Friday, December 31, 2004

New Year's Day, January 1, 2005, Matthew 1:18-21

New Year’s Day, 2005
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Burt, Iowa
Mt 1:18-21, ESV
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
My older brother had an interesting tradition that he and his wife followed. When they had children the name that was given to the baby wasn’t spoken until the very moment the church gathered around the baptismal font and said, “Luke Watt, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” They even held off printing the name on the birth certificate until the baby was named at baptism. I always thought it was a nice tradition. It isn’t new; it was a common practice in the old world. It was a common practice in bible times (With the noted difference that instead of Baptism the child was named at the time of his circumcision).
The Gospel lesson for New Year’s Day talks about just one such instance.

And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. (Lk 2:21, ESV)

Now you might not realize it but “Jesus” was a common name in those days. Jesus, that name that was picked by his heavenly Father, was also the name of a national hero. Jesus’ name is really the name Joshua. Joshua was the leader who took over after Moses. He led the people and conquered the land for God and his people. You probably remember the story of Joshua and the walls of Jericho, where they marched around the city and the city walls came tumbling down. The name Joshua (and also Jesus) means “God Saves.” You can understand how it fits the Joshua who God used to bring his people into the land that He promised them. And you can see how it fits Our Savior very well, too. The angel that visited Joseph made it clear: …you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.
Even though Jesus had a common name, he was very uncommon. In fact, no one like him had ever been born before, and none like him will ever be born again. Jesus name fits him like no other name. Jesus – God Saves – is God who saves. That eight day old child who was circumcised was not just a human baby but he was also God, born into the world to save us from our sins. He did it by dying on the cross.
When we consider the birth of Jesus and his circumcision we are thinking and talking about his humanity. We are thinking about what it means that God humbled himself to become a man. St. Paul writes about it for us to contemplate:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Php 2:5-8, ESV)

Jesus wasn’t just another Joshua. He wasn’t just another great leader. Jesus was God, come in human flesh to do very much more than give the people land. When Jesus was a grown man, he walked on water, healed the sick, and even raised the dead back to life. He came to free people from sin and death. People around him were slow to understand what the demons declared right away. I know who you are—the Holy One of God! (Mark 1:24 ESV), they said.
You may have seen that graffiti spray painted on some wall somewhere. “Jesus Saves.” Well, it is true. He is aptly named. “God saves through Jesus.” Jesus is “God Saves.” That’s the name that we want to think about some more today. It’s important because it’s not just God-in-the-flesh’s name. It’s the name that is also put on you.

Baptized into your name most holy,
O Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
I claim a place, though weak and lowly,
Among your seed, your chosen host.
Buried with Christ and dead to sin,
I have your Spirit now within.

That’s talking about Baptism. If you talk at all about Jesus name you eventually have to get to baptism. That’s because it’s baptism that God used to bring “God Saves” right to you. In baptism God is at work doing something. He’s performing an adoption. In an adoption a young person takes the name of his new family. That new name says which family they belong to. A person who is baptized takes a new name, too. God’s name, more specifically Jesus name, is put on us. It tells us whose we are. It tells us who we belong to. I have a niece that’s the same age as my daughter. When we go home for Christmas Grandma always seems to get them the same gifts. Right away when the presents are opened the first thing Grandma says is, “Let’s put your name on that so we can tell them apart.” The name identifies ownership. God’s name on you identifies his ownership of you, too.
Before you were baptized whose where you? God tells us that everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. (John 8:34 ESV). We think we belong to ourselves. We think that we are capable of living our lives without God. We think that if we just get our act together, we’d be able to make it on our own. But the nature of sin is that it affects everything we do. As we live our lives it is pretty obvious. It’s not just our lives are full of accidents. In our hearts we see that we really belong to sin. We are enslaved to it. There isn’t any way to change the selfishness that controls our thoughts. There was a young child who was with mom Christmas shopping. Amazingly he found gifts for his brothers and sisters in the first isle he was in. When that task was done he quickly asked, “Now can we look for my presents?” The only difference between that child and you and me is that we have learned to hide our greed. We’ve learned to cover up what’s in our hearts. We haven’t gotten rid of it at all. We are still slaves to sin.
When Jesus comes to us with his name in baptism he changes who owns us. He claims us for God. Jesus, whose name is God saves, saves us from our sin.

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. (1 Jn 3:1a, ESV)

What happens is this: When you are baptized God puts Jesus name on you, and with Jesus name comes everything that Jesus did for you. He lived a perfect life, it is given to you. He died for sin. His death is given to you, too. That’s how it happens that in his death on the cross, Jesus dies for you.

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Ga 2:19-20, ESV)

So that sin that you and I hide, that sin is sin that we were enslaved in. It isn’t our owner anymore. We have been set free from it by Jesus death, our death.
It’s a New Year. You can probably come up with at thousand things for New Year’s resolutions. So could I. But maybe this year instead of a resolution you can just remember something. Remember that you have been given Jesus name. You’ve got lots of new challenges coming this year. You’ve got lots of new troubles coming this year. But the thing that makes the difference for you and me isn’t that we make promises to ourselves about how we are going to be different. The thing that really makes a difference for us is that we have been made different already. We have died to sin, and are made alive to Jesus. The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God. We are dead to sin and alive to Christ. (Romans 6:11). The thing that really makes a difference for you and me this coming year is that God has made us His and placed His name on us. The name that He gives you and me says it all. The name is Jesus, God saves. Amen.
The Peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Nativity of Our Lord, December 25, 2004, Luke 2:1-20

Christmas Day, 2004
St. John’s, Burt ~ Our Savior, Swea City.
Lk 2:1-20, ESV
(Outline from a sermon by Rev. Donald Deffner)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Christmas is for children. If you have any doubts, I’d like to point out just a few things to you. First, school’s out. If you are going to do anything that children want, you’ve got to start first with letting school out. There’s nothing better to lift the spirit of a child than to give them free time to play. There’s nothing like “no school” to maximize play time. Add to that six inches of snow, that magical liquid in power form that we’ve been blessed with, just in time to make it a real white Christmas. There is something wonderfully childlike in the air when the ground is covered with a fresh blanket of white. Think about the stories you’ve heard. Think about the “Christmas specials” you’ve seen on TV (although not all are really appropriate for children). All of it is aimed at children. And even the picture of that first Christmas has been made in the images a child can love and understand. Just think of the cubby cherubs, lazy lambs, cozy cows, and dozing donkeys that populate any proper manger scene. They all seem to be made with children in mind. Even here, last night children played a major part of our celebration, by telling the story of Christmas to us again. That’s probably why Christmas is so appealing to so many people. It touches something of the child in us all. And so, Christmas is for children… and that’s not all bad, is it?
So how will you celebrate Christmas this year? What’s on tap for the rest of your day? I think that since Christmas is really for children, the best way to celebrate Christmas is as a child. Actually that is the only way to properly understand and celebrate Christmas. Christmas is for children because it all began with a child being born, and only when we become children ourselves can we look at Christmas and keep it properly.

After all, the familiar Christmas text, this account of Jesus birth is all about a child. There is one point that’s repeated several times. Firstborn son, baby, child... And I think its amazing that these words refer to the Creator of the Universe. Of all the ways God could have revealed himself to human beings, of all the ways he could have chosen to set us back on our heals, of all the ways he could have declared to us who he is, he chose to reveal himself as a little child. Instead of finding God in all his power and majesty (at least as we understand power and majesty), at Christmas time we remember, that we will find [God] wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger, a baby.
When we look in the manger and see that little child there, it tells us something about God, something important about who he is. If you think back to the Bible Stories you may have learned in Sunday school, you might notice that God has been in the habit of working through children. It was a child that told a military captain that he could be healed of leprosy. It was a child that Jesus showed as an example of the stature a person would have to have to enter the kingdom of heaven. A young boy gave up his lunch so that 5000 other people could eat. God often works in ways that are quite different than the ways we would work if we were creator of the universe. And in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, (Heb 1:2, ESV) a child, a baby born in a lowly manger and in lowly surroundings.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Is 9:6, ESV)
It might be difficult for us to understand that a sweet little baby, wrapped in rags, crying in a food trough, is “Mighty God.” But that’s what we are told. If you come to the manger and peer in from a child’s perspective, with a child’s faith, you’ll know that it’s true. For you and me, it’s impossible to believe with out God planting that faith in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. That’s what happened to the Shepherds. After the angel told them what to look for, they went, they saw, and the told everyone what they had heard and seen.
But not every is ready to see Jesus and receive God “as a little Child.” There were lots of people in busy Bethlehem who were not. The angels didn’t appear to the Roman Legions, they didn’t appear to King Herod or Caesar. They didn’t appear to people in the busy inns and market places. They came to the Shepherds.
So how about you, are you ready to see Christmas from a child’s point of view, with the faith of a child? Can you see the baby of Christmas, for who he is? Can you see why he has come?
Remember what Jesus said, Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Lk 18:17, ESV) This is the only way to see him. This is the only way to have Christmas and eternal life through Jesus. But, everything in your nature shouts out against it, your pride, your ego and your need to be self reliant.
It is a childlike faith that admits “I need a Savior.” A child like faith that admits, “Without Jesus I am lost. I am a sinful person. I sin against God daily, in thought word and deed. I don’t deserve God’s forgiveness and I can’t earn it.” It’s that same faith that holds on to the promise of God that also comes with the child in the stable. “I have a Savior. He has done everything for me.”
The biggest obstacle to a child like faith is wanting God to be who we want him to be. We want Him on our terms and by our conditions. We want to live our lives without interference, unless we are in trouble. We want to think we know what’s best for us.
In faith we come to the stable this morning, knowing what we need because we know what’s in our hearts. We come to this baby, clinging onto him with a childlike faith that says, “This child is my Savior from the sin that fills my heart. This child is God’s promise to me and the whole world.”
Is there something that’s getting in the way of your Christmas joy today? Is there an empty place at the Christmas dinner table? Are you afraid and unsure what this next year will bring? Does your heart ache over a broken relationship that you can’t repair? Look with childlike faith at The Child. There, you’ll see God’s love for you, in a way that you can understand and feel and hold on to. The Child is God for you. Wrapped in the blanking is the one who is carrying all your sin and all the hurt and pain that goes with it. That peaceful child has come to bring you peace.
As you suffer remember that he too suffered. As you live with sin remember that he was born into a sinful world, to carry your sin and take it from you. He carried it all the way to the cross and he took it into death. There’s a painting I remember that shows the classical manger scene but draped all across it is a dark shadow of a cross. We have missed the greatest meaning of Christmas if we don’t look at the Child of the manger with the eyes of faith, and see also the cross. We can confess it with the faith of a child and say, “This is Jesus, who died on the cross to take away my sin.”
There’s another thing about children. If something wonderful happens to them you can’t make them be quite about it. They’ll tell you all about it, again and again. That’s part of the childlike faith, too. The shepherds did it. They returned to their work glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Lk 2:20, ESV) I’ll bet those shepherds made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child every day of their lives, over and over again, and whispered it in their last breath. They had seen the Christ, the very day he was born. God had told them it was so through angel song. That’s the kind of thing you can’t hold in, especially when you have faith like a child, especially when you see Christmas from a child’s point of view.
Christmas is for children. There’s no secret to seeing Christmas from a child’s perspective. It’s what children do naturally. They do it because they are children. You are God’s very own child, connected to God through a childlike faith in Jesus. It is childlike when you remember that Jesus is God’s gift to you. When you gaze on that baby in wonder remembering that he was born, lived, died and rose again for you, that’s really seeing Christmas with the faith of a child. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Fourth Sunday in Advent, December 19, 2004, Matthew 1:18-25

Advent 4, 2004 (December 19)
St. John’s, Burt ~ Our Savior, Swea City
Matthew 1:18-25, ESV
Grace and peace to you from Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Well, now the time is really getting close. In my house we’ve finally got the tree set up and there are all those pretty packages under it. In just less than a week we’ll tear our presents open with “unbridled avarice” (to quote one of my favorite Christmas movies). I know, I know, we all say that Christmas is about giving. We all say that the true joy of Christmas is in giving gifts, “it’s better to give than to receive.” But just ask any kindergarten kid who has spent any time salivating over the presents under the tree and they’ll tell you what Christmas is really all about. Christmas is for getting. “It’s better to receive than to give.”
Sometimes, giving is a tricky prospect anyway. Just ask any husband who’s made the fatal mistake of buying the wrong gift. In Reader’s Digest, Herb Forst gives hard learned advice on giving your wife a gift: “Don’t by anything [for your wife] that plugs in, it’s seen as utilitarian. Don’t buy anything with sizes, the chances you’ll get the size right are one in seven thousand. Don’t buy anything useful. Don’t by anything that involves self improvement or weight loss. These things are seen as suggestions. Don’t buy jewelry. You can’t afford the jewelry she wants and she doesn’t want what you can afford.” If the gift wasn’t really important we wouldn’t even think that was funny. (Maybe some of you don’t!) We all know that our hearts are set on the things that we will receive on Christmas. It’s about the getting. An American Express poll showed that “no gift” was preferable to a gift of fruitcake. In our minds “it’s the thought that counts” doesn’t really add up. A gift of clothes given to a child is opened with greater enthusiasm if it is given in a hard box.

Today I want you to set aside all the things you have to do, you know the last minute shopping and the like. I want you to think about what you’re getting for Christmas. Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood. I’m not saying that giving is unimportant. It’s just that really if we get right down to it, the real meaning of Christmas isn't found in what we give, it’s found in what we have received. So, I want you to forget, for a moment, that you will be giving gifts to other people in a few days. Forget about all the buying, and the wrapping and the shipping and the delivering. Today, I want you to think about a gift, for you.
You see, that’s what the text today tells us about. It says, Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. With just that opening phrase we see it already in our minds: The wooden shed, the cattle and sheep, shepherds, Mary and Joseph, and the Gift, a baby in a manger. But, the gift of Christmas isn’t that we now have a quaint story about an unusual birth to delight children of all ages. The birth of Jesus Christ is about something much more. The gift of Jesus is that God became human flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:1ff). The gift of Jesus comes out clearly in the text where we read a different name for Jesus. The name is Immanuel, which means “God with us.”
Joseph almost missed it himself. He had to be told about Jesus. The angel appeared to him and cleared it up. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. That’s what “God with us” was coming to do. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (Jn 3:16, ESV)
In 1946 at the Los Alamos atomic laboratory, Dr. Louis Alexander Slotin and seven co-workers were doing experiments with plutonium. These pieces were harmless unless they were put together in the wrong way. Accidentally that’s exactly what happened flooding the room with dangerous radiation. Dr. Slotin acted at once yanking the pieces apart with his bare hands. He knew what he was doing; he knew that he was exposing himself to an overwhelming dose of radiation. But by reacting so quickly he saved the lives of his seven colleagues. Nine days later he died.
When God became Immanuel—truly, physically, with us as the Son of a virgin—he didn’t come into the world as a safe laboratory experiment. He didn’t come here to see how things were going. He became a part of our world—our sinful, corrupt world, dangerous and dripping with death. He came, God with us, to save us from our sin, by taking on himself the poison of it. He came, as our gift from God, to expose himself to the lethal dose of our punishment. He gave his life for ours. (from an illustration by Scott D. Johnson, Conover NC, Concordia Pulpit Resources, Vol. 15, No. 1).
God came among us, in Jesus, to shed his blood on the cross, to suffer and die for the sins that you and I live in every day. As joyful as the season is suppose to be, it’s easy to see our sin as the holiday stress sneaks up on us: A short temper; a misspoken word of hurt; the “Holiday” excuse for neglecting our regular daily tasks; selfishly looking over our gifts with “unbridled avarice”; pushing the limits of credit without means to pay. Leave it to a holiday to bring out the worst in people. But it only brings to the surface what’s deep inside. To be a sinful human is to live with a selfish heart. To be a sinful human is to struggle to do the right thing when you want to do the wrong thing. To be a sinful human is to live every day with the knowledge that we don’t live up to even our own expectations for ourselves. To be sinful human is to know that the only thing that is ever going to bring all that to an end is death. That’s the nature of sin. Its hold on you, its power over you, is in the fact that it brings death. Old Satan whispers it in your ear every chance he gets. “You’re a sinful person and you deserve to die. God can’t stand sin so he can’t stand you.”
But that’s what the gift of Jesus is all about. “God with us” came to deal with sin in the only way it can be dealt with. Born in that manger was a man who was God, human in every way except for sin. His perfect life and innocent death was given for your sin. The author of Hebrews says it like this: Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. (Heb 2:14-15, ESV) Sin hasn’t any power over you any more because Jesus death for sin is your death for sin.
And there’s more. “God with us” isn’t just talking about the baby in the stable. It’s not only that Jesus walked and talked and healed and feed people who live at the time when he was born. His perfect life and death weren’t just for people who lived when he lived. He is still with us, today. He talks and heals and feeds us every day. I know you’ve heard about the gift that keeps on giving. Well, “God with us” is just that, because his gift didn’t end with his death on the cross. He rose again from death. He was dead and buried in the grave, but “God with us” came alive again to be with us always.
God is with us here in his living, breathing, Word. It’s not just a story about Jesus. It’s not just a tale about his birth and death and resurrection. It’s the truth about what God has done to deal with our sin. When the Word about Jesus fills our ears, the Holy Spirit fills our hearts and minds and gives us faith to believe, and faith to hold on to what Jesus has done. “God with us” is the power to believe.
God is with us here in his sacraments, too. They aren’t just empty actions that we do. In fact they are nothing that we do. They are nothing less than “God with us.” When a human pours water on another persons head and speaks God’s Word of forgiveness, God is there making the promise of forgiveness true for that person. Again the Holy Spirit creates faith. Again God is the power to believe. And how much more can God be with us than in the Body and Blood of Jesus. Even though we can never understand how it is true, we receive the precious gift of the very blood shed, and the very body beaten for us in the Lord’s Supper. There “God with us” brings forgiveness of sins as we open our mouths and eat and drink.
So that’s what I mean when I say I want us to think about what we are getting at Christmas. That’s what I mean when I say that Christmas isn’t about what we give but what we receive. So, as the day approaches think about Jesus, think about Immanuel, “God with us.” And look forward to getting something wonderful for Christmas. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Third Sunday of Advent, December 12, 2004, Matthew 11:2-11

December 12, 2004, St. John’s, Burt ~ Our Savior, Swea City
Mt 11:2-11, ESV
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Do you ever have doubts? Well, I do… I think everybody has doubts of one kind or another. Doubts about family, doubts about our abilities, doubts about the situation of the world, doubts about the economy, and doubts about faith. You pick up a Newsweek or Time magazine and they have an article about Jesus that seems to be so reasonable, yet, it says that most of what you believe about Jesus is made up or wrong. It says that you can’t trust the Bible because it was made up by people with a political agenda. It says that “scholars” agree. It shouldn’t be a surprise, what they says. They look at Jesus through the same old tired eyes every year. Their list of “Biblical Scholars” is hardly mainstream and their “facts” don’t stand up to real historical scrutiny. But I really don’t think they care about the truth. What they really want is to sell magazines. And a provocative story that makes people angry will sell magazines. Lot’s of people will buy the magazine just to see what it says. I’ll bet in fact, that at least one of you was tempted to buy a copy for the pastor. It’s not necessary; I have the internet I can read it for free. (But the truth is I knew exactly what they were going to say before I read it). And still, it’s enough to make you wonder. It’s enough to make you doubt. Doubt is a part of being human. All of us have doubts. Anybody who says they don’t have any doubts at all isn’t being entirely honest.

So what about doubts, especially doubts about our faith? Well, it is OK to have doubts; you might even say that having doubts puts us in pretty great company. What was it that Jesus said about John? Among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. That’s pretty high praise! There has not risen anyone greater than John. When we think of John the Baptist we don’t often think of doubt, do we? We saw him last week standing by the Jordan River shouting down the Pharisees and the Sadducees, calling them “You brood of vipers! You hypocrites!” He doesn’t sound much like a guy with many doubts about what he is saying or doing. And people went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. He was a popular guy. He had a hopping river ministry going there by the Jordan. It sure doesn’t sound like the work of a guy who would have doubts.
I think, though, if we look at a few things we can see that maybe John, even though he was a great (the greatest!) prophet, may have indeed had some doubts. Just maybe he was plagued by some of the same thoughts we are. Maybe John was human, too.
First, I want you to remember, again, what we talked about last week. What was John preaching out there in the wilderness? “The ax is at the root of the trees!” he said. “Judgment is coming, especially for those who are hypocritical. I have come to baptize you with water, but he is coming to baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire!” He was saying that God would come to set things right. Fire burns away the chaff and purifies. John knew who he was. He had no identity crisis about himself. He was the ‘voice in the wilderness’ that Isaiah said was coming. He was confident in his calling. He was confident that God was coming to be King over the whole world. And that meant that everything would be different, nothing would be the same. John knew that God’s kingdom was coming.
Now, remembering John’s confidence, look where we find him this morning, in Herod’s prison. That doesn’t sound much like God is reigning over the world. If Jesus says that John is the greatest prophet, what’s he doing in prison? That doesn’t sound much like God is in control. That sounds like King Herod is in control. It sounds like nothing has really changed with Jesus beginning his ministry. After John was arrested, as he must have sat there in his chains in the dark dampness of Herod’s dungeon, wondering if all that he was waiting for had not yet begun. When he heard about Jesus, and there didn’t seem to be much ‘fire’ going on, he may have asked “what’s up with this?” There alone in that prison, he may have begun to wonder, “Why am I in chains?” Why is the king threatening my life? When will God begin doing what I was suppose to tell them was beginning? Maybe I’m wrong about Jesus, being the one who is bringing the kingdom.”
I can relate to John. I think you can, too. If what John said was true and Jesus brings the reigning of God over everything, then why do people have to suffer? Why don’t some people have the food they need? Why do we have wars that kill thousands? Why is there sickness, cancer in my family? Why can’t my community be the way it used to be? Why does everything have to change? Maybe, we wonder, Jesus doesn’t bring the kingdom of God after all. Maybe the baby in the manger isn’t really the answer to the world’s problems. We may ask, just like John, “Is this really the kingdom of God?”
Well, Jesus doesn’t condemn John for his doubts. He doesn’t say, “John can’t you see what’s going on here? Are you so weak in your faith that a little trouble in your life throws you into a panic? No that’s not what he says at all. He tells John, through his messengers, to look at what is happing, to look at what Jesus is doing. “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” He gives John just what John needs to hear. He gives confirmation that Jesus is indeed the coming King; confirmation that Jesus is doing everything according to God’s plan. Even if he isn’t acting like John expected, God’s reign is breaking into the world. Things really are changing, and the changes can be seen by anyone who looks to see what Jesus is doing.
Jesus describes to John, what happens when people in need come in contact with a God who loves them. Things begin to return to the way that God intended wants them to be; when the relationship between God and man is restored. God didn’t create eyes to be blind; he created them to see. He didn’t create legs to be crippled, but to walk and run. He didn’t create skin to be full of sores and ears to be unable to hear; or our bodies to be racked by cancer, or other illnesses. He created them to be whole, and he certainly didn’t create human beings to die. Everywhere Jesus went he left in his tracks the signs of the fact that God had come into the world to set it right again. That’s what the Gospel means when it talks about the coming of the Kingdom of God. “And,” Jesus said to John, “the good news about all that I am doing, is being preached to the poor.” At that very moment, John may have very well felt very poor, there in that dank dark prison, alone with his doubts. But Jesus tells him, “don’t worry John; the kingdom of God has come. I am the one who brings it. I am the Messiah!”
Jesus Christ does bring the kingdom of God, he brought it to John. He brought it to all those that were around him, the poor, the lame, the deaf and the blind. And he brings it to you and me. But, he brings it in a way that we would never expect. He brings by his suffering and death. It just doesn’t seem right. We expect a king to establish his kingdom with power. Instead Jesus establishes his in weakness. We expect a king to rule from a jewel encrusted thrown. Jesus rules over his kingdom from the cross. It was there that he showed his great love for us. It was there that he came into contact with us for our greatest need. It was there that he mended our broken relationship with God by paying the penalty for our separation. The separation that causes us doubts. He brings his kingdom with his own blood. He restores us to himself in a way that we don’t expect.
We don’t really expect good things to come from suffering. We especially don’t expect God to establish his good and perfect kingdom through suffering. But that is exactly what he did. And it may even look foolish to us. But this is what God’s kingdom looks like: John the Baptist suffers in prison facing sure death, Christians struggle every day with sin and doubt. At those times God’s kingdom doesn’t look at all like we’d expect. It is time like these that we may doubt weather his kingdom has come at all. Maybe that’s what happened to John. But, here again, John can be an example for us. When he doubted he knew where to turn in faith. He knew who would have the answers for his suffering, and his doubts. He turned to Jesus.
When we doubt we turn to Jesus, too. We do it because he is reigning. We do it because his kingdom has come to us. It comes to us here in this place, through his Word where he assures us of his love for us, and what he has done for us to restore us to the kingdom. He does it here in baptism. Where he takes each of us and makes his very own child an heir of his kingdom. He does it by giving us the food of his kingdom, his very own body and blood shed for the restoration of our relationship to him.
We are members of his kingdom and God does reign over the world. And just like Jesus took the signs of God’s kingdom with him wherever he went, the signs of God’s kingdom go with us, too. We can’t help it, because of his love for us, his love flows from us to other people. It flows to our friends here and it flows to our neighbors and coworkers. The good news is being told all around, the kingdom of God has come. It has come in Jesus Christ.
That is the answer to our doubts. To look to Jesus, just like John did. To see all that he has done, the mending of our relationship, and the love that flows from him in this place. Will all our doubt going to go away? Well, not yet. Because even though the kingdom of God is among us, it is still coming. The King, who came wrapped in swaddling cloths, has promised to come again. To make complete all that he has begun. When he comes again he will bring to completion what he has begin. He will finish what he started and what he is doing here in this place every day. Then there will be no more blindness, no crippled, and no more doubt. No more sickness and death. That is what advent is about. Remembering that Jesus Christ, our Lord and King, came to earth in an unexpected way to establish his kingdom, and that he is coming again. Amen.
The Peace that passes all understanding Keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Second Sunday of Advent, December 5, 2004, Matthew 3:1-12

Advent 2, December 5, 2004
St. John’s, Burt ~ Our Savior, Swea City
Matthew 3:1-12 (ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

John the Baptist is a regular figure in our Pre-Christmas time. We’ve gotten used hearing about that voice crying in the wilderness. It just wouldn’t be Advent (Pre-Christmas) without singing that song “On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s cry, announces that the Lord is neigh.” (Listen to the MIDI here ). This time of year we’ve gotten used to hearing about that guy (BOUTS, Dieric the Younger, St John the Baptist, c. 1470, Web Gallery of Art - who dresses in camel skin and eats locust. We’ve gotten used to him calling us to get ready for Christmas. But, is that really what he’s doing? I mean, I find it a little bit difficult to coordinate what John is saying with the picture in my mind of the animals and Mary and Joseph and shepherds standing quietly around the stable so as not to wake up the sleeping baby. I mean, just look at what John actually says; “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Repent! How does repent tie to that little baby? How does the quietness of the stable connect with “repent!”

I’m not even sure we always remember exactly what repent means. It’s just not a word in our common vocabulary. Well, we do know I think that repent means to confess our sins; just like we start most every church service here. “I a poor miserable sinner…” We probably remember that it has something to do with being sorry for our sins, and not just sorry for the ones we get caught doing. But, I think John tells us all about that here too. The ordinary folks that came out to see him, heard what he had to say, “Repent!” and they were baptized and confessed their sins. I think it’s what John says to the Pharisees and Sadducees that helps us to understand it all better. You see these guys didn’t repent. They came to see John, too. But they didn’t believe what he was saying. “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance!” He tells them, after calling them a bunch of snakes. Not only wouldn’t they confess their sins but the Pharisees believed they could deal with their sins by working them off and being better than everyone else. The Sadducees believed that there was no resurrection of the dead, when you were dead you were just dead. (That’s exactly why they were so sad, you see?) They both believed they were a part of God’s kingdom automatically just by being born Jewish. John sets them straight. “You can’t be born to it! Just being Jewish isn’t enough.”

“Repent” begins with confession. It is recognition of one’s true self and true position before a perfect God. But it doesn’t stop there it also means to reach out and grasp a hold of with the hand of faith the forgiveness that God offers through Jesus as the only answer for that sin. It means to live in the “Kingdom of Heaven” that John was talking about. You see, John didn’t just say that the kingdom was near, the best translations say, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And he means here right now in Jesus. I love the old paintings of John. (BOUTS, Dieric the Younger, St John the Baptist, c. 1470, Web Gallery of Art - They often show him holding a little sheep in one hand and pointing to it in the other. That too, is a great definition of the word “repent.” Looking at Jesus for what we need most, forgiveness of sins.

Another great thing about John is that even his name reminds us of God’s greatest work in our lives. (Although I’d still like to call him John the Lutheran, (on Baptism) it just doesn’t have the same ring to it). It’s Baptism that’s the sure sign to us of repentance. Oh, I know, lots of folks say that we are baptized because we repent… you know “repent and be baptized.” (Acts 2:38) But that’s not really the case. It’s not repent then be baptized. The people who came to see John weren’t baptized because they confessed their sins. They were baptized, confessing their sins. They saw their need for forgiveness and they saw God offering it and they took hold of it in the way that John said it was offered. After all, just like John said the kingdom was at hand. Baptism isn’t a sign of repentance because we do it. Baptism is a sign of repentance because it’s what God does. It’s the same thing in Acts chapter 2. Peter preached the law to the crowds of people standing before him. “They were cut to the heart.” The author tells us. “What shall we do?” they asked. 38And Peter said to them, Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Acts 2:38 (ESV) They saw their need. Peter pointed them to Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and he told them exactly how God would give them what they needed. John was doing the same thing out in the wilderness of Judea. You see, John is the Baptist!

John is really saying here that there are two responses to the coming of the kingdom of heaven: repentance or judgment. There’s either repentance and Baptism for the forgiveness of sins or facing the wrath of God. And just look how personal John makes it. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (v10) “Every tree,” it’s a very inclusive statement. No non-fruit bearing tree is going to be spared. And now we get right to the heart of the matter for you and me. Through faith in Jesus we don’t face God’s judgment any more. Even though as trees we don’t look like the kinds that bear fruit in keeping with repentance. God has picked up the ax at our roots. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit in Baptism, God has given us everything that Jesus did. St. Paul tells us that when we are baptized we have put on Christ. (Gal 3:27) Forgiveness includes what we don’t do. Luther:
“[Jesus] satisfied the Law; He fulfilled the Law perfectly, for He loved God with all His heart, and with all His soul, and with all His strength, and with all His mind, and He loved His neighbor as Himself. Therefore, when the Law comes and accuses you of not having kept it, bid it go to Christ. Say: There is the Man who has kept it; to Him I cling; He fulfilled it for me and gave His fulfillment to me. Thus the Law is silenced.” Pieper, F. (1999, c1950, c1951, c1953). Christian Dogmatics (electronic ed.). St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.
Never mind that your life doesn’t look like it is fruit-full. Jesus life was. He has borne all the good fruit you’ll ever need. The ax is gone for you; it was laid at a different tree.

But to get it all started, first Jesus was born. That’s what gets us back to the quite of the manger. Right there, that stable that we’ll all gaze into with wonder (BRONZINO, Agnolo, Adoration of the Shepherds, 1535-40 Web Gallery of Art - in a few weeks, is the “different tree.” It’s utterly amazing, totally beyond our thinking and acting, to believe that anyone would be born specifically to take the whole burden God’s anger, the unquenchable fire of God’s wrath over sin. And to do what we can’t ever hope to do, keep God’s law perfectly in every detail. But there he is, ready and willing to do it. And not only ready and willing, but able to do it.

And so he does: from his first breath to his last; from sitting on his mother’s knee to hanging on the cross. Jesus bears the fruit of a perfect life and he dies the death of a complete sinner. John said he wasn’t fit to carry Jesus sandals. In our day we’d say we’re not even worthy to be his water boy. But still, Jesus does it all for us from bloody birth to bloody death. (ANTONELLO da Messina, Crucifixion, 1475 Web Gallery of Art - Taking what is ours, sin. And giving us what is his, a perfect life and relationship with God.

So, as John the Baptist would say, Prepare the way of the Lord; or like the hymn says:
Then cleansed be every life from sin;
Make straight the way for God within,
And let us all our hearts prepare
For Christ to come and enter there.

Every life… Hey, there are lots of people around who aren’t prepared. There are lots of people who don’t really know what Jesus has done. They’re all focused on Christmas-Stuff; shopping till they are dropping; partying hearty; ‘tis the season; and forgetting what John tells us. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Remember, repentance or judgment? Do we leave the ax at the root of the trees, and let the trees be cut down or do we tell them the Good News of Jesus? Look, there’s isn’t a better opportunity to make it clear. Jesus is the reason for the season. It’s not hard to find people who are disillusioned about the whole holiday thing. Do what John does. Point them to the coming of the kingdom of heaven, point them to Jesus. Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.