Saturday, December 25, 2010

Luke 2:1-20; Festival of the Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ; December 25, 2010;

Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Creston, Iowa

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them. (Luke 2:1-20, NKJV)

Grace and Peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

“And it came to pass,” the story begins. We might say, “in those days.” That’s how St. Luke begins the story of Jesus’ birth. It happened in “those days” it’s almost like that movie… “a long long time ago.” The story of Jesus’ birth is a great story that we celebrate every Christmas, but we don’t celebrate it because it is a great story. We celebrate it because it is a true great story. We celebrate it because what happened then means something to us today. It means something to us that Mary and Joseph trekked across Judea to pay their taxes and found shelter for their newborn child in a stable in an overcrowded little town. It means something to us, even though it happened in “those days.”

It is a very special message, too. It is very good news that comes to us from Christmas past to Christmas present. It is Good News that we need especially in these days, when so much seems to be unsure, and so many people seem to be troubled. The story of God’s action in time actually does what it says. It is the way that God does His life saving and life changing work in human history. Whenever we remember what God has done, how He did what was necessary for us to be saved, we rejoice. We have good reason to talk about “Those Days, and these.” Because of what God did then, and what he is still doing now. This is a time of year to rejoice, these days.

How did it happen… in those days? God was involved in human history. Even the Roman government was involved. The decree of the Emperor was in accordance with God’s will. He didn’t know that his decree to count people for taxes was going to bring Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. He had no idea who they were, much less did he care. Yet, it was exactly what God wanted to happen. God was working through the Roman government to make His promises come true. The Messiah, who would save God’s people from their sins, would be born in Bethlehem. (Micah 5:2).

Jesus birth was according to God’s plan in those days. Everything went according to God’s promises. As strange as it seems God’s plan was to save the whole world through a baby born to a poor young mother, in a dirty stable, in a crowed town. This birth was special, just as the Angels announced. This child was the promised Savior. He was sent by God, and set apart for a special purpose. This baby is God in the flesh, just as God had always promised: He, Himself, would come to assure that people would be saved. He shall be called Jesus… his name means “God Saves!” And he was born to save all people. He saves them from sin, from its punishment and its power. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour…”

In those days, the birth of Jesus was celebrated by both angels and people. “Glory to God in highest!” the angles sang. “And peace to men on earth.” And the shepherds couldn’t wait to see what they had been told about. And they couldn’t wait to tell it to everyone they saw. Just the sight of the baby Jesus had a life changing effect on them, they returned to their sheep, “…glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen.” They would never be the same again. Indeed no one would ever be the same again.

But, Christmas isn’t just for “those days.” It is very much for us. It is very important to us here in “these days!” When the angel announced, “I bring you good news of great joy…” he said it would be for all people. He didn’t just mean all the people living “in those days.” Jesus Christ saves the sinners in “these days too!” He was born for us, just the same as he was born for shepherds keeping watch over their flocks. He was promised also for us, he came as our Lord, God in human flesh, to live among human beings in our world. He came to save us, in these days.

And save us he did. We need saving, because our worst enemy stalks us, and torments us… sin. Sin drenches everything we do and say. It lives in our thoughts, and often controls our actions. We hate it, and yet we so often bow to its power in our lives. At Christmas we think of children. We want them to feel the love given in a gift. But, just look at the world they are born into these days. A quick look at today’s paper will show you sin out in the open. Bomb threats, murder, theft, shootings in the mall, these are all a part of these days. And while we want to think we are better, we know we are born with that darkness in us. We know that our children are born with sin in them. That’s why, “those days” are so important. That’s why Jesus was born a baby in “those days.” He saves us completely by become completely one of us. He lives in our world subject to the same temptations and troubles as we are. He had relatives who died. He suffered from illness in his family. He knew of corrupt politics and religious leaders who only led people away from God. He heard of murder, and theft and threats to human life. “Those days” where just like “these days.” That little baby that we loving adore in the cradle grew to be a man. He knew the temptations of being a teenager. He lived as a young adult in a small community. He roamed the streets of cities and towns and saw greed and its most direct effect, poverty. He saw first hand the effects of sin on the people around Him. Yet, Jesus lived His life without sin. In spite of all that was around Him, He lived in perfect relationship to God and perfect relationship to everyone around Him in those days.

Jesus lived His perfect life according to God’s will, which led him to the cross. Every step, every word, every action led there. Jesus, completely God and sinless human being was nailed to the cross as a common criminal. It was unjust and yet, God’s way of saving us. Jesus sinless life was sacrificed in place of our sinful one. He hung bleeding and dying on the cross, suffering the punishment deserved for the worst kind of crime. But that wasn’t enough. God heaped on the Baby of Bethlehem the sins of the whole world. Every sin in thought, word and deed, every sin you and I have done and the things we should have done but have left undone, God laid on Jesus’ shoulders. The shear weight of them caused Him to cry out to God in those days, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” That’s because Jesus didn’t just suffer the physical pain of crucifixion, He suffered the spiritual pain of eternal hell, complete rejection by God. That is the punishment that the smallest sin deserves, because it violates God’s design and will for human life. It is a stark contrast from the swaddling cloths to nakedness of the cross. But that my dear Christian friends is what the scene in the manger is all about. Without the cross in those days there is no joy to the world for these days.

Everything Jesus did in “those days” has a lasting impact on us in “these days.” In fact “these days” our lives are completely different. We have so much to celebrate on Christmas. We see the salvation of God in the crib and we see it in the cross. He is our savior from sin in “those days”, in “these days” and for all eternity.

We are happy at what we see in the manger on Christmas. The Shepherds were “in those days.” It’s ok to rejoice in what God has done for them, and for you and me. Today, in these days, we can find Joseph, Mary and the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. Shout out with joy what he has done, today! It is indeed good news of great joy for all people. Spread the word in “these days” just as the shepherd did. Express the joy of Christmas. Tell everyone you see as you return home. “Joy to the world the Lord is come!”

It is true: Christmas in those days is Christmas in these days. It is Christmas for us! It isn’t just the celebration of something in the past. It’s the celebration of something God is still doing. He still brings the good news of forgiveness through his word, the story of what he has done. Hear the Good News of Great Joy for all people… for you who live in ‘these days.’ Today, this day, a savior has been born to you who is Christ the Lord. Amen.

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

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve; December 24, 2010; Luke 2:19;

But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. (Luke 2:19, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
I once heard about a child who told the story of Christmas. I don’t remember all the ins and outs of it, but I do remember one phrase. Mary treasured up all these things and pounded them into her heart. Well, it makes a certain amount of sense doesn’t it? What second grader is going to know or understand the word pondering? Now, she probably understood the idea of pounding something. If she had brothers, she’d probably even been on the receiving end of a pounding. Her brothers had something they wanted her to know, so they pounded her till she remembered it. That was an object lesson in the making. Mary, the mother of Jesus, pounded these things into her heart. I’m sure she did. All these wonderful events; shepherds, angels, magi, special travel arrangements made in the middle of the night, these things didn’t happen every day. God’s hand in the birth of her child wasn’t subtle. Mary was probably the first human being to really understand the meaning, the reality of God coming into the world in human flesh. She suffered the pains of child birth when God was born. She knew these events were events to be remembered. She pounded them into her heart. When she held the infant Jesus in her arms and fed him at her breast, she must have been overwhelmed to hold God, feed God, and change God’s diapers. She pounded these things into her heart. When she and her husband took him to the temple to be circumcised, on the eight day, when he cried at the pain, at the first shedding of his blood and the prophet told her that her heart would be pierced; she pounded these things into her heart. As he grew, learned to walk and talk, skinned his knees, worked with his Joseph, laughed and played and cried, just like any other completely human growing baby boy; she pounded these things into her heart. When he was twelve and stayed behind in the temple wowing the scribes and the Pharisees with his knowledge of God and his understanding of scripture. She and Joseph were in a panic when they couldn’t find him. They were angry, but soon they understood. Jesus was doing what he had come to do; she pounded these things into her heart. When Jesus ministry began in earnest, when he turned water into wine, when he healed the sick, when he preached to the gathering crowds, he spoke with authority showing he wasn’t just an ordinary prophet; she pounded these things into her heart. She’d need to remember all these things. Her son, isn’t just any human baby, he is the son of God. He wasn’t born to live a life for his own sake. He lived his life for her. He live his life for you. Mary, Jesus’ mother, saw all these things first hand, she saw Jesus living his life for sinful human beings. She saw God’s love expressed in human form. She saw grateful human beings reacting to God, in the flesh; she pounded these things into her heart. So, with Jesus standing bleeding from thorns in his scalp, torn flesh from the Roman scourge, bruises on his face from being pounded with human fists, she recalled the things she had stored up in her heart. She maybe didn’t fully understand why God-in-the-flesh would allow himself to be treated so, but she knew who he was. And so this too, she pounded into her heart. She remembered Simeon’s words about the pain she would endure. With each blow of the hammer that pounded a nail into Jesus hands and feet, she felt the pain she was warned about, a mother’s pain. And yet it was nothing compared to the pain that her son, Jesus bore. You see, this her son, the God-man, Jesus Christ, was born of the virgin for this very purpose. The life he lived, the life Mary pounded into her heart, was lived with the purpose of suffering the guilt and shame of sin. He lived his life to suffer the death of sinful men. What Mary saw on the cross, wasn’t just her son, it was her Savior. With all of his life stored in her heart, what she saw on the cross was the sinless Son of God; God, himself, restoring a relationship to his people. God doing what was necessary, what you and I, (and she) can’t do for ourselves. Jesus Christ, true-God, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified dead and buried; And Mary saw it all, and pounded these things in her heart. But it wasn’t over. The joy Mary felt at the birth of God’s son, was given in full measure when he rose again. Then she understood fully what God had done through her son. All that she had pounded in her heart came flowing out in joy.
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Galatians 4:4-6, ESV)
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. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11, ESV)
So, this evening, what are you pounding into your heart? Christmas gifts, or the Christmas gift? As you listen to the account of your Savior, do you hear about the Savior for you? Do you pound Jesus Christ and his life, death and resurrection for you into your heart?
Think on Jesus, the son of the Virgin, God in the flesh born for you, and pound that into your heart. Think about Jesus keeping God’s law perfectly for you and pound that into your heart. Think of Jesus suffering for you, think of Jesus dying on the cross for you for the forgiveness of your sin, and pound that into your heart. And pound into your heart the joy that Jesus promises to come again. You will live with him forever.
I guess the little girl had it right. Mary kept all these things and pounded them into her heart. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Matthew 1:18-25; Weekday Advent Service Four; December 22, 2010;

Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Creston, Iowa
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. ” (Matthew 1:18–25, ESV)
(Thanks to Paul Robinson, Concordia Journal, Volume 36, Number 4, Page 365-366)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Are you afraid of angels? Well, maybe you should be. After all over the past few weeks we’ve heard about angelic visits in the accounts in the bible leading up to Christmas and they all seem to elicit the same response. The first thing the angels say is “Fear not!” Just look at what happens to people when angels speak to them. The Magi traveled great distance. Young Mary would have a very special baby. Joseph was told to go ahead and take Mary as his wife in spite of how the local town’s folk’s tongues would wag. When angels speak peoples lives are turned upside down. When angels speak, important God events, life changing events happen. We should be afraid, especially since we so often value the world’s stuff rather than God’s. We should be afraid because we bask in the glow of technology, security, and the honor and praise of today’s society.
Just look at Joseph again. He decided to save his reputation and divorce Mary quietly. It was the right thing to do. It would save him the embarrassment from those who would count months. But there’s more. Joseph was also very concerned for Mary. A public accusation would lead to more than public embarrassment for her it was more than a matter of loss of honor, but likely a loss of her life. The quite divorce would allow her to flee to another place where the child could be born in secret. But this isn’t what God had planned. The angel’s words to Joseph turned his life upside down. He was told that there was more going on here than meets the eye. He was to marry his betrothed just as he had planned, but not just for her sake, or his, but because it was all part of God’s plans to save the world. This child, unique in every way, is more than a human being. He is God himself, Immanuel, God-with-us, born to save God’s people from their sins.
Joseph took the angel’s words to heart. But that didn’t make things easy. How did he explain the baby to his friends and family? We don’t know. The marriage didn’t end his troubles either. They were required to travel to Bethlehem when Mary was far along in her pregnancy; a crowed town that afforded no shelter for his family; and a nighttime flight to Egypt to protect the child from the murderous King Herod. The announcement by the angel was just the beginning.
All of this trouble points to the whole purpose Jesus is born. It all points to the cross. Martin Luther says the text here is the creed. “…conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary…” and soon after follows the cross. “For as soon as the Christian life is begun or anything else of Christ, the next thing, the cross, is at hand.” (WA 27:475-76)
In our lives the cross is always at hand. We see it very clearly at this time of year. The season of joy is often interrupted by trouble. We let our focus shift from Jesus born for our forgiveness, to what we are told is much more important; success; comfort; money; things. These can never satisfy. They leave only the desire for more. The season of joy is often interrupted by sorrow and loss. The empty place at the table, the missing loved one, weather it is the first year or the tenth, is highlighted by the season. Fake joy doesn’t fill the emptiness. The season of joy is often interrupted by uncertainty. Every year it seems that the true God, found in Jesus Christ alone, is more and more sidelined. How long until we are forced to choose him or our way of life?
But just like Joseph we have the word of God in the midst of all this trouble, sorrow, and doubt. The words spoken by the angel to Joseph were not only for him. It is good news for all people. “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel”
This promise, God-with-us, stands even today, even as the Christmas season brings fear, pain, trouble, doubt and loss. It stands because God-with-us is God himself come to deliver us from the cause of it all. Jesus Christ, “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified dead and buried.” Again Luther makes it plain:
What does this mean?
I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord,

who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death,
that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness,
just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity.
This is most certainly true.
It is because of cross and Jesus death there for the forgiveness of our sin, that this season is really a season of joy. Forgiveness sets us right with God. Forgiveness sets us right with each other. And forgiveness is what the angel is telling Joseph is about to come. This is the real reason for the season. This is the real joy. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Matthew 1:18-25; Fourth Sunday in Advent; December 19, 2010;

Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Creston, Iowa

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Mt 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 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 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. Anciently 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, 2010

Matthew 11:2-11; Third Sunday in Advent; December 12, 2010;

Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “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. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, “ ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (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.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Matthew 3:1-12; Second Sunday in Advent; December 5, 2010

Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Creston, Iowa

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’ ” Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 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. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” ” (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[1]). This time of year we’ve gotten used to hearing about that guy[2] 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[3]. 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.” (Erl. XV, 61, 63.)[4] 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[5] 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[6]. 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.


[2] BOUTS, Dieric the Younger, St John the Baptist, c. 1470, (Web Gallery of Art).

[3] BOUTS, Dieric the Younger, St John the Baptist, c. 1470, (Web Gallery of Art).

[4]Pieper, F. (1999, c1950, c1951, c1953). Christian Dogmatics (electronic ed.). St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

[5] BRONZINO, Agnolo, Adoration of the Shepherds, 1535-40 (Web Gallery of Art).

[6] ANTONELLO da Messina, Crucifixion, 1475 (Web Gallery of Art).

Slappy Christmas! Get to Know the Real “Santa Claus” – Saint Nicholas

Happy Saint Nick Day!

Love this story by Gene Veith in 2004 World Magazine. It's just a different picture of "Saint Nick" than we often think. Also check out Paul McCain's post.

Slappy Christmas, World Mag 2004

Slappy Christmas! Get to Know the Real “Santa Claus” – Saint Nicholas