICO. It’s what you do.”
            If you’re a baptized believer in Christ, you shine as a light in the world, holding fast the word of life.  It’s what you do.  Because in Christ Jesus, there is encouragement and consolation.  There is comfort from his love and the love we have for each other.  We participate in the Spirit, that is, we are intimately connected to God and one another through the Holy Spirit and the faith that has been given to us.  In Christ Jesus, God’s people share deep affection and compassionate sympathy.  We “do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
            Paul is in prison as he writes this.  He is fully expecting to be put to death.  But he was not hopeless nor despairing.  He still has reason to rejoice.  “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.”  What he’s referring to is the way wine was poured out with certain sacrifices in those days.  Both Jews and pagans did this, so the Philippians would be familiar with the practice.  Paul sees his life as a sacrifice of sorts in the interest of the faith of the Philippians.  Therefore, he encourages the Philippians to rejoice with him.  And to make his joy complete, he urges the Philippians to be unified in their confession of faith: “complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”  Unity in Christ is closely connected to unity in truth.  And that unity is to be confessed and made clear.  Therefore, Paul tells the Philippians – and the Church of all time and places – to “shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life.”  By the way, that phrase “hold fast” can also be translated “hold forth” or “hold out.”  And really, both ideas are vital.  Hold fast to and hold out the word of life.  Hold fast to it.  Hang on to it.  Cling to it.  Trust in it.  Your eternal life depends on it.  And hold it out.  Don’t keep it to yourself.  Proclaim it.  Deliver the precious, forgiving, saving message of the Gospel to the world through your mouth, through your prayers, and through your offerings which support mission work here and around the world.   
            Shine like stars.  Not like a meteor, which streaks across the sky but quickly fizzles out.  Nor should you be like a big ball of gas, proudly touting your own opinions and acting as if you are the center of the solar system, with everyone else revolving around you.  No.  Shine like those stars that fill the night sky, consistent, faithful, dependable … yet never outshining the sun who is at the center of our galaxy, the one around whom everything truly does revolve … the blameless and innocent Lamb slain for you, the one who humbled himself for you, the one whose blood was poured out for you, the one whose blood we partake of today, the one in whom we are glad and rejoice.


Sunday, September 24, 2017

Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost (September 24, 2017)

Pentecost 16  – Proper 20 – Series A (Setember 24, 2017)
“God Gives Whatever is Right” (Matthew 20:1-16)
We have an amusing little custom here at Messiah.  At the Lord’s Supper, after each group or table has received the Lord’s body and blood, the question is always, “Who leaves the table first?”  This would not be a problem if we had side aisles.  But here, everyone has to return down the center aisle while the next group is lined up.  So, our rule of thumb is, “The last will be first, and the first last.”  You probably recognize that from Jesus’ concluding words of the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.
            What prompted Jesus to tell this parable?  In the verses just prior to our text, Peter seems to smugly suggest that the 12 deserve more than anyone else.  “Look, WE left all things and followed you. What, then, will WE have?”  Peter wants what he deserves!  And I’m sure the others felt the same way.
            Jesus affirms that the apostles do have a unique role.  He even says the Twelve will have a role to play in the final judgment.  At the same time, he also says that many who are first will be last and last, first.  Of course, Jesus is not telling us how to line up at the communion rail and how to return to our pews.  He is not telling us how to line up at the food line at a wedding reception.  Instead, he is taking a “poke at any prideful comparisons that may be lurking in the hearts of the apostles” (Gibbs, Matthew, 987), thinking that they DESERVE any better treatment because of who they are and what they have done.  Even their call to apostleship is a gift of grace.  They did not choose Jesus.  Jesus chose them.  Same for us.
Then Jesus tells the parable where a master of a house goes out to hire laborers  for his vineyard.  He hires the first group for a denarius a day, a typical day’s wage in those days.  Then he proceeds to hire four other groups of workers, at 9, Noon, 3, and around 5, just before quitting time.  No amount is agreed upon, but the master says, “Whatever is right I will give you.”  At the end of the day, each man received a denarius.  No matter what time they started working, each received the same wage.  Of course, that didn’t sit well with the guys who started at 6 in the morning.  But the master responds, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Or do you begrudge my generosity?”  And then, Jesus rephrases what he said just before the parable, “So the last will be first, and the first last.”
This parable is about God’s generosity.  Those of us who have been Christians since the day we were baptized may feel cheated when we see someone in the resurrection who converted on their death bed.  Why should that guy get the same heavenly reward as me?  I went to church every Sunday (well, almost every Sunday) … I gave my offerings … I taught Sunday School … I mowed the lawn and pulled weeds … I served on this board or that board … I volunteered for all sorts of things.  We’re just like Peter.  “Look at all we’ve done for you, Jesus.  Now, what will WE have?”
            But that which is just and fair to God does not often match up with our ideas.  “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” says the Lord through the prophet Isaiah (Is 55:8).  God would not make a very good business owner, according to our standards … paying everyone the same wages.  Where’s the fairness in that?  Our standard is every man for himself, scraping and clawing to get ahead of the other guy, comparing ourselves to others and figuring we are better.
“Whatever is right, I will give you,” the master said.  Actually, the workers received a gift, even the ones who were hired early in the day.  They were just standing around.  This reminds me of a summer when I was still in high school.  My friend and I worked as gophers for a building contractor from my church.  But early in the morning, on the way to whatever project he was working on, he would stop at a spot along the road where a group of men would stand around, waiting to be hired for the day.  No one forced my boss to hire them (let’s not get into the legalities of hiring people who may be undocumented … that’s another issue).  They don’t have to be picked up by anyone.  He knew nothing about any of those men, unless some had worked for him before.  So, in one sense, even stopping to hire these guys was a gift.
            “Whatever is right I will give you,” our Master says to us.  In fact, the word for “right” can also mean just and righteous.  It’s related to the word for “justification.”  And in Christ Jesus, God gives us what is right and just.  Because of what Jesus has done for us, by dying on the cross to atone for our sins, God declares us righteous and holy.  That’s a gift.  We weren’t looking to become a part of God’s family.  We were sinfully idle.  God is the one who sought us out.  He is the one who sought us out and placed us in his family, in his kingdom, in the waters of Holy Baptism.  Even the call to faith is a gift of grace, not to mention our wages, our reward, of grace.  It’s a reward given for the sake of Christ, not for our own sake.
            And praise God for that.  If forgiveness and eternal life were dependent upon our performance – how long we worked, how hard we worked – we would all have been fired a long time ago.  “Whatever is right I will give you.”  Punishment, condemnation, eternal separation from God would be just for our sins.  Scripture says that God will “render to each one according to his works” (Rom. 2:6).  God will give us our just wages.  And the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23).
Instead, God’s forgiveness and eternal life is based upon the performance of one man … Jesus Christ.  He was called from eternity.  Sent into the vineyard to work.  Labored faithfully for three years.  Worked himself to death, in fact.  Called forth from the tomb, in fact, with his reward for his faithfulness … which will be our reward one day, too … a reward totally and completely given by grace for the sake of Christ.
Jesus became the last and the least for us … so you and I could be first in him.  Now we can be last for others, letting “your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ … standing firm in one spirit … with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27).  In Christ’s Church, there is “no room for self-promotion, no occasion for competition, no basis on which one disciples can say to another ‘I have no need of you’ or ‘I am more important than you are.’” Each of us are “simply laborers in the vineyard like every other baptized believer in Jesus.” (Gibbs 991)
“Whatever is right I will give you,” our Master says to us.  And we respond, “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me?”  Nothing other than a heart prepared to offer sacrifices of thanksgiving.  Because the life and salvation that God gives to you is all a gift.  So give thanks, and “lift up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord” (Introit; Ps. 116:12-13).
Now, you can come to the table today, remembering our little memory device about who returns from the table: “the last will be first and the first, last.”  And I hope that little memory device takes on a whole new connotation for you.  As it is here at the table, so will it be in eternity.  We are all the same as we gather to receive Christ’s gifts.  No one is greater.  No one is lesser.  No distinctions.  Only sinners saved by grace.


Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Following Jesus with the Saints in Advent

“St. Thomas: Confidence in the Incarnate Christ”

December 21, 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, December 18, 2016

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

Advent 4 – Series A (December 18, 2016)

Matthew 1:18-25


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, December 17, 2016

Sermon for Midweek Advent III (December 14, 2016)

Following Jesus with the Saints in Advent

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

December 14, 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Advent 3 – Series A (December 11, 2016)

“Joy” (Isaiah 35:10)

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

            Listen to today’s readings:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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