Sunday, December 29, 2013

A Pastoral Concern -- Being concerned for the right reasons

A number of weeks ago, before we began a pot luck meal at church, the pastor was asked to pray.  So I said: "Bless us, O Lord, and these, thy gifts, which we are about to receive from your bountiful mercy, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen."

The reaction was interesting.  Those who had been raised in Roman Catholic families were quick to join right in.  Others commented on this "Roman Catholic" prayer.  My response: "Like they OWN that prayer!"  All in all, it was no big deal.  I prayed.  We ate.

Then a few weeks later after praying for another meal, someone commented (though joking), "Oh, we didn't say the Catholic prayer this time."

Now, I don't think this little incident has really been divisive or scandalous in our little congregation, but the comment a few weeks after the incident got me thinking about rites, ceremonies, and other things which are labeled Roman Catholic--and often wrongly so.

Consider another word of instruction: "When you awake in the morning, make the sign of the holy cross on yourself and say, 'In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.'"  We begin our Adult Bible Class this way every Sunday.  Though most do not make the sign of the cross on themselves (and are not forced to do so), these words are plainly in print.

What gives with these incidents?  Is the pastor a closet Roman Catholic after all?

It may interest people to know that the source for both the aforementioned rites (the prayer and the invocation) is Luther's Small Catechism.  Rome does not have exclusive claim on these things.  They are, however, catholic, that is to say, good Christian rites and practices.  They belong to the whole Church.

It should also interest people to know that the Evangelical Lutheran Church did not reject the rites and ceremonies of the Church.  It did reject false doctrine, and it, therefore, had to jettison portions of the rites and ceremonies of Rome.  But nothing was rejected or discarded simply because the Church of Rome practiced it.  These rites and ceremonies were the practice of the Church.  They belong to the Church, not to Rome.

When the statement is uttered, "That's Roman Catholic," people usually mean, "I don't like that."  If a person is so bold as to label a rite or ceremony as Roman Catholic, he also ought to explain clearly what makes that rite or ceremony explicitly Roman Catholic.  If he cannot explain how or why it is, then he has no business making the charge.  Such a person is a bully who just wants to have things the way he likes them, and the charge he makes sullies the reputation of a faithful pastor using good Christian rites and ceremonies, even if they are mostly unused by Christians in a particular segment of the Church.  Please understand, I don't feel that anyone has wronged me or accused me of heresy.  I am not seeking apologies.  I am merely hoping to use the previous incidences as a teachable moment about labeling what is Roman and what is catholic.

Making the sign of the cross is not exclusively a Roman Catholic practice any more than saying the Lord's Prayer in a Divine Service or saying Grace for one's meal prayer is Roman Catholic.  These things belong to the Church.  We do well to remember that these are OUR rites and ceremonies as much as any other Christian's.  Why deprive ourselves of useful and laudable things when we can enjoy and employ their usage?

If you want to tell me that the rites and ceremonies we use are catholic (note: small "c" there), I will not argue with you.  I could have sworn that the Augsburg Confession goes to great lengths to say that the Evangelical Lutheran Church is a catholic church, and we have the rites, ceremonies, and doctrines to prove it.  In fact, I did swear to it--literally--at my ordination.

We need not fear the things that are catholic.  We cannot keep the errors of Rome.  And we ought to know the difference between the two.  If you don't know the difference, your pastor should be able to tell you.  You have called him to do as much, and God holds him accountable for faithfully doing so.

Sermon -- 1st Sunday after Christmas (December 29, 2013)

LUKE 2:25-38

In the name + of Jesus.

     The older you get in life, the more you long for the life to come.  While you certainly enjoy the blessings that come with every stage of life, you also have your share of griefs pile up too.  You are able to enjoy the blessings less.  You feel the aches, pains, and weaknesses more.  Your body does not work as hard and move as well as it used to.  And when it does work hard, it does not rebound like it used to.  You attend more funerals and visit more doctor’s offices.  And the laughter of youth is eventually replaced by the loneliness of old age.  A friend of mine summed it up succinctly: “It stinks getting old.”  If you are not there yet, your day will come. 
     Even though the elderly may long for the world to come, that does not mean they always face it with confidence or peace.  If you live for a good number of decades, then you also have decades’ worth of guilt or regret.  And if you have time to reflect upon your years, the devil will plague you with the sins of the past.  No matter how distant in the past, they still haunt, and they still hurt.  Your sins leave you wondering about your judgment.  For, your conscience testifies that you are guilty.  God has you dead to rights.  You can’t escape your sins, and they will not let you go.
     In our gospel, we have two elderly people who knew that their days on earth were short.  They were longing for the life to come, but first they were longing to see the one who would save them from the sins that haunted them.  The prophetess Anna had lived a long, hard life.  She laid her husband to rest after only seven years of marriage.  For the decades that followed, she remained a widow.  Who knows if she ever sought another suitor or if another suitor had ever sought her?  In any case, she spent her days praying and fasting at the temple.  With more than eight decades behind her, she looked forward to the life that has no end.  But first, she was able to see the one who would win that place for her.  And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:38)  Her long awaited Redeemer had finally come.  God had been faithful to his promises.  Salvation was at hand.  The Lord would let this servant depart in peace.
     We also hear of another aged believer, Simeon.  While we do not hear of any special promises made to Anna, it had been revealed to (Simeon) by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. (Luke 2:26)  The Holy Spirit stirred Simeon to enter the temple on the very day that Jesus was brought there for his dedication and for the purification of Mary.  Like Anna, Simeon also prophesied about Jesus.  Unlike Anna’s, Simeon’s prophecy is recorded for us. 
     You are familiar with Simeon’s words which we sing at the conclusion of the Lord’s Supper: “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32)  It is one thing to hear God’s promise of salvation.  It is another to behold its fulfillment.  Patriarchs and prophets had heard the promises and trusted in them.  They were gathered to their rest still waiting, still hoping.  Simeon, however, would depart from the temple and from this life having seen and held in his arms the Lord’s Anointed.  The one who had delivered Israel in the past had come in the flesh to deliver all mankind.  He is the Savior of the Gentiles.  He is the one for whom Israel was chosen.  He is the one who consoles Israel, the one who redeems Jerusalem, and the one who takes away the sins of the world.  If he has come, then all that haunts us and hurts us comes to an end.  O Lord, you let your servant depart in peace.
     For that reason, we sing the Song of Simeon after we have partaken in the Lord’s Supper.  For, once again, the Lord comes to us in a way that we can see and feel and smell.  He gives himself to us in bread and wine and says, “Take, eat and drink.  This is my body, given for you.  This is my blood, shed, for you.”  And if he comes to us, then all that haunts us and hurts us comes to an end.  O Lord, you let your servant depart in peace.
     But Jesus’ coming is not always well received.  Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed … so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:34-35)  Jesus does not always bring peace to people.  While it is true that all are sinners, it is also true that many will not repent of their sins.  And while it is true that Jesus suffers and dies to take away the sins of the world, many are not interested in such a Savior. 
     Jesus reveals the hearts of all people.  People either despise themselves for the sins they have done and flee to Jesus for repentance, or they despise Jesus.  Jesus reveals the thoughts of your heart, too.  He shows you that you are still more interested in being right than acknowledging God is right.  He reveals that you still love your own voice more than God’s voice.   You would still rather defend your sins than repent of them.  They are always someone else’s fault.  Someone had it coming.  They deserved it.  Dear Christian, do not exalt yourself before God.  Your sins are nothing to be proud of.  Those who persist in them will fall and will perish in them. 
     But those who humble themselves in repentance and confession will find a merciful Redeemer.  When you acknowledge that you are nothing, Jesus grants remission for all your sins and raises you up as a child of God.  For, he has borne your iniquity.  He has consumed God’s wrath for you.  He takes away your sin, your curse, and your death.  Now, there is nothing to fear for you.  You need not fear your judgment; for, you know your verdict.  You are pardoned.  You need not fear your grave; for, it has been rendered powerless.  Jesus has defeated death by his resurrection, and you, too, will rise to an everlasting life.  You need not even fear the taunting or the threats of the devil or any other enemy.  Their words have no power.  And their accusations do not matter.  Jesus lifts you up and exalts you with a word that no one can overturn.  You are saints.  You are saved.
     Therefore, O Lord, you let your servant depart in peace.  We depart in peace from this house of worship; for here we have heard his divine decree of forgiveness.  We have seen the Lord’s salvation.  We have received from the altar our Lord’s body and blood, as surely as Simeon held the flesh and blood Jesus in his arms.  We have partaken in his redemption.  We have been consoled by his infinite mercy.
     And when our last day comes, O Lord, you let your servant depart in peace.  And we will bid farewell to this world without regret or complaint.  Whether we are old, middle-age, or teen-aged when we depart, we know that we depart for an eternal life with our Savior.  He will raise us up to a life that is free from grief and pain, and endures forever with blessings.

In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Sermon -- Christmas Day (December 25, 2013)

JOHN 1:1-14
 In the name + of Jesus.

      The angel had announced it to shepherds out in the field who were keeping watch over their flock by night:  “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 2:8,10-11)  What is lost in translation, what the shepherds would have heard in their native tongue, was more vivid than the Greek or English can convey.  He who was born in Bethlehem, who was lying in a manger was the LORD, that is, Yahweh or Jehovah.  It is the special name which the Lord had given to Israel by which they would know him.  It is the name the Lord revealed to Moses when he was about to act as the Savior and Deliverer of his enslaved, chosen people.  And it is the name proclaimed to the shepherds when he is born to be the Savior and Deliverer of the world.  Behold!  He who is born is the LORD, Yahweh, Jehovah.  Behold!  Your Lord has come!
     What St. Luke proclaims in his Gospel, St. John also wrote in his Gospel.  St. John does not record the words of an angel, but he does proclaim the word of the Lord.  It is the word of God about the Word of God.  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1,14) 
     Jesus Christ is the Word, the Logos, the second person of the Trinity, God the Son.  All things were made through him.  In him was life.  He is the light who shines in the darkness.  He is the true light, which enlightens everyone. (John 1:3,4,5,9)  St. John declares that the one born in Bethlehem is God.  Behold!  Your Lord has come!
     But notice now how he comes.  When God came upon the earth, he appeared most unlike God.  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. (John 1:14)  He came in weakness and humility, in frail flesh.  He who is omnipotent came powerless.  He who is omnipresent was confined first to a virgin’s womb and then to a manger.  He who holds all things together had to be held by his mother.  He who dwells in light that no one can approach was harmlessly resting as he was approached by shepherds and Magi.  And ultimately, he who is immortal came to die.
    Behold!  Your Lord has come!  In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shine in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.  The true light, which enlightens everyone, (has come) into the world. (John 1:4-5,9)  Jesus has come to rescue you who had dwelt in the darkness of sin.  In darkness, you did not know the way to eternal life.  In darkness, you could not even recognize the distinction between good and evil.  And because your heart is still clouded by a sinful nature, you still do not always recognize this.  You still think there is something to be gained by evil, and so you are still snide to your wife, impatient with your children, jealous of your friends, discontented with God’s blessings, and prone to certain sins.  You are inconvenienced by what is good, and so you don’t want to give any time, effort, or money to causes that are not your own.  You don’t overcome your sin, and you can’t.  There still lurks a very dark side in your heart.  Sometimes you keep it hidden.  Other times it is obvious.  But it is there, and it corrupts you.  This is corruption is the thing that condemns you before God.  You cannot fix it or escape it.  You must be saved from it.  And so, God sent a Savior for you.
     “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 2:8,10-11)  Behold!  Your Lord has come!  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. (John 1:14)  He became flesh so that he could save you.  For, God has commanded that man must obey his Commandments.  And now, one has come who has obeyed all the Commandments.  He delivers the obedience you have not done.  He has satisfied God’s demands.
     But behold!  Your Lord has come not just to show you what it is to be holy.  He has shown you what it means that he has borne your curse.  He became man to have his flesh pierced for the sins of all men.  He became man to have his blood flow as a sin offering for all mankind.  By his sufferings and death, Jesus has borne the curse for your sins.  He has satisfied God’s wrath.  By his perfect life and sacrificial death, Jesus has given you the right to become children of God.  And if you are God’s children, then you are heirs of the resurrection to everlasting life.  Then you have a seat at the heavenly banquet.
     Behold!  Your Lord has come!  He fills you with the joy that God has been pleased to do all that needs to be done to save you.  Yet, your Christmas may not be as happy as you had dreamed of.  For many people, Christmas is not Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la.  And while Christmas may be a nice diversion and distraction for you, your December 25 Fa-la-la may turn into “Woe-is-me” on December 26.  The days following Christmas may have you returning to a life which is still filled with struggles, pain, sorrow, and frustration.  You may feel like you have really been saved from nothing, because sin and sorrow are still there.
     Dear Christian, do not mistake happiness for joy.  Happiness can come and go.  Often, it lasts as long as the excitement of new presents.  And happiness can be shattered as quickly as the new toys.  But this is your joy: Your Lord has come who has saved you from every sorrow.  He has come to win you a better, everlasting future.  He has come to grant forgiveness for all your sins.  He covers your shame with his holy, innocent blood.  So, while you may have people who would shame you and you may even be ashamed of yourself, your Lord speaks a different word.  He says you are children of God Most High.  There is never any shame in that.
     Behold!  Your Lord has come.  The true light, which enlightens everyone, (has come) into the world. (John 1:9)  Jesus enlightens you to see that your God is a merciful God, even merciful to you in your pains, weaknesses, and faults.  He shows you how great God’s love for you is, that he would send his Son to die so that you would have eternal life, and that he would send Jesus to the grave so that you will be delivered from yours.  Jesus enlightens you to see that sin leads to death and hell, that sins do not serve your neighbor, that sins are destructive to your family, and that sins always produce wrath and guilt.  Jesus enlightens you so that you recognize that God has set the standard for what is good and what is evil.  He fills you with a disgust for what is evil and a delight for what is good.
     You will continue to live out your days in weakness and humility.  You will continue to struggle with temptations that are common to all people.  But you have a God who has mercy upon you.  Behold!  Your Lord comes again.  And see how he comes.  He still veils his glory in humble things.  He comes to you today in the bread and the wine, but to these he attaches a promise: “This is my body, given for you.  This is my blood, shed for you.”  Once again, your Lord can be seen and touched.  And once again, he comes to save you through these gifts.  Running to Bethlehem might make for a nice vacation, but you will not find Jesus there.  Today, he comes from this altar, and he comes for the same purpose that he did when he was born and placed in a manger.  Unto you comes a Savior.  He is Christ the Lord.  The Word became flesh, and his flesh is given to you today for your forgiveness. 
     Behold!  Your Lord has come!  He is God Almighty, veiled in flesh.  He is Immanuel, God with us, pleased as man with men to dwell.  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us so that we would dwell with him forever in peace, joy, and unending, undisturbed happiness.  That is your comfort today and on December 26 and always.  For, Jesus is always your Savior, and you are always God’s child.  There are no better gifts.

In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sermon -- 4th Sunday in Advent (December 22. 2013)

JOHN 1:19-28

In the name + of Jesus.

     “What do you say about yourself?” they asked John.
     John the Baptist had caused quite a stir among the people.  They may have thought he was weird or loud-mouthed, but they all recognized that he was a prophet.  John testified what his role was:  He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” (John 1:23)
     There is only one way to make straight the way of the Lord, and that is through repentance.  It is recognizing that you are sinful, through and through.  Most, if not all, of you here are Christians.  That means you confess the Christian faith, and it means that you believe that Jesus Christ has taken away your sins.  And yet, you continue to confess your sins as well as your faith.  That’s because your sinful nature clings to you, no matter how badly you’d like to be rid of it.  You don’t have the energy or the desire to do the good works God desires.  Rather than fight temptation, you find it easier to just give in again. 
     You want so badly to think that you are a good person.  All people do.  But you also know the horrible thoughts that dwell in your heart and in your head.  Though you may not act out on your desires, you delight in your desires—hating, lusting, coveting, envying, or finding satisfaction in the misfortunes of others.  You are like a package under the tree.  You cover yourself and make yourself look as good as you can, but no one knows the shame or sin that is hidden underneath.  And while others may tell you how wonderful you are, the heart is exposed before the Lord.  You cannot fool him.  You cannot hide from him.  And therefore, John the Baptist preaches, “Make straight the way of the Lord.”  Repent of your sins!  And flee to Jesus for your only hope.
     John the Baptist described Jesus by saying, “Among you stands one you do not know….” (John 1:26)  There is only one way to know Jesus.  He is the one who comes to suffer and die for sinners.  If you do not think you are a sinner, you will have no use for Jesus.  If you are saddened, terrified, or frustrated because of your sins, then you will find Jesus a most welcome guest.  He does not care how many, how vile, or how public your sins are.  He takes them all.  He pays the price.  God tells you that sins have consequences.  The guilty must be punished.  But Jesus takes all of your sin and guilt.  And so he also takes all your punishment. 
    Therefore, you do not have to pretend.  You do not need to put on a good face, hide your sin, and try to garner praise from family and friends.  Be honest to your God.  Confess your sin.  And God will be honest with you.  He will not tell you that your sins are excused.  He will show you the Savior who has paid the price for them.  It is through the blood of Jesus that your sins are washed away.  Forrest had his sin washed away this morning, just as most of you have been baptized in the name of Jesus.  You have been cleansed by Jesus.  And Jesus comes to you again from this altar—his body and blood for you, for your forgiveness, for your salvation.
     If you want to know Jesus rightly, you will see him as your only hope, your only joy, and your only Savior.  And you will also flee to him again and again for your comfort, for your peace, and your salvation.  This is the proper way to prepare for the Lord’s coming.  And then rejoice; for, he has come for you.  And he has given you all the gifts you need and you crave.

 In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sermon -- Advent Vespers -- 3rd week (December 18, 2013)

PSALM 2:1-12
Foretold As King.
In the name + of Jesus.

      Americans are not good at having respect for any kind of king.  Based on our history with the British crown, we understand why.  But history is not very familiar with democracies.  History remembers kings—whether good or bad, whether benevolent or tyrannical, whether peace-loving or blood-thirsty.  But no matter what kind of king ruled, he always demanded the obedience of his subjects.  No king tolerated any act of rebellion, real or perceived.  No king could afford to.  In order to rule over his country and territories, the king’s authority had to be absolute.
    When Esther had been made queen of Xerxes, king of the Persians, she was urged to go to the king and plead for the deliverance of Israel.  But she protested, “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—to be put to death, except the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter so that he may live.” (Esther 4:11)  Such an unannounced visit was tantamount to an assassination plot, even for the queen.  You might call that paranoia.  The king would call it preservation.  King Xerxes was not interested in good PR; he wanted humble submission.  And he would destroy any who would not give it to him.
     While a king may not have had any rivals in his own dominion, he certainly would have had opponents in other kingdoms.  There is no exception to that, even when the king is the Lord.  Listen to our Psalm: Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?  The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” (Psalm 2:1-3) 
     But who are these kings and rulers?  It is any who oppose our Lord, his reign, and his word.  This rebellion goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden where Satan lured Adam and Eve into rebellion against the Lord.  Why would anyone be foolish enough to rebel against God Almighty?  Satan declared, “God knows that when you eat of (the fruit) your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God….” (Genesis 3:5)  Adam and Eve believed the lie, and so do all of their offspring.  You, too, challenge God, wanting to be the gods, kings, and queens of your world.  You are annoyed by those who make you wait, who get in your way, who talk back to you, or who mock your opinions.  You want to see them subject themselves to you.  And if they will not be submissive, you want them swept out of the way.  You envy kings like Xerxes who could destroy his opponents and enforce his will. 
     While it is bad enough that you think of others this way, you also challenge God in this way.  You ignore the commands which forbid your sins, and you despise the Lord when he holds you accountable.  You even think that you can cast off the bonds of God’s word, as if he is a rival to be challenged and beaten.  So foolish is the sinful heart!  So arrogant!  And so wrong!
     The Lord responds to the rebels.  He who sits in the heavens laughs…. (Psalm 2:4)  The Lord actually finds it comical that man thinks he can go toe-to-toe with God.  And why wouldn’t he?  It’s like watching a toddler throw a tantrum at his father, thinking that he can beat him up.  The father just lets the toddler push and punch away, knowing that he will finally pick up his child and carry him wherever he wants to take him.  And while God finds a comical element in it, he is not amused.  Nor will you be when his patience gives out. 
     The Lord holds them in derision.  Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” (Psalm 2:4-6)  The Lord’s throne is not open to competitors.  The Lord’s Anointed reigns, and he always will.  There are no rivals.  Though the Lord mocks those who think they can attack or escape him, derision will quickly become destruction and damnation.  The Lord said to me, “You are my Son….  You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel.” (Psalm 2:7,9)
     But now you, dear Christian, have already been broken by the King.  He destroys your sinful arrogance and your foolish pride.  He brings you to repent of your sin, and to sorrow over your rebellion.  Even when you do not understand why the King acts as he does, he has led you to recognize that he is right.
     But now this holy King does what no other king does.  He does not leave you in terror, but shelters you in his mercy.  He provides a refuge for you from destruction and damnation.  He has established terms of peace for you, even though you were rebellious.  The King, the Lord’s Anointed, did not let you be consumed by the foes which had claimed you—sin, death, and the devil.  Instead, your King went out to fight for you, to conquer your foes, and to win you from them.  And unlike other kings who send their subjects to die in battle for their glory, your King, Jesus, went into battle by himself.  He fought alone.  And he won his victory by willingly laying down his life for you.  He let the enemy have its way with him.  And so sin condemned him.  Death claimed him as a casualty.  And the devil reasoned that the death of Jesus meant the condemnation of the world.  In fact, the devil was half right.  The death of Jesus DID mean the condemnation of the world.  For, Jesus was condemned on behalf of the world.  He died for the sins of the world.  He died for you. 
     But the one enthroned in heaven had the last laugh.  Jesus rose from the dead.  He is the victor.  Jesus destroyed the power of the devil.  He has no claim on you, for Jesus has rescued you.  He is the victor.  Jesus has granted you a full pardon for all of your sins.  That is his royal decree upon you, no matter how much you may have rebelled in the past.  No matter how feeble your efforts of obedience are even now.  This is a gracious King who is known for his mercy and compassion.  He knows that you are weak.  He knows that you are only dust.  Therefore, he treats you tenderly and continues to declare his peace upon you.
     The Lord’s Anointed is your refuge.  He is the one who protects you from death and the devil.  He keeps you in his care.  The Christ has established his throne.  His judgments and his decrees stand firm, no matter who would dare to rage against him.  Jesus lives, and that is for your benefit.  Jesus reigns.  His kingdom will not be shaken, and he shall reign forever and ever. 

In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Sermon -- 3rd Sunday in Advent (December 15, 2013)

MATTHEW 11:2-10
 In the name + of Jesus.

      This isn’t the way it was supposed to look.  The disciples of John the Baptist were confused and dejected.  Their beloved pastor was sitting in a prison.  The voice of one calling in the wilderness had been muffled.  He should have become greater.  The kingdom of God should have exploded upon the scene.  The glory of the Lord should have been seen—welcomed by the faithful who were waiting for him and terrifying any who would dare oppose him.  These disciples must have felt deceived.  It was not getting better; it was looking worse.
     John the Baptist had been a powerful preacher.  His voice was heard not in the streets of Jerusalem, but in the wilderness by the Jordan River.  And yet, the people had streamed out of Jerusalem to hear John preach.  All flesh is grass,” John preached, “and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.  The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it.” (Isaiah 40:6-7)  John did not sugar coat the word of the Lord.  His job was to prepare the way for the Lord, and that meant telling all the people that they had to cast off their sins in humble repentance.  The thieving tax collectors, the floozy prostitutes, the bullying soldiers, the self-righteous Pharisees, and even adulterous King Herod and his unlawful wife, Herodias—John told them all to repent; for all were sinful. 
     John had not merely told them to repent.  After all, feeling sorry for your sins does not take them away.  It will only drive you to despair, because your guilt will consume you.  You know you are wrong.  You know you deserve punishment.  And so you begin to punish yourself.  You turn to destructive behavior.  You torture yourself mentally, spiritually, and perhaps even physically.  Martin Luther used to express his sorrow by putting dried peas into his shoes.  Some today take to slashing themselves.  That blood does nothing for guilt, because does not take away sins.  So, John the Baptist gave people remedy for their sins and their guilt.  He pointed people to Jesus.  There is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  His blood would be shed, and his blood would atone.
     The reaction to John’s preaching was astonishing.  John called them to repent, and many did.  John summoned them to be baptized, and many were.  Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. (Isaiah 40:1)  John the Baptist gave hope and comfort by proclaiming that the Christ had come.  Look no further; your Messiah has come!  Salvation is here!  There is forgiveness for sinners! 
     But King Herod did not take kindly to John’s rebuke, and John was cast into prison.  John’s disciples were grieved and confused.  Where is the kingdom of the Lord now?  Where is the glory we thought was upon us?  Have we been mistaken?  Is there, perhaps, a different Messiah coming? 
     So John sent word by his disciples and said to (Jesus), “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”  And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” (Matthew 11:2-5) 
     Rather than give a simple “Yes” answer, Jesus urged them to witness what was happening right before their eyes and ears.  These were the very promises that had been declared by Isaiah.  In the seven centuries since Isaiah, nothing like this had been seen.  But here it was!  The miraculous signs were there to be seen.  The Good News was there to be heard.  There was no other that they should be waiting for.  Look no further; your Messiah has come.
     As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?” (Matthew 11:7)  He reminded them that John the Baptist was no reed which blew whatever way the wind went.  Nor was he dressed to impress.  John was more at home in sackcloth than in silk.  Nevertheless, John faithfully had prepared the way for the Lord.  Though King Herod would eventually kill him, John’s voice was heard.  The kingdom of God advanced.  Look no further; your Messiah has come.
     Of course, you know the Messiah has come.  And you are members of his kingdom.  Yet, like John’s disciple, you disciples may very well be dismayed at what the kingdom looks like.  Your life is supposed to be better.  Your marriage is supposed to be easy.  Your kids are supposed to be angelic, or at least obedient.  Your patience should be unlimited.  You should always be happy, generous, and healthy.  So why doesn’t it look or feel like that?  You wonder, “Do I have the kind of Christian life I am supposed to?  Is this it, or should I be looking for something else?”  Dear Christian, do not be discontent with this Christian life, as if it is supposed to be a life without bumps or warts or tears.  You do not have a Messiah who tells you that life has magically become easy now that you are a Christian.  Instead, you bear a cross.  You fight against the devil’s temptations, the world’s callous attitudes, and your own sinful desires.  You are still a sinner who lives in a sinful world.  You will still find people who are blind, lame, and deaf.  You will still die.  That is because you still have sin clinging to your body.  You still have a sinner dwelling in your heart.  These are the things you need to be delivered from.
     If you want to be delivered from these things, then look no further; your Messiah has come.  He comes not to make life easy, but to deliver you to life everlasting.  He comes to rescue you from a miserable eternity and to bring you to a glorious one.
     Your Messiah has come to rescue you from every curse of sin—from the sins you still commit, from the guilt of sins past that still haunt you, from the fear of having to face your God, from the hopelessness that life just a meaningless drifting until you end up in a cold grave, from the despair that you cannot fix everything that you have messed up in your life.  Jesus rescues you from all of these things, for he has taken your sins upon himself.  He suffers.  He dies.  He is taken to a cold grave for the sins you hide in your heart and for the sins that flow out of your heart.  But that grave is not the end of the story.  Hardly.  Jesus Christ rose from the dead.  He appeared to scared and hurting disciples.  He preached Good News and poured out heavenly riches upon them.  He still pours out those riches.  Baine received them this morning in the waters of baptism.  You hear them in the soothing words of absolution.  You get to partake of them in the sacred meal from the Lord’s altar.  Through these, Jesus pardons all your sins.  He delivers you from death and the grave.  He promises you a resurrection to a life without hardship, without heartache, and without end.
     That is the life you pray for, is it not?  Then look no further; your Messiah has come.  He tells you that you will receive all these things and more.  But at the right time.  Just as it was with Jesus, so it is with you—in this life, you will know weakness and humility.  Here, you will bear a cross.  Glory comes after the resurrection.  But the glory will come.  Wait for it.  Pray for it.  But do not look to anyone else for it other than Jesus.  He is the only one who provides the comfort, the hope, and the peace you seek.  Look no further; your Messiah has come.

In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sermon -- Advent Vespers -- Week 2 (December 11, 2013)

PSALM 110:4

Foretold As High Priest.
In the name + of Jesus.

     The word of the Lord stands forever.  So when the Lord says something, it stands.  But here we have something even stronger than that.  The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind…. (Psalm 110:4)  The Lord has emphasized his conviction here by taking an oath.  And therefore, you have all the more confidence that this word of the Lord stands.  The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” (Psalm 110:4) 
     Christ’s office is foretold here.  He is commissioned as a priest in the order of Melchizedek.  Melchizedek lived back in the days of Abraham. Abraham had gone into battle, pursuing the captors who had taken his nephew, Lot, as well as many others from Sodom, Gomorrah, and the surrounding cities.  After (Abraham’s) return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley).  And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine.  (He was priest of God Most High.)  And he blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.  (Genesis 14:17-20)
     Melchizedek presented a feast to celebrate the victory of Abraham and his people.  Melchizedek blessed Abraham, and Abraham received his blessing; for, he recognized Melchizedek as a priest of the true God.  And to honor the Lord and the Lord’s priest, Abraham presented his tithe to Melchizedek.
     Melchizedek was a priest who kind of shows up from out of nowhere.  He has no ancestry mentioned anywhere.  Nor do we hear of his descendants.  We only hear of Melchizedek, a priest of the Most High God.  But as priest, he did what priests do.  He interceded for the people he served.  He made sacrifices to atone for them, and he pronounced God’s blessing.
     Now listen again to God’s promise: The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” (Psalm 110:4)  The Christ is foretold as a priest in the order of Melchizedek.  That means, as the write to the Hebrews says, he has neither beginning of days nor end of life, but … he continues as a priest forever. (Hebrews 7:3)
     But the longevity of a priest is useless unless he makes a useful sacrifice.  For centuries, a great number of priests ministered before the Lord offering up bulls, sheep, and goats.  The blood of these animals was spilled on behalf of the people.  The bulls and sheep were slain instead of the people being slain, which is what their sins deserve.
     While the sacrifices of animals taught the people that blood was necessary for the forgiveness of sins, the blood of bulls and goats was not a sufficient substitute for man.  No matter how much blood was spilled, the priests had to keep on making the sacrifices.  A better sacrifice and a better priesthood were necessary.
     Therefore, the Lord promised he would send a greater priest who would make a greater sacrifice—a sacrifice which would be sufficient for all the people, for all time.  The Lord’s Anointed would present himself as the priest who would make atonement, and as the Lamb of God which would be slain.  The Christ would serve as both victim and priest in the sacrifice made for you.  The blood of him who has neither beginning of days nor end of life was shed to atone for the sins of all mankind—from the beginning of days to the end of the world. 
     The Christ would be a priest in the order of Melchizedek.  Though we know little of Melchizedek, what little we do know vividly foreshadows the priestly work of Jesus.  Melchizedek was not merely a priest, but also a king.  And not just any king, but the king of Salem.  When translated, that means “King of Peace.”  Jesus Christ has secured your peace.  He is the propitiation for your sins.  In other words, he is the sacrifice that puts an end to God’s wrath.  God’s wrath does not hang over you; for Jesus has suffered it and died under it for you.  The wrath of God has been satisfied by Jesus’ innocent blood and sacrificial death.  The power and the fear of death have been destroyed by Jesus’ resurrection.  This is your great peace—knowing that your sins are forgiven and that your own resurrection to everlasting life awaits you.  Do not doubt it.  The Lord has not only said so; he has sworn it.
     The Lord’s Anointed would be a priest in the order of Melchizedek.  Melchizedek means “King of Righteousness.”  Certainly Jesus is a righteous king.  He is the divine Sovereign who became flesh and lived a holy life.  But Jesus is not merely one who is righteous; he is the one who supplies righteousness to you.  He shed his innocent blood for you.  That innocent blood was sprinkled on you in your baptism.  You are covered in Jesus’ righteousness.  And if God sees you as righteous, he cannot be angry with you.  Instead, he sees you as his own dear child; and he tells you so.  More than that, he has sworn it.
     When Melchizedek appeared to Abraham, he brought before him a feast of bread and wine and blessed him.  And your Melchizedek does this too.  He sets before you the feast of bread and wine by which he gives you his crucified and risen body and his holy and precious blood.  These had been sacrificed for your salvation, and from this altar they are given for your salvation.  At the beginning and end of each Divine Feast, he reminds you that the Lord has put his name on you.  In this way, your Melchizedek blesses you. 
     Jesus is a high priest in the order of Melchizedek.  This is much greater than any other priesthood.  For, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever.  Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to intercede for them. (Hebrews 7:23-25)  Jesus, anointed in the order of Melchizedek, reigns as king of peace and lives forever to intercede for you.  He tells you over and over again that God’s love rests upon you.  The benefits of his sacrifice—his forgiveness, his peace, and his salvation—endure as long as he does, which is forever. 
.       The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” (Psalm 110:4)  Jesus is your King of Peace.  He is your King of Righteousness.  Your everlasting priest bestows everlasting blessings upon you.  His word of peace stands firm.  The Lord has sworn it, and he will not change his mind.

In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Praying for those in business

I just ran across this from the Apocrypha yesterday:

"A merchant can hardly keep from wrongdoing,
and a tradesman will not be declared innocent of sin.
Many have committed sin for gain,
and whoever seek to get rich will avert his eyes.
As a stake is driven firmly into a fissure between stones,
so sin is wedged between selling and buying.
If a person is not steadfast and zealous in the fear of the Lord,
his house will be quickly overthrown." (Ecclesiasticus 26:29 - 27:3)

Like everyone else, I am usually absorbed in my own world, carrying my own burdens, and focused on my own challenges.  But this passage from the Apocrypha got me thinking of people in different vocations than my own.  It gave me a chance to reflect on the unique challenges that burden Christians in the business world. 

You are probably well acquainted with people and practices which cover various shades of immorality, thievery, and dishonesty.  It must be a difficult road to walk to be faithful to your Lord, to be honest in your work, and to still be pleasing to your employer or client.  No doubt, you could be more "successful" if you cheated and lied and defrauded.  But you would rather let your light shine even in the business place when the cost may be a sale, a promotion, or even your job.

Be assured, dear Christian business person, that you are in my prayers today that God will give you wisdom to do your work well, encouragement to fulfill your task honorable and faithfully, and blessings in your labor so that you may continue to serve your fellowman in your vocation.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Sermon -- 2nd Sunday in Advent (December 8, 2013)

LUKE 21:25-36

In the name + of Jesus.

     The Lord Jesus Christ spoke to his disciples about his coming.  December has people thinking of Jesus’ coming at his birth, but Jesus urges us to keep our attention on his coming at the Last Day.  Finally, that’s what matters.  I’m sure that you have a lot on your mind as you think of going to Christmas parties and getting ready for family gatherings.  But if you don’t get around to one of your traditions this year, life will go on.  There’s always next year.  On the other hand, if you fail to be mindful of Jesus’ coming on the Last Day, the results will not merely be disastrous, but eternal.
     Jesus tells you that the world will be frightened by everything they see leading up to his coming.  And that’s understandable.  Jesus’ description of the very last days is frightening stuff.  “There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world.  For the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” (Luke 21:25-26)    
     The world will begin to unravel.  Creation itself will become unglued.  The nations will be panicked.  People will be fearful.  There will probably be government initiatives and UN committees set up to stop it.  But the world will meet its end.  The Son of Man will make his return.  The Last Day will come.
     Countless people are terrified of death and the Last Day because they do not want to lose what they have.  They live for their sins and die in their sins.  They do not repent because they have had no fear of the Lord.  They do not take his words seriously.  They do not believe they need a Savior, and so they do not want one and they do not want to hear about one.  They love the world, and they love satisfying themselves with more possessions and pleasures.  It is not hard to figure out why people will be filled with fear and apprehension when they see their world falling apart. 
     Beware, because you are not eager to lose your world either.  You, too, love your possessions and pleasures.  When things get tough or stressful, you draw comfort from your controlled environment.  Or perhaps you try to hide your fear by drowning yourself in your pet sins—whether you are drawn to intoxication, perversion, gluttony, or trying to control everyone and everything.  Jesus warns, “Watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap.  For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth.” (Luke 21:34-35)  So, do not cling to this world, and do not give into worldly desires.  Rather, flee from them, and repent of them.
     Jesus is coming again.  Judgment is coming soon.  The world is dying.  Jesus Christ has told you these things so that you will not get swept away with the rest of the world in its panic and terror.  You need not be surprised by what is coming.  You don’t even need to fear it.  On the contrary, Jesus tells you, Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:28)  The Last Day will be a good day for you.  So fear not; your redemption is drawing near.
     Pay attention to the words Jesus chooses when he speaks of his return.  He speaks here to his disciples, to those who believe in him.  He does not tell you, “Your judgment is drawing near.”  He declares, “Your redemption is drawing near.”  In either case, your judgment and your redemption are both found in Jesus.  Jesus delivered you from the judgment that falls upon all mankind.  He redeemed you from sin and Satan by making himself a sin offering for you.  Your guilt was picked up by Jesus and carried to the cross.  Satan’s claims were diverted from you and put on Jesus.  At the cross, Satan claimed Jesus as his own.  Sin marked Jesus among the damned.  Your judgment fell upon him, and he suffered, died, and was buried in your place.  That is what happened to your judgment—it is dead and buried in the grave.  It is done.
     But the final word is not death or the grave or hell.  Though these put their marks on Jesus, Jesus overcame them.  He is risen, and now Jesus has the claim on sin, death, the grave, and the devil.  Jesus has conquered them, and you are the spoils.  You are the prisoners whom Jesus has redeemed.  He has redeemed you from the curse of sin, from the fear of death, and from the hopelessness that holds so many tightly in their grasp.  You have a better future.  You have a greater hope.  You have a place in heaven that is far greater than a corrupt and cruel world.  Your redemption is drawing near.
     When your world is falling apart, you do not need to flee to anything but to Jesus Christ.  He says: When these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:28)  Jesus is coming again to redeem you from world which is falling apart and is filled with frustrations.  Jesus is coming to deliver you to a place where the joys are not interrupted by pain and loss, and where the blessings never pass away.  So do not shed a tear that this sinful world is passing away.  Jesus gives joys that are perfect and permanent.
     Therefore, Jesus urges you, “Stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” (Luke 21:36)  Yes, dear Christians, stay awake and alert.  Keep watch against your own sinful flesh and worldly attitudes.  It is very easy to get swept away with so many who are worried about their worldly cares and obligations.  You will be tempted to free yourself from whatever cross God has laid upon you, rather than to serve faithfully under that cross.  If you long for a better life and a better comfort, then pray for Jesus’ return.  Pray for your redemption out of this world to a better world to come.  Pray that you will not fall into temptation.  Pray that you will not give into worldly pressures.  Pray that the Lord will keep you in his care, and then flee to his altar where Jesus will strengthen you in the faith and pour into you God’s mercy and love. 
     Dear Christians, your redemption is drawing near.  So you do not need to get upset or despair when the world again proves to you that it is dying and that its people are depraved.  Whether you are grieved by the next earthquake, the next epidemic, the next vindictive coworker, the next snarky comment, or the next dying loved one, understand that this will all end soon.  Do not make your goal to be happier in a world which is decaying and dying, but rather that you are delivered from it.  Flee to Jesus.  He is preparing a better place for you.  Straighten up.  Lift up your heads.  Pray for patience, endurance, and strength.  Your redemption is drawing near.  That is a good thing, and it will mean even better things for you forever.

In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.