Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Titus 3:4-7; The Incarnation of Our Lord, Jesus Christ; Christmas Day, 2019;

Titus 3:4-7; The Incarnation of Our Lord, Jesus Christ; Christmas Day, 2019;
Life in Christ Lutheran Church, Grand Marais, MN;
4But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. Titus 3:4-7 (ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
One of the greatest joys in the world is looking at, or even holding, a baby. It doesn’t matter what kind of a mood you are in, when you get a baby in your arms you automatically go into ‘care’ mode. Anger drips away as you look into a baby’s eye. And if it smiles at you, all you can do is melt. If the baby is your own flesh and blood, if you carried it those nine months of nurture, that baby may even hold the whole future in its face. It’s impossible to fell bad or think evil thoughts as you look at a baby in your arms.
I think that’s one of the reasons why people like Christmas so much. It’s all centered on a baby. It’s what makes the holiday cross over so many boundaries. People understand Christmas, because they understand babies. And they relate to it. If you say to people, “the goodness and loving kindness of God is shown in that baby in the manger.” They’ll pretty much know what you are talking about. A baby is goodness and loving kindness personified. If someone were going to make a new designer holiday, the best kind would be one that was wrapped up in the symbolism of a baby.
Christmas isn’t a designer holiday, or even a manufactured holiday. But it is about a baby. It’s a holiday about a real live baby not a symbolic one or a pretend one. All those years ago in that stable a real live mother gave birth to a real live flesh and blood baby. I’m sure that Mary and Joseph had many of the same feelings, fears and joys that all parents have when a child is born. And when they held their baby in their arms, they were looking the future in the face. Right there in their presence was the goodness and loving kindness of God. They could reach out and touch it, and hold it, and caress it. It’s as if God were saying, as much as you love this baby, I love you. As much as you will be father and mother to him, I care for you. Yes, that baby, born in an animal shelter is God’s declaration of how much He loves human beings.
And it seems that love is a part of the holiday, too. You see things in people this time of year that you don’t see any other time. In some ways, we get the feeling that this time of year shows the ‘real character’ of people. They just seem to care more, help more, and love more. Red buckets are hung by ringing bells, toys for tots are stuffed in boxes all over town, people even give more blood at this time of year than any other. It’s nice that, for a few weeks at least, people show that kind of love for one another. But before we pat ourselves on the shoulders for a ‘job well done’ we should remember that even a full year full of Christmases wouldn’t be enough to make up for all the ugliness, pain and selfishness that people inflict on one another for the rest of the year. Christmas good deeds aren’t the ‘real character’ of people. The ‘real character’ of all people is sin.
Actually, we are exactly the opposite of the ‘goodness and loving kindness’ shown to us at Christmas time. How many ways have been invented by people to cause each other pain? Christmas joy is the blip on the radar; it’s the exception not the rule. A quick perusal of the news will quickly confirm it. The top stories of most every day show the dark nature of human beings. Murder, theft, abuse, and greed top the list of evils. And worst of all, children are often the targets of those same evils.
Now, let’s make it personal. It’s one thing to point to the world out there and say that it’s full of evil people, it’s quite another to turn that finger on ourselves. But that’s exactly what we have to do. We can see our own guilt very quickly by just looking at one of God’s Ten Commandments. “You shall not kill.” It says. Jesus, that lovable little baby accuses us when he says,
22But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. Matthew 5:22 (ESV)”
Who among you hasn’t been angry? I know I’ve been angry with someone and recently, even during the month of December! The time when there is suppose to be ‘peace on earth,’ the peace was shattered by anger. Insults are the same and even calling someone a fool. What Jesus is really saying is that you don’t have to spill someone’s blood to violate God’s will for your life. Just like everyone else on the planet, your ‘real character’ isn’t shown at Christmas. There is blackness in your heart that you can’t erase with any amount of ‘good deeds’ at Christmas time. No matter how much ‘good’ you do, that evil will still be there and will spill out again.
You might be able to fool the people who live around you by doing good things, but God sees your heart. God sees my heart. He sees the evil, the selfishness, and the deceit that is there. And God doesn’t judge the things we do by how good they are; He judges the things we do by our hearts. When He looks into our hearts, He sees that we don’t deserve goodness and loving kindness at all. What we really deserve is punishment.
But it’s Christmas; can’t we put aside that punishment stuff for even one day? Can’t we just enjoy the “Joy” of the season without talking about sin, death and hell? Can’t we just look at the stable and revel in the goodness and the loving kindness that we see there in a newborn baby?
That is precisely the point. The text for this message says when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, that’s what the Baby is all about, the goodness and loving kindness of God appearing. It comes in a little baby wrapped in rags. It comes with poor parents and even poorer shepherds that looked on. It comes in the middle of a stable instead of a birthing room. The goodness and loving kindness of God comes in a Baby, Jesus. We look with loving kindness on this Baby not just because he is a baby, but because he came for punishment.
In goodness and loving kindness, God sent Jesus to suffer punishment for us. That’s the mercy of God. That instead of punishment for our sin, God punishes Jesus. We deserve it. Jesus takes it. Instead of turning away from you and me, God turns away from Jesus and allows Him to be nailed to the cross, to bleed and die in great pain. God looks at His Son and deals out punishment to Him, and goodness and loving kindness to you and me. That’s a different way to look at a baby. But that’s the only way to look at this Baby. If we fail to see the Baby Jesus as the one-and-the-same Jesus bleeding on the cross, the joy we have at Christmas is meaningless.
But God’s goodness and loving kindness goes way beyond the punishment of Jesus in our place. There is more to what this Baby came to do than die (although that is essential!). In a few months, we’ll put these white cloths back on the altar again and we’ll say to each other “He is Risen!” The baby in the manger grows up to die, but more importantly, He grows us to rise again from death. The loving kindness of God goes so far that God isn’t content with just paying the penalty for our sin; He wants us to live forever. That’s God’s ultimate act of kindness for us. He gives us the resurrection of Jesus. It’s the washing of regeneration and renewal that we read a few moments ago. God makes us clean; and regenerates us, that is makes us a new person, through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Our punishment is His and so is His coming back to life is ours. We inherit eternal life in Jesus.
Now let’s make this personal, too. Jesus didn’t come just for the multitudes of people living everywhere out there. He came for you. That little baby was born in the manger for you. He lived and He died for you. The punishment He suffered is the punishment you deserved. The new life that He rose from the dead to live is yours, too. You are a child of God! How do you know? Well, it’s not because of anything you’ve done. Remember he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy. You’ve been adopted. You’ve been washed and regenerated. God poured out on you all of this when He poured over your head, water together with His words of forgiveness and life. Baptism is God’s promise to you, that all that Jesus did He did for you. That’s the goodness and loving kindness of God made personal for you.
So, all of Christmas is wrapped up right here in the joy of seeing a baby. When we see a baby, we know what goodness and loving-kindness is. We know it because we feel it; it’s automatic; it comes with the territory. Babies bring it out in us. Maybe that’s part of the reason Jesus came as a baby, to show us that that’s how God looks at you and me. To show us a love so great that Jesus lived and died and rose again to give us life forever. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Luke.2.1-20; The Eve of the Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ; December 24, 2019;

Luke.2.1-20; The Eve of the Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ; December 24, 2019;
Life in Christ Lutheran Church, Grand Marais, MN;
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to 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, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and 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 among those with whom he is pleased!” When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2:1-20, ESV)
… for unto you…
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Well, It’s finally Christmas time. The time has arrived; the packages and presents will soon be opened. It is a joyous season, a very joyous holiday. It’s nice to have family around, all the holiday hassle seems to be worth it as we see our families sitting with us around the dinner table. The hours of work, Christmas baking, shopping and wrapping are all behind us. It all seems, at that moment, to have been worth it. Next year is a different story… But, now it’s Christmas! It is almost an anti-climax. Our attention has been very focused on our gifts, our families, and wondering if it will really be a ‘white Christmas.’ It’s easy to get wrapped up in the holiday, the family gift exchange, and the Christmas tree. It is wonderful that so many people celebrate this day… the day that a baby was born in Bethlehem. It’s great that people, who don’t even believe, celebrate. It has truly become a part of our American culture.
All the lights, all the carols, all the glitter and decorations, the sense of community… peace on earth. There’s nothing wrong with any of it. It’s great to enjoy it, as a matter of fact we should! We should enjoy it; we should revel in it, even more than anyone else. Because for some this holiday is only a time for family… a time for gift exchanges… a time to wish peace on the world. But, for us it is different. As we listen to this very familiar story we should remember the most important words that are in it.
For unto you… for you…
It is these words that reach out across time and drag us back to the dark fields where shepherds stood and trembled. These words that make the rag wrapped baby shivering in the cold important. It is these words that tell us that something wonderful has truly happened. And that it has happened … for us.
But still the message of Christmas is wrapped up in the tinsel and paper of the season. Sometimes we find it hard to remember what the season really means… for us. Maybe if we were actually there, standing in that field with the Shepherds, we’d have a better appreciation of that message. Maybe if we understood what it meant for the shepherds maybe we’d better understand what it means for us.
The night was dark, not dark like here, where the lights of town fade out the blackness of the sky, but really dark, like black velvet. Each star in the sky can be seen clearly as a pinpoint of light. There is time to notice each one. Shepherds have one single luxury in their lives… time to think, and time to contemplate the universe. Especially their place in it. Because for a shepherd, the world isn’t a very welcome place. It isn’t just the smell of sheep that keeps people away. Their occupation is on the very bottom rung. Little boys didn’t grow up wanting to be a shepherd. People who were shepherds were outcasts. They weren’t welcome in town. They weren’t allowed at social gatherings.
To say that the appearance of an angel to shepherds was surprising is to not say it strong enough. It is nothing short of miraculous. It certainly surprised everyone who heard about it later, And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But maybe the most surprised were the shepherds themselves. They were certainly afraid. They knew their place in the society of the day; they also knew their place before God. Few people would have the perspective of shepherds in that respect. Certainly not people who were accepted.
Maybe this is where we have trouble with the story. Maybe we don’t see ourselves standing there trembling in the presence of God, like they were. Maybe we don’t identify with them. But maybe we should. What they understood, that maybe we don’t, is exactly what it means to be outcasts, to be separated. Most of us have been in the ‘presence of God’ our whole lives. Most of us were baptized as young children and have never felt ‘apart’ from God. But as surly as their social standing kept the shepherds out in the fields, sin pushes human beings away from God.
From that problem we ourselves are not immune. It’s easy to see the ‘shepherds’ around us. Undesirable people… the lazy and unemployed, who spend their money on lottery tickets and cheap beer. People who don’t care about their appearance. We don’t like to see it in ourselves. Our selfishness, our proud attitudes, our tempers… our sin. Sin is no respecter of social class. The sin that plagues ‘shepherds’ plagues you and me. When we stand in the presence of God, our sin deserves punishment. If we understood that clearly we too, would tremble there with the shepherds.
“Don’t be afraid!” the angels said. In spite of what you deserve, there is Good News for you!” It’s good news for shepherds, outcasts from Jewish society. Sinful people keenly aware of their status, keenly aware of their sin. “In fact this Good News is so Good that it is for everyone!” It’s for shepherds… it’s for me… it’s for you!
For you… today… Christmas day… a Savior has been born. God will not tolerate sin and its effects on people. He can not have his beloved people separated, and outcast from him. What makes Christmas day Good News is that Jesus Christ, God’s answer to sin, is born for you! The very same Jesus, found by the shepherds in the stable, is found there for you. The very same Jesus, who gave himself up to the cross for shepherds, has given himself up to the cross for you. Sin that troubles you has lost its power, because of Jesus born to Mary and announced to shepherds. Because of Jesus, whose first home on earth was a place for animals, and whose first visitors were outcast shepherds, you have a place with God, and your sin will not separate you from him.
Do you need more than that? There is more… it’s one thing to look back to a time so far removed from us, to a dark field flooded by the light of angels, and to try to see what that means for us. It is one thing to picture in our minds God made flesh, wiggling in a manger surrounded by shepherds, sheep, and cows. It is quite another thing altogether, to have him here present with us right now. But Jesus Christ is here with us now just as he promises. “I am your Savior, where two or three are gathered in my name I am with you. My very body which was laid in a manger, which was given for shepherds, is given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. Take it and eat it. Touch it and feel it.”
So what effect did this message have on the shepherds? What did it mean for them that God had sent a savior for them? They went around telling everyone what God had done. They shared it ‘abroad,’ everywhere! People everywhere where amazed. Maybe you can even imagine what they said. “The Savior of the world has come! He has come for us! He has come for you!” Notice how it doesn’t say that the shepherds shared their story with only other shepherds. They shared it with everyone, regardless of social class and status. They may have returned to their sheep, they may have returned to their regular jobs, but they were completely changed. The angels message that first filled them with fear now filled them with joy. That joy overflowed all around them. I can’t imagine the fields around Bethlehem being quite the same ever again.
Have we been changed like the shepherds were? Is our joy in Christmas wrapped up in the gift exchange, the lights and carols? Or do we shout out with joy that a Savior has been born for us. Will we return to our work places the same as we were before, or will we announce to everyone the Good News, like the shepherds did?
Joy to the world the Lord is come! Shout it out loud. Sing it to the rafters. Remember what it means that ‘God and sinners are reconciled.’ Glorify God for what you have seen and heard on this day. This Christmas day when God announces to shepherds and to you that Jesus is born… for you. Amen.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Matthew 1:18-21; The Fourth Sunday in Advent; December 22, 2109;

Matthew 1:18-21; The Fourth Sunday in Advent; December 22, 2109;
Life in Christ Lutheran Church, Grand Marais, MN;
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.” (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 tonight 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. (Luke 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 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. (Philippians 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 must 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 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 I 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. (Galatians 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 almost 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

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Galatians 3:23-4:7; Advent Service Three; December 18, 2019;

Galatians 3:23-4:7; Advent Service Three; December 18, 2019;
Life in Christ Lutheran Church, Grand Marais, MN;
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. 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!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. (Galatians 3:23—4:7, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
"In the fullness of time." Less than a week from now we will celebrate "the fullness of time". But it's more than celebrating the birth of The Baby. It's more than putting Jesus back in the nativity scene. Or making Jesus the Reason for the Season.
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. (Galatians 4:4-5,ESV)
The fullness of time is about our adoption as sons (and daughters). And it is about what our adoption means. We were captive under the law. Under the law we are unable to save ourselves. Under the law we are required to be perfect. Any small infraction of the law breaks the whole. Under the law we are, because of our sinful nature, hell bound.
Our lives are lived to keep us busy enough to avoid the reality, numb our guilt. We live one event to the next, with no time in between to breathe or think. We think it's better that way. We think that's the best way to get the most out of life. We need to experience all we can. But the one thing we should see in our busy lives is our sin. Sin is the reason for the presence of evil. It corrupts everything we do. Sin brings death. Death makes everything we do empty. And it's even worse at this time of year. Far from being a relaxing time spent with family and friends, these holidays are mach speed busyness. Satan has you distracted. In your effort to make it the best holiday season ever, he reinforces the lie that what's important is family time, gifts given, and the joy you should be feeling at the season. It seems as if every event leading up to Christmas is an effort to mask the real reason for the season. That we are sinful people in need of a Savior.
But, "in the fullness of time" we are no longer slaves to our sinful nature, but we are set free, justified by grace. This is the gift of Holy Baptism. It is water poured on us that works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe. Water alone couldn't do such wonderful things. Water alone couldn't connect us to the crucified, yet living, baby born in a manger. Or as the catechism says:
Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this Word of God in the water. For without God's word the water is plain water and no Baptism. But with the word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul says in Titus, chapter three, "He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.
The water and God's name are a rebirth and renewal, life giving. The work of the Holy Spirit through God's promises. Adoption as sons and daughters. With all the benefits and inheritances that come as a natural consequence of adoption. It's not just water. It's water and God's word and faith. Faith is clinging to the promises of God in the sure and certain hope of the forgiveness won by Jesus Christ on the cross. Faith is turning with sin to the one who offers forgiveness through the cleansing found in the water and the embedded Word of God.
There is no better way to understand God's grace, that is his undeserved love for us, then to see baptism for what it is. Not a washing that we do to ourselves, but a washing that God does to us, for us. It is his promise that makes it what it is. It is his promise that gives us the forgiveness of sins. It is his promise that gives us life and salvation. It is trust in these promises (that is what faith is) that gives us all these benefits of inheritance.
In the stable, in the manger, is the one through whom God is making his promise true. The angels sing. The shepherds worship. Mary and Joseph stand in awe. The baby is God's answer to the problem of human sin, your sin. He brings you forgiveness through his perfect life lived, his death on the cross where he suffers eternal hell for you, and his resurrection to new life as your promise of the very same. The baby is God himself in human flesh. He comes in the fullness of time to give you all these gifts. And you are connected directly to the baby in the manger through the washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Matthew 11:2-15; Advent 3, December 5, 2019;

Matthew 11:2-15; Advent 3, December 5, 2019;
Life in Christ Lutheran Church, Grand Marais, MN;
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.  From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.  For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.  He who has ears to hear, let him hear.  (Matthew 11:2-15, 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.  Every year about this time you can 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 say.  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 you have even been tempted to buy such a magazine when you see them, just to see what they say.  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 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 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 see him 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 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 about what John was doing.  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 in this text, 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 supposed 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 and 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 encounter a God who loves them.  Things begin to return to the way that God 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 throne.  Jesus rules over his kingdom from the cross.  It was there that he showed his great love for us.  It was there that he encountered 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 times 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 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 in Holy 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.  Jesus Christ, God and man, flesh and blood for the forgiveness of our sins.
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 and it flows to our neighbors and coworkers, and even the people we just bump into every day.  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 through us to the whole world. 
Will all our doubt going to go away? Well, not yet.  Because even though the kingdom of God is among us, it is also 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 it all to completion.  He will finish what he started and what he is doing here in his Word and Sacraments every time you hear it and receive them.  Then there will be no more blindness, no more deadly diseases, no more death, and no more doubt.  Amen.
The Peace that passes all understanding Keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Psalm 85:1–13; Advent Service Two; December 11, 2019;

Psalm 85:1–13; Advent Service Two; December 11, 2019;
Life in Christ Lutheran Church, Grand Marais, MN;
LORD, you were favorable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
You forgave the iniquity of your people; you covered all their sin. Selah
You withdrew all your wrath; you turned from your hot anger.
Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us!
Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations?
Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?
Show us your steadfast love, O LORD, and grant us your salvation.
Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints; but let them not turn back to folly.
Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him, that glory may dwell in our land.
Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other.
Faithfulness springs up from the ground, and righteousness looks down from the sky.
Yes, the LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him and make his footsteps a way. (Psalm 85, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Psalm 85 is another complaint to God, a lament.  In a nutshell it says, “God you forgave us once, do it again.” There is a particularly interesting thing about this psalm though. And it sets right in the middle at verse 7.
Show us your steadfast love, O LORD, and grant us your salvation.
You see, Hebrew poetry has a couple of interesting features. The first is the repetition. Each verse has a repeat. It says something and then says the same thing in just a little bit different way. Look at verse 2 for example.
You forgave the iniquity of your people; you covered all their sin.
It’s the same thought about forgiveness, spoken in two different ways, making the point ever stronger. So, most Hebrew poetry in the bible is like that. The second feature that often happens is that the most important idea isn’t up front, but it is placed in a nice envelope right at the very center. In this Psalm, you guessed it, its verse 7.
Show us your steadfast love, O LORD, and grant us your salvation.
The whole poem, the most important thought, is about God’s “steadfast love” and “salvation”. The verse is saying that for God to “show his steadfast love” is to “grant” or give “his salvation”. It’s all set up by reminding God how he had been gracious to his people in the past.
LORD, you were favorable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
You forgave the iniquity of your people; you covered all their sin. Selah
You withdrew all your wrath; you turned from your hot anger.
Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us!
Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations?
Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?
He gave them the land, he forgave them, and he set aside his anger. And now he was angry again. The psalm asks “Will you be angry forever?” And then pleads for God’s steadfast love.
The thing is the two words “steadfast love” and “salvation” are tied directly together. The word “steadfast love” in Hebrew is חֶ֫סֶד. It has sometimes been translated “mercy”. Martin Luther said it is [i]“goodness in action”. The psalmist wants God to show his goodness in action by granting salvation that is, forgiveness of sins. And the Hebrew word for salvation sounds familiar to us יֵ֫שַׁע.  It means deliverance, rescue, safety, and salvation which is primarily physical rescue by God.
The psalmist isn’t denying his sin, or making excuses for it. He isn’t even pleading some sort of merit on the part of God’s people. He’s simply saying, “God, you are a forgiving God. So, forgive!”
It’s that “goodness in action” that I can’t seem to get away from. The author of the Psalm calls upon God to show his “goodness in action” by “giving salvation.”  As Advent speeds along here to Christmas we can anticipate exactly how God answers the complaint.
God’s חֶ֫סֶד, his undeserved love, his mercy, his goodness in action, comes down right in the middle of our sinful lives. It’s the Good News of the Baptizer, the Name of Jesus that is the Word of Peace. God’s goodness in action is born in a stable. He lives and breathes and walks and talks and teaches and heals and dies and rises and ascends and promises to return. It is no accident that Jesus name comes from the word in the psalm for salvation. יֵ֫שַׁע means God saves. It is Jesus name Yashua, Joshua (Jesus is the Latinized version). God’s goodness in action is Jesus Christ our Savior come to do what God does, forgive. He does it by goodness in action. God in human flesh born in a stable. God walking and talking among sinful people. God healing and helping. God suffering under the Roman whip. God nailed to a cross for sinners such as you and me. God dead and buried in a tomb. And God raising from death again, all in the God-man Jesus Christ. God’s love in action in answer to the lament of this psalm.
The rest of the Psalm assumes that God will do just what he has done.
Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints; but let them not turn back to folly.
God speaks and there is peace, shalom between God and people.
Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him, that glory may dwell in our land.
Those who fear God’s punishment over their sin have forgiveness. We call this repentance and faith. Confessing our sins and receiving forgiveness.
Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other.
Faithfulness springs up from the ground, and righteousness looks down from the sky.
Yes, the LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him and make his footsteps a way.
God’s forgiveness works out in the lives of forgiven people as more “goodness in action”. Righteousness, good living, service to our neighbors, and just being faithful to God’s will is the natural result.
And it starts with a complaint. I’m sinful God. I need your goodness in action, your forgiveness in Jesus. It leads once again to our Advent prayer. “Come Lord Jesus!”
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

[i]Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 14: Selected Psalms III . (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 14, p. 50). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Sunday, December 08, 2019

Matthew 3:1-12; Second Sunday in Advent; December 8, 2019;

Main Street Living; Life in Christ Lutheran Church, Grand Marias, MN
1In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 3For 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.” 4Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 7But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 9And 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. 10Even 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. 11“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 with fire. 12His 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 anymore.  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).