Monday, December 31, 2012

No Charge... No Condemnation... No Separation

The text for this message is Romans 8:31-39.
The Apostle Paul by Rembrandt
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Imagine what it was like for Casey Anthony to sit in the courtroom, day after day, and hear all the accusations and evidence presented against you.  Or imagine what it was like for Michael Vick facing charges of animal cruelty.  Or for Saddam Hussein sitting in the courtroom, knowing you face a grisly judgment.
But, dear Christians, you don’t really need to imagine that much do you?  You know what it’s like to be in their shoes.  Oh, you may not be facing prison time or the death penalty, but you know what it’s like—for you are constantly sitting in a courtroom, hearing judgments against you—judgments from within, judgments from without.  Daily you are judged by your friends, co-workers, employers, and family members.  You are “let go” because your productivity doesn’t measure up to others.  You are constantly compared to your brother or sister.  You are always being told how great “so-and-so’s” spouse is—which is a backhand way of saying that you’re not so great.
And the judgments that come from within—your own conscience—are even more severe.  You are constantly making comparisons with others and find yourself falling short of your own expectations and ideals.  Again and again your conscience burdens you with your failures, your selfishness, your thoughtlessness, your laziness, your wicked thoughts, words, and deeds.  You know your sin, and it is constantly before you.
Judgments from within and judgments from without.  Such a life leaves one parched.  Such judgments leave one certain of temporal and eternal punishments.
To borrow the words of St. Paul, “What then shall we say to these things?” 
There seems to be only one answer—“I am guilty.”
In light of this, these words of our text have always astounded me.  St. Paul is no different than you or I.  Just one chapter before this one he confesses his own inner conflict: “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7).  How can he say then with such confidence that nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God—not tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword—not death nor life, angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth…?
We may very well question the validity of this assertion when people become angry at God and fall away… or when tribulations come, and life in the Church fades away… or when worries about the future choke out the faith sowed in the believer.  Christians do fall away on account of these very things.  Sadly, we’ve all seen it happen.  Like a school of piranhas—these servants of sin surround and swarm and slaughter the souls of the saints.
What an amazing statement we have in verse 39 as St. Paul wraps this all up by saying, “For I am sure that… [nothing]… in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Think about that for a moment.  Nothing in all of creation.  Not the visible things.  Not the invisible things.  Not those things known since man first walked the earth.  Not those things that are yet to be discovered.  None of the sin that has infected man sin the Fall.  Nor the new perversion that creeps into society.  Nothing in all creation.  Nothing is left out.
Take away all the created things, and what are you left with?  God—the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This one almighty God is the Creator—the Creator of all things.  None of these created things can separate us from the love of God because He (the Creator), is greater than all of creation.
This is reflected in our Collects when we pray through Jesus Christ who “lives and reigns to all eternity”—in our liturgies when confess that Jesus “rules and reigns” over all things.  It’s all under Him.  It’s all under His control.
Now, it is true, all of creation, fallen in sin, wages war against God; but it cannot overcome God’s love—that love which is “in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  In other words, it cannot undo Calvary.  It cannot spoil Good Friday.  It cannot reverse the resurrection.  And it cannot steal away God’s grace revealed and given to us in His Son, Jesus Christ.  Christ has been offered up as the sacrifice for all sin—once and for all—and nothing in all creation can take that away.
That’s not to say that this life will be easy sledding.  We still live in a fallen world.  Christians are not immune to tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, or sword.  St. Paul experienced all of these in his life.  And we, also, are regarded by the enemies of our Lord as sheep to be slaughtered.  Since the devil and His minions can no longer strike the Shepherd, they will do their very best to scatter the sheep.  Since they cannot conquer God, the focus of their attention shifts to you.  Our three great enemies—the devil, the world, and our sinful nature—will take hold of the fallen creation and use it to try and lead you “into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice.”
Just as the devil used the fruit to tempt Adam and Eve… just as he used the rocks and hunger to tempt Jesus… so also the creation is constantly being used as a weapon against you.  It’s not that the creation (in and of itself) is wicked or evil, but the devil uses it for his evil purposes, chiefly to snatch you away from God, to separate you from His salvation.  To lead you into unbelief.
You see, that is the one thing that can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus your Lord: unbelief.  Famine, nakedness, unemployment, and all the other troubles that are bound to happen in this world hell-bent on destruction can’t affect your standing before God.  Only unbelief does. 
That’s why when you contemplate troubles to come or are overtaken by them, the question Paul would have you ask from this text is not, “How am I going to endure this or that trouble?”  The answer to that is, “The Lord will deliver you, for you are among His people.”  The better question is, “How might I be protected and delivered from unbelief, which would separate me from God?”
Make no mistake: the point of this text is that the devil will use every last trial on every last day to try to wreck your faith.  Paul asks, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” because the devil is going to use every trouble he can to accuse you and say, “God is against you.  God’s got something against you.  The Lord’s still holding you guilty for something you’ve done.”  And Paul asks, “Who is to condemn?” because the devil would love to grind you down until you despair and think that you are condemned—that there is no hope in God for you.”
So the question to be asked is, “How might you be protected and delivered from unbelief?  How might your faith be strengthened so that you’re always comforted that God is for you?” 
The answer is as obvious as it is humble: the means of grace—God’s Word and His Supper for you, His baptized children.  These seem like such little things and quaint rites when compared against the fears and pains that trouble can bring, because we are always tempted to view death and destruction as far more powerful than God and His grace.  But if your faith is to be strengthened, go to where God strengthens faith—His Word and His Supper.  God grants you this ongoing diet of heavenly food so that you can be sure that He is for you.       He’s not just for you, as in “on your side.”  He is “for you,” as in “present in His means of grace.” 
You’ll always be tempted to think of the Lord as the football coach on the sidelines, who sends in the play, puts the ball in your hand and then hopes that you don’t get stopped or too hurt along the way.  But the Lord is not simply on the sidelines urging you to victory; He is with you.  He already joined you to Himself in Holy Baptism.  He dwells in you through the hearing of His Word.  He comes to you in His Supper and says, “So that you may be certain that I am for you, here is My body and blood, given and shed for you.”  
God who is for you is also with you.  And because He shares His cross with you, He shares His victory with you.  Therefore, even when assaulted by all sorts of trouble you can be sure: “In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.”  Conquerors—through Jesus Christ. 
I’m not sure what the New Year will bring you.  There will joys.  There will be sorrows.  There will be victories.  And there will be setbacks.  There may well be tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword.  Only God knows. 
But that is the Good News.  God does know.  The Lord is in control.  The Lord is for you.  The Lord is with you.  The Lord loves you.  And because He does, I am sure of this: Nothing in all creation will be able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  You are forgiven for all of your sins. 
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.    

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Put Off the Old and Put On the New

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
I guess you could say that this is literally my day job.  As I await a full-time call to a parish, I work overnights as a support manager at Wal-Mart.  And as you might suspect, this past month has been a zoo.  Extra customers on the floor making it even more challenging to get the freight out so it can be stocked.  Longer lines at the checkout counters and service desks.  Extra freight on extra trucks, some of them running late due to weather concerns.  This isn’t surprising to any of you, I’m sure.  But what might surprise you is content of the freight. 
You see, most of the special Christmas items—the electronic equipment, household appliances, toys, all of that came in weeks ago.  The extra freight that’s been coming in the last month is gearing up for the New Year—for people’s New Year’s resolutions to be more specific.  Workout equipment, pallets full of Slimfast shakes and Nicorette gum and patches, all ready for people looking to quit old habits and to begin new healthy lifestyles—to put off the old and put on the new.    
“Put Off the Old and Put On the New”: a fitting theme for today’s text, Colossians 3:12-17, where St. Paul urges us to put on Christian virtues: compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, love, harmony, peace, and thankfulness. 
We’ll look at those virtues in a few minutes.  But first we need to back up so that we might properly understand the context.  Any passage of Scripture can be taken out of context and misinterpreted, and this one is especially susceptible to abuse.  Taken by itself, this list of virtues sounds like a compilation of New Year’s resolutions that anyone might make—Christian or non-Christian.  Character traits or good habits that I, by my own strength and willpower, resolve to work on and improve to be a better person, to live a healthier, longer, more productive life. 
But this approach ignores one important factor: I, like you, am, by nature, a poor, miserable sinner.  I am dead and blind, an enemy of God, opposed to Him and His Word and His will.  I cannot, by my own reason or strength, believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him.  I cannot pull myself up by my own theological or moral bootstraps, but I’m too obtuse to even realize my helplessness.    
That’s where context comes into play.  Notice how this passage begins: “Put on then…” or also translated, “Therefore, put on…”  Anytime you see “then” or “therefore” you have to know what came before it to correctly understand the text.    “Then” or “therefore” indicates cause and effect, or at least gives a sense of order:  “This is true, therefore it follows that …” or “That happens first, then this happens…”  To see what St. Paul really means, we need to back up a bit.
In the first two chapters of his Epistle, Paul deals quite directly and thoroughly with false teachings that are threatening the Church at Colossae.  He confronts the various elements of that false doctrine with the all-sufficiency of Christ and reminds them of how through the water and Word, they have been made alive in Christ.  In Baptism, their sinful flesh has been put to death in Christ and they were raised with Christ in His resurrection.  They are now children of the Gospel, not slaves to the Law.  So they should not return to the shadows of Old Testament rituals or the lies of those who claim special revelation, but remain centered in the substance that belongs to Christ and Him crucified.
Human traditions and rituals have the appearance of wisdom; but that is all they have.  They lead not toward Christ and salvation; but away from Him and to destruction.  Such human teachings have no value in overcoming sin.  Those who follow them do nothing but indulge their own pride.  The Christian faith is not something that can be reduced to a set of rules or principles for holy or successful living.  The Christian faith is being in Christ; being rooted and built up in Him; being buried, made alive, and raised with Him; walking and living with Him. 
To be sure, we Christians will use God’s moral law as a guide for our lives.  Its perfection is the goal for which we constantly strive, but our striving to keep the Law has absolutely nothing to do with gaining salvation.  Rather it is the result of our being saved, the thankful expression of faith that has found its sufficiency in Christ.  We must not put the theological cart before the horse.  We are not saved by good works or holy living, but saved for good works and holy living.
Having established the foundation for our salvation in the doctrinal portion, Paul follows with a practical section here, giving the Colossians encouragement and advice for their day-to-day Christian living.  As he does, he shows us the vital importance of the connection between what we believe and how we live.  Just as Christ is all-sufficient for our faith, Christ is also all-sufficient for our lives. 
Having been saved through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, we daily drown the Old Adam through contrition and repentance.  We put off all that is of our sinful nature: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, covetousness, idolatry, anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk.  Having been buried with Christ in His death and raised with Christ through the glory of the Father, we set our minds on heavenly things, rather than earthly things. 
By God’s grace, we have been made a special people, a people who belong to God.  We are His “chosen ones,” a name God had given to His people Israel, and a name that most applies to His Son, Jesus Christ—the Chosen One.  From all eternity, God, out of pure grace, chose out of the mass of sinful humanity, all those whom He would call to be His children.  This choice did not rest on any merit or worthiness of any of us, nor was it a matter of some of us being more inclined to believe than others.  Since Adam’s fall, all human beings by nature are equally sinful and spiritually dead.  We are all equally unable to save ourselves or to respond to the call of the Gospel.  But in His undeserved and immeasurable love, God brings it to be that some believe the Gospel and are saved. 
The fact that God has chosen us to be His saved people makes us “holy and beloved,” also designations applied to Israel and to Christ Himself in the Old Testament.  Cleansed by the blood of Christ and delivered from the bondage of sin, we are God’s holy ones.  We are set apart for Him to be the continuous recipients of His love and to be renewed daily in His image. 
Compassion is the first virtue that Paul lists.  This compassion is a deep feeling of affection rooted in the love of Christ.  Clothed with Christ’s compassion, we extend compassion to others, especially to those who are suffering.
“Kindness” is related, but somewhat broader than compassion.  Kindness is a cordial, loving disposition that knows no harshness.  Kindness is shown by believers to anyone, including strangers, whom we can benefit in any way. 
Compassion and kindness lead to humility, the virtue that guides us to strive to place ourselves below others and to put the welfare of others before our own.  Genuine humility is recognition of our own sin and unworthiness and a true appreciation of what God has done for us in Christ.  Humble Christians follow the example of Christ, seeking to serve God and neighbor in self-sacrificing love. 
“Meekness” is also a Christian virtue.  Meekness is not a spinelessness that refuses to take a stand on any principle; it is a quiet strength.  We, who follow Jesus, will always stand firm in Him.  At the same time, we will exhibit gentleness in our dealings with others, suffering injury rather than inflicting it.
Meekness is coupled with patience.  Patient Christians do not bear a grudge and refuse to harbor thoughts of revenge when wronged.  We must always remember that we are sinners living with other sinners.  In spite of all our efforts, there will be sin evidenced.  There will be occasions when we will hurt one another.  But day after day, we bear with one another and help one another lovingly overlook slights and injuries and personality quirks.  We will help one another grow, rather than cruelly tearing one another down. 
And we will cheerfully “forgive each other” as complaints against one another arise, just as Christ has forgiven us.     Jesus teaches us to pray: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  He forgave His enemies from the cross, and on the cross He endured injustice that makes any of the injuries we may suffer at one another’s hands seem minor indeed.  Even now, though we often spurn His love and fail to share it with others, He daily restores and forgives us.  If we understand this, there should never be any question about our willingness to forgive one another. 
Over all these, Paul concludes, put on love, which binds all these virtues “together in perfect harmony.”  Love is the crowning virtue in every Christian’s life, the one without which all the others cannot even exist.  This finds its perfect example and source in Christ.  It is a love of conscious, purposeful self-giving.  It is love extended even to the unloving and unlovable, without discrimination.  This love gives value to everything we do; and it enables us to move forward together as we strive for the goal of perfect maturity in our lives, a goal we will ultimately reach, by God’s grace, in the glory of eternal life. 
“The peace of Christ” is the rest and contentment of those who know Jesus and His forgiving love.  It is the confidence that our Savior, who loves us, will work all things for our good.  This peace, which passes all understanding, is bestowed upon us by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel.  As it fills our hearts, it enables us to be at peace, not only with God but also with ourselves and with one another.
Christians whose hearts are filled with Christ’s love and are ruled by His peace will naturally be thankful.  As our knowledge of Christ and the spiritual blessings we have in Him grow and mature, so will our gratitude; and that gratitude will become evident in our whole manner of living.  Love and peace result in gratitude, and gratitude, in turn, promotes love and peace.
But remember, this is not a “To Do” list; this is a “Put On” list.  We are to put on these virtues.  These virtues are not ours to accomplish but are gifts provided by God.  They are Christ’s virtues, His robe of righteousness, His garment of salvation, exchanged on the Cross for our fig leaves of self-righteousness and filthy rags of works-righteousness.  They were bestowed to us at Baptism.  We simply need to put on them, wrap ourselves in them daily, and continue wearing them until the great and glorious Day He bids us to enter His eternal wedding feast.
This new nature and the virtues it produces are the products of the Holy Spirit’s work through the Gospel.  In order to stand firm and grow in these virtues, we need to maintain continual contact with the Gospel of Christ.  That is why Paul urges “let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly.”  The Scriptures should be more than something that we hear periodically or invite as an occasional guest into our homes.  The Word of Christ should inhabit us continually, filling every corner of our lives with blessed spiritual wisdom, as we spend time in daily prayer and the study of God’s Word. 
Obviously, the Scriptures should especially be the focal point of congregational worship and all of the church’s other activities.  On the basis of the Word of Christ and the divine wisdom it imparts, we are to teach and admonish one another in public and in private.  When the Word dwells in us, we will grow in faith and knowledge and Christian living, and we will be able to encourage one another.  When we ignore the Scriptures or use them infrequently and carelessly, we deprive ourselves of blessings the Lord would gladly shower upon us.
So, put off the old, put on the new.  Clothe yourself in Christ’s righteousness given to you in Holy Baptism.  Daily put to death that sinful old man through contrition and repentance that the new man may arise to live in righteousness and blessedness forever.  Let His peace rule your hearts as you receive Christ’s very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith.  Let Christ’s Word of wisdom dwell in you richly.  Sing thankful songs of praise.  And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.  For Jesus’ sake you have salvation and eternal life and peace.  Indeed, you are forgiven for all of your sins. 
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Reflecting on the Happy Outcome of Bearing Your Cross

"For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men." (Lamentations 3:31-33, ESV)[1]

 Another gem from Starck’s Prayer Book:
Every affliction becomes light when there is hope that there will be a change for the better soon.  A difficult journey becomes short when it is quickly accomplished.  Similarly, the afflicted should bear in mind that their misery will certainly have an end, maybe even in this life (my emphasis added).  It can happen with them just as God turned to their advantage David’s flight, Hezekiah’s sickness, Job’s distress, the widow’s tears, and the paralyzed man’s pains.  Most certainly, however, God will end the cross of the godly and turn it to their advantage at death, for then they shall obtain the crown, the white robe, and the joy of heaven, and He will wipe away tears from all eyes.

The afflicted should bear in mind, when they are saddened by affliction, that their soul is being edified by suffering, for by that means we are led to know the omnipotence, wisdom, love, and mercy of God.  By means of their suffering and their happy outcome, their confidence has been established and their faith strengthened.  And if the love of the world has been extinguished in them by the cross, so that they now become more godly, more devout, more Christlike, more humble, and more meek, they have certainly derived a huge benefit from their cross.  Thus the outcome of the cross remains a happy and blessed one, whether the cross is brought to an end her in time or hereafter in eternity (my emphasis added) .[2]

Borrowing from a Winston Churchill quote, country singer Rodney Atkins offers up this musical encouragement: “If you’re going through hell, keep on moving.”  The Lord God says, “Be still and know that I am God.”  Both bits of advice have their place, but Scripture offers the greater encouragement.  Don’t give up!  But don’t trust in your own strength to get you through this trial.  Don’t forget to rest and trust in the Lord and His strength.  He will help you bear your cross.  He will use your cross to refine, strengthen, and sanctify you.  After all, He has already borne the biggest cross and overcome that one—the one on Calvary where He bore all sin, suffering, and death.  Let His victory over sin, death, and the devil be your victory, and your joy.  That is the hope that lasts to all eternity! 

[1]  The Holy Bible : English Standard Version. Wheaton : Standard Bible Society, 2001

[2] Starck’s Prayer Book: Revised Concordia Edition.  Saint Louis,; Concordia Publishing House, 2009; p.199

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Let It Be to Me According to Your Word

The Annunciation by Caravaggio

The text for today is Luke 1:26-38.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Six months have passed since Gabriel’s announcement to Zechariah the priest that his wife, Elizabeth, will bear a son.  That, in itself is an astonishing announcement, for both are very old, decades beyond normal childbearing years.  It’s the kind of biological impossibility that might make the front page of the National Enquirer—“Elderly Couple Conceives!  Father Speechless!” 
But within the angel’s announcement is even bigger news.  This son, whom they are to give the name John, will, by the power of the Holy Spirit, go out in the power and spirit of Elijah, calling God’s people to repentance and preparing them for the coming of the Lord.  He will be the forerunner of the Christ.
Now the Lord sends His messenger on another mission.  This time Gabriel goes not to the holy city of Jerusalem, but to the backwater town of Nazareth in Galilee, a garrison town in the northern high country, one not even worthy to be mentioned in the Old Testament.  Gabriel goes not to the temple but to a house; not to an aged priest but to a young maiden.  The promised son to Zechariah and Elizabeth is in answer to their many years of fervent prayers; the promised Son to Mary is a totally unexpected surprise to her, even as it is the fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation established before the foundation of the world and His ancient promise of the Seed of the woman who will crush Satan’s head. 
The angel says: “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”  Understandably, appropriately, Mary is troubled.  Wouldn’t you be?  It’s not every day that you see an angel.  I wouldn’t expect to see one in a dozen lifetimes.  I’m not that special.  Neither are you.  Nor really is this humble Nazarene girl who is busy planning her wedding.  There’s not something special about Mary herself.
To be favored, or “graced,” is to be on the receiving end of God’s undeserved kindness.  That’s what grace is, undeserved kindness, without any merit or worthiness in me.  There is no need to make of Mary any more than she is.  No need to make her sinless or to turn her virginity into some sort of credential with God.  She is “favored by God,” fallen daughter of Eve though she is, she is nonetheless chosen by God for this unique honor and responsibility. 
As Mary tries to figure out what this means, the angel repeats, “You have found favor with God,” emphasizing that Mary is the object of God’s favor not the reason for it.  So there is no need to fear, for God is good and gracious.  When He bestows something you can count on it. 
And what will He bestow?  Well, here’s where it gets a little dicier: “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.  And the Lord God will give to Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.”
I’m sure that once she calmed down, Mary heard echoes of the prophets.  She knew her Bible.  She knew the promise to David through the prophet, Nathan, that a son of David would sit on the throne and establish his kingdom forever.  What she finds out here is that out of all the girls in Israel, of all the daughters of Zion throughout history, she has been chosen by God to be the mother of the Promised One, the Seed of the woman, the Son of David, the Son of God. 
Mary’s question is almost comical, a strange blend of na├»ve innocence and childlike faith: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”  You have to love a question like that!  Mary doesn’t doubt that it’s going to happen, she just wants to know the mechanics because, let’s face it, everyone knows that virgins don’t conceive, and when a girl shows up pregnant, there isn’t going to be anyone to believe she’s still a virgin. 
In contrast to Zechariah’s skeptical question, Mary wonders in faith:  “How will this be?”  But even then, Gabriel’s answer requires faith.  For how do you explain “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you?”  Here, my friends, is the mystery of Christmas.  If you can accept this miracle, then you can believe any of God’s other promises.  The infinite God, the almighty Word through whom all things were made and in whom all things hold together, takes up residence in the Virgin’s womb and becomes man.  The Creator becomes the creature.  The fullness of Deity deigns to dwell bodily in the womb of a human mother.  And God embraces and redeems our humanity from its most basic and helpless form, a zygote, all that He might go to die on the cross for the forgiveness of sins—the world’s and yours! 
Martin Luther explains in a very clear and simple way how it happens that Mary becomes pregnant:  “The angel Gabriel brings the Word: ‘Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son…’  With these words Christ comes not only into her heart, but also into her womb, as she hears, grasps, and believes it.  No one can say otherwise, than that the power comes through the Word.”
Mary got pregnant through her ears.  It sounds strange, I know, but it’s true.  She hears the Word and conceives.  And here she stands in counterpart to another woman, the first woman.  Eve hearkened to the lie and she was deceived.  The one who was named “the mother of all living,” brought sin and death and darkness by her doubt and disobedience of God’s Word.  Mary hears the Word, believes it, and she conceives the One who is Life and Light and forgiveness and grace and mercy. 
Mary is a wonderful example of childlike faith.  “Let it be to me according to your Word,” she says.  Now, that doesn’t mean that Mary’s knowledge of God and His Word is limited or unimportant.  You only need to hear her Magnificat to realize that Mary is steeped in the Old Testament psalms and canticles.  She knows her Scripture and Catechism backwards and forwards.
And it doesn’t mean that Mary suspends all reason either.  After all, she does ask, “How will this be?” not “How can this be?”  Mary simply hears God’s Word through the angel and she accepts it as true, no matter how impossible it sounds, because it is God’s Word, and He is totally reliable and able to keep His Word.
Such faith is a virtue, a good work; but it is a good work that God begins and completes in us.  It is a good work that is not planned for in advance, but given spontaneously as a gift.  Faith is not a work that can stand much scrutiny.  It rises up unbidden.  If we start to examine it too closely, it gets weird, even destroyed.  That’s what makes Mary’s faith such a good example.  Hers is a childlike faith, not planned, not examined, but a Word of promise simply accepted for the sake of its Source.  Mary believes because the same Holy Spirit, who, working through the Word, conceives a child in her womb, creates faith in her heart.             
Children have no awareness of the mortgage or utility bills or the cost of groceries.  Children think the places they stay are their houses.  They never wonder if they will have light or heat or food or be safe from harm.  They never consider how those things get to be there in the first place.  They simply expect those things to be there, and that Dad will come home at night after work and love Mom.  That’s faith. 
It is only when something is terrible wrong that children worry about where they will sleep or about bankers or the utilities or if they’ll be safe or that they even consider the possibility that Dad might not come home.  We never think of those things when it comes to our heavenly Father because we live by faith.  It is our experience that God keeps His Word and that He will take care of us. 
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary says.  “Let it be to me according to your word.”  This is not a statement of reason or emotion, but of faith.  Mary doesn’t know how this can all work out.  She simply expects that God will keep His Word, that she will be provided for, no matter how impossible the situation. 
Faith is trust.  God’s children believe.  Like Mary, we believe that God is good and He loves us despite our sins or current situation.  We believe that the Lord keeps His promises.  We believe that His Word is true.  We are like children who understand that our houses are our houses, that He will come back, that He will love the Church, our mother.  We believe that He will be faithful to us, because He has always been faithful and He has said that He will continue to be!   
To be sure, our faith is not perfect.  We have fallen asleep and given in to our sinful flesh.  We have listened to the skeptics, the confused, and the false brothers far too often.  But our faith must not be in our faith—our faith must be placed in the object of our faith, our Lord Jesus Christ and His work and His Word. 
In a way, Mary is also a picture of every baptized believer and so then of the Church.  You, too, are favored by God, a recipient of His undeserved kindness.  The Holy Spirit came upon you in your Baptism, and the power of God working through the Word has shadowed over you and Christ takes up residence in and among you.  He dwells with you by His Word as you dwell in Him by faith.
And the Lord sends His messengers to bring the Good News to you.  No, not angels!  God has appointed pastors to fill that task.  Week after week, He sends to you a flesh and blood redeemed sinner just like you to speak His Word to you.  And the extraordinary Word that he says to you is this: “The Lord be with you.” 
These are pretty much the same words that Gabriel spoke that troubled Mary so.  They may not trouble you at all, but this may not be a good thing, but rather a symptom of the age in which we live.  Contemporary religion likes to keep God good and general and not-too-identified.  That way it’s up to you to determine what He’s like and where He is to be found for you.  So, if you say “The Lord be with you” to the average somewhat-spiritual person, they will respond, “I know that.”  But if you ask them to point, specifically, to where He is, you might get a funny look.  God is considered to be very abstract and vague these days.
But “The Lord be with you” is not a wish, rather it is a statement of awesome truth.  The Lord is with you!  Concretely, bodily for you!  He is as with you here and now as He was with Mary in the womb or swaddled in a manger or preaching on the mountain, or hanging on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins.  The Word made flesh dwells among you.  And where the Word is proclaimed, the Word is present.   
The Lord is with you, and you can point to Him.  Where?  Point to the words of Absolution coming out of the pastor’s mouth.  Point to the font.  Point to the altar.  Point to the chancel and the lectern and the pulpit.  Where the Word is proclaimed, so there is the Word-made-flesh present.  Do not worry that you can’t see Him.  Those who watched Mary’s belly grow couldn’t see that the Baby was the Son of God, but He was all the same.  
You’ve got something better than what your eyes see.  You’ve got the Lord’s promises.  You’ve got His means of grace.  That water is a Baptism, a washing away of sin, that simple words spoken to one another can convey the forgiveness of sins, that bread is the Body of Christ and that wine is His Blood given and shed for you, all these signs are as marvelous and wonderful and out of the ordinary as a young woman conceiving in her virginity. 
What that means for you is that you stand before God justified, graced by His undeserved forgiveness, and with Mary, you say, “Let it be to me according to your Word.”  And you believe this not because you can measure it, taste it, smell it, sense it, rationalize it, or understand it; you believe because the Lord says so, and He always keeps His promises.
Yes, the Lord is with you!  And because the Lord is with you, you are forgiven for all of your sins. 
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Partakers of Grace and Peace, Partners in the Gospel

St. Paul in Prison by Rembrandt
Our text for today is Philippians 1:2-11, which has already been read.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I would guess that you’ve heard many sermons begun this way.  Maybe you’ve heard this phrase so often that you haven’t really taken the time to think about what it means.  It sounds like a churchy greeting, something to break the ice.  Kind of like when someone says, “How’s it going?” or “What’s up?”  But it’s not.  Neither is it a signal for you to settle in and for the usher to turn down the lights.  Nor is it just a statement about the goal of this sermon, although grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ better be the goal of this sermon and every sermon.  And it’s not just a wish or simply information, either. 
So, what is it?  It’s a benediction—a blessing that brings and bestows what it says.  It’s a proclamation of God’s Word—God’s holy and powerful, creative and life-giving Word.  When God speaks, things happen.  And it’s no different here.  God speaks His grace and peace to you, and you receive His grace and peace.
Grace is God’s unmerited favor, the love for the unlovable that moved Him to bring about salvation in Christ.  Peace results from grace.  It is the reconciliation of forgiven sinners with God and with one another.  To speak grace to you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ is to say to you, “Christ has died for your sins on the cross, and now has grace—forgiveness—for you.”  To speak peace from God to you is to say: “Once you were enemies of God, because your sinfulness enslaved you to fight against Him and His Word and His will; and because God is holy and just and must punish sin, He had no choice but to condemn you.  But Christ took that sin upon Himself and received your condemnation and paid for it with His holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death.  And since that sin is paid for you have been declared holy and righteous.  You are at peace with God.”
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  It’s a blessing—God’s powerful Word delivering what it says.  Think of God saying, “Let there be…” and there was—light, land, life, and every created thing in heaven and earth out of nothing but that Word.  Think of Jesus saying to the dead man, “Lazarus, come forth.”  And because that Word delivers life, Lazarus comes out the grave.  Think of Jesus saying to the blind beggar, “Recover your sight” and the man sees.  Finally, think of the risen Lord saying to the disciples in the locked room, “Peace to you.”  He’s not saying, “Calm down.”  He’s saying, “I’ve died for your sins so that you might be a peace with God.  Peace to you.”  And by that blessing, He delivers peace to them, and authorizes them to pass on that peace.
Like Paul, we pastors speak Christ’s Word and blessing to you: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”  It’s not by any special power that pastors have; it’s the Word of God and His work.  By this blessing, here is grace and here is peace to you, for you.  For each of you individually and all of you (all of us), corporately, as the Body of Christ.    
Which brings us to the next main point: It’s this grace and peace, won by Christ and freely given to us that binds us together.  St. Paul continues: “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all, making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the Gospel from the first day until now.”  Paul enjoyed an excellent relationship with all the congregations that he served with the Gospel.  Still, there was something special about the church in Philippi, a congregation the apostle himself calls “my joy and crown” and whom he remembers with joyful thanksgiving to the Lord.
Among those memories: (1) The special way in which the Lord had called him to bring the Gospel to that area—the night vision and the urgent call to come to Macedonia.  (2) The first Christian worship service on the European continent, with a little group of Jewish women who met along the riverbank on the Sabbath. (3) Lydia, who had opened her home for the missionaries to stay and for the infant church to meet.  (4) There was also Paul’s imprisonment in Philippi, the miraculous midnight deliverance, and the subsequent conversion of the jailer and his family.  (5) The generous gift the Philippians had sent to support his Gospel work.  (6) And the glowing reports Paul continued to receive about the Philippians’ faith, love, and loyalty.  In all this, Paul sees God’s gracious hand at work, bringing them into a wonderful partnership with the apostle and all other believers.
Nevertheless, this partnership isn’t necessarily obvious to the eye.  Paul is, after all, an apostle, while the Philippians are laymen, still just learning the ABCs of Christian doctrine.  So they have different callings and levels of knowledge, but they are partners in grace because they are saved by Christ’s death for them.  But there’s another reason that this partnership is not apparent: Paul isn’t with them as he writes.  He’s in prison, perhaps in Rome, already facing a martyr’s death. 
But the difference in locations and situations is not enough to divide them: Paul writes that they “are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the Gospel.”  In Christ, as partakers of His grace and partners in His Gospel, Paul and the Philippians are together though separated by many miles and the confines of prison.
Across the span of nearly two thousand years, and several thousand miles, this grace and peace define us, too.  For by the grace Jesus died to win for us, He brings us out of the dark and into His light.  He transforms us from enemies of God to citizens in His kingdom, from slaves of sin to children of God and heirs of heaven.  Because His grace has so saved and changed us, we are at peace with God.  And by His grace, we strive to be at peace with one another.  By this grace and peace, we are partners in the Gospel—brought together by the forgiveness Jesus has won.  In other words, we are together partakers of grace.  That is what makes us the body of Christ, the one holy Christian and apostolic church. 
Like Paul and the Philippians, we will all have different callings and responsibilities, different gifts and talents, different social and financial status, different trials and strengths, different levels of success and failure as measured by the world; but we are altogether partakers of grace, partners in the Gospel.
 This unity is important for us to remember as we strive to live in a culture that is so individualized.  We are not and must not be “Lone Ranger” Christians.  We share a Gospel partnership with all other Christians.  Our worship life, our mutual support of the Lord’s work at home and abroad, our encouragements to one another to Christian living, are all expressions of that partnership.  But too often we tend to regard our congregational and synodical memberships too lightly.  We are inclined to look upon these partnerships not as precious blessings but as tiresome burdens and obligations.  Seeing ourselves as partners in the Gospel would make our whole spiritual lives more positive and joyful.
How?  For one, it should help define our worship.  Worship should not be targeted to a segment of the people of God, but to the body of Christ.  This is not a service that’s designed for a certain sub-culture of Christians, or as a marketing niche for seekers.  It is the Divine Service for partakers of grace and partners in the Gospel.  And it is an invitation to all others who hear to be brought in as well.
We are partakers of grace together.  Beware of the devil’s temptations as he seeks to rob you of this joy.  Your old sinful flesh may tempt you to get grumpy and say, “This worship style isn’t for me.”  That’s true.  It isn’t just for you—it is for all of us together.  It’s not designed to target personal likes to sell you something, but to proclaim that together we are partners in the Gospel. 
In addition, you can be sure that as we are together the Lord is giving forgiveness to all—and specifically to you—no matter what else is happening.  The little one who is fussing can be distracting, sure; but by Holy Baptism, he is your fellow partaker of grace.  So is the adult who dozes off during the sermon. 
Now, I’m not justifying distractions (especially sleeping during the sermon), but when we are distracted, our initial reaction is annoyance, maybe anger.  This is too easily the devil’s tool to get you to stop listening to grace and peace.  By God’s grace, we will remember that we are partners in the Gospel, and for the sake of harmony we will find it possible to overlook many things in love, even as we trust that God’s Word is delivering His grace and love despite the distractions. 
This partnership in the Gospel also has implications for the relationship between pastors and hearers.  Like Paul and the Philippians, we each have different vocations and callings.  Pastors are called by God to preach His Word and administer His Sacraments publicly on behalf of the Church.  You are called to receive God’s grace, and then go out into the world sharing it as part of the priesthood of all believers.  Together, we work as partners in the Gospel.
This partnership in the Gospel extends beyond this congregation as well.  We are fellow partakers in grace with all Christians, we pray for Christians all around the world, especially those persecuted for the faith we proclaim so freely.  The Christian man who is literally crucified in the Sudan for confessing Christ, and the Christian woman who is forcibly defiled and sold into slavery in Egypt—these are your brother and sister in Christ.  Just as status and calling, time and space, do not bind us together, neither do looks nor language—partaking of the grace does. 
This is also true when we disagree with the doctrine and practice of other Christians.  We remain partakers in grace with them so long as we and they do not forsake the Gospel.  It is, after all, the Gospel which unites us, not denominational affiliation.  Thus, we regard all Christians as fellow partakers of grace.  In love, of course, we point out where others have adopted teachings which disagree with Scripture, or have abandoned God’s means of grace, even as we hope others would do the same for us.  We grieve when fellow Christians—and fellow Lutherans—adopt practices which cause further division within the Church.  We pray that our brothers and sisters in Christ would likewise regard as us partakers of grace, and thus not infer offense from our practice when none is intended.  Through it all, by God’s grace, we strive to remain uncompromisingly faithful to the Word, because that is where true Christian unity is found. 
It is no small feat to stay focused on the grace and peace that Christ gives, or to maintain that partnership in the Gospel.  Remember, sin isolates and divides.  And the devil hates no gathering worse than the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints.  He will do all he can to destroy this partnership and unity at all levels—among individuals, congregations, synods, and the Church throughout the world.  To preserve this partnership is beyond our abilities—it is truly only by the grace of God.  And He maintains the body of Christ by those gifts of grace and peace, His means of grace, for we are in need of this grace continually. 
In Baptism, He says to you: “I forgive all your sins.  If you die or I return today, you’ve got all that you need.  Eternal life is yours.”  However, because we’re daily tempted to sin, the Lord keeps giving us that grace and peace—all that you need again and again.  By His Word of Law and Gospel, He calls you to repentance and faith.  He instructs, reproves, corrects, forgives, and encourages.  In His Supper, He give you His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith.  In His Word of Absolution, He speaks to you His Word of grace and peace through His called and ordained servant.
Heaven is yours now; and on the Last Day, it will be yours, fully realized, because you will be there.  That is Paul’s other great encouragement from our text: “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”  The good work that God began in you was salvation, not just a good start to salvation.  This work will be completed on the Last Day: not that you have incomplete forgiveness now, but that on that day you will be in heaven—and sin and the temptation to abandon the faith will be no more.
The Day of Jesus Christ is coming: that’s the tie-in to our Advent theme.  Christ has come, winning grace and peace by His death on the cross.  Christ will come again to fulfill all things, to make your salvation complete.  In the meantime, He is not far away—He is as near as His Word, preserving you by His means of grace as partners of the Gospel and partakers of grace until His return. 
Therefore, dearly beloved fellow partakers in the grace of God and partners in the Gospel, I speak this blessing to you once more today: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  You are forgiven for all of your sins.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Into the Wilderness

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