Sunday, December 29, 2013

Rachel's Hope

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The text for this first Sunday after Christmas is Matthew 2:18: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
So, how was your Christmas?  I dare say, far better than Rachel’s.  Far better than the mothers of Bethlehem who grieve the death of their baby boys.  So, whose idea was it to put this dreadful text into our readings for this Sunday?  Where’s the quiet pastoral scene with adoring shepherds, and lowing cattle, and the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay?  The wise men bearing gifts for the Child?  Where’s the peace on earth, good will toward men?  The tidings of comfort and joy? 
Alas, Rachel weeps!  She refuses to be comforted, because her children are no more.  Worse than that, the Rachel here is not one, but many.  Rachel was the wife of Jacob, the father of Israel, and her grave lies near Bethlehem.  As a mother of Israel, the women of Bethlehem are poetically her daughters; and who will comfort them now that their children are no more?
I will tell you this right away, lest you be disappointed.  This is a haunting text, and this is a funeral sermon for the worst of situations.  It will be hard to comfort these mothers, and they will still be mourning when we leave them.  But when we are done, though they mourn, it will not be as those who have no hope.
The story is as straightforward as it is grotesque.  Herod is king of Judea, a deranged tyrant consumed with keeping his throne.  He was married once upon a time, and his lovely wife gave him two sons.  To make sure that they would not overthrow him, Herod had all three put to death.  The evil of this act alone has led Caesar Augustus to say, “I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son.”  Even though Herod is not really a Jew, the pig has a much longer life expectancy.
The wise men come to Herod and say, “Where is He who is born King of the Jews, for we have seen His star in the East.”  This is what Herod dreads most—a potential rival to the throne.  He is troubled, and therefore, so is all of Jerusalem with him.  Herod interrogates the wise men, commands them to find this king and report back.  When they flee the country he is furious.  That’s when he makes his choice.  His own life will be better if this Baby does not live.  So he’ll kill every little boy in Bethlehem less than two years old just to make sure. 
The soldiers go out and do exactly that, and it’s all perfectly legal, because Herod makes the law.  And if it’s legal, it’s got to be all right, right?  But Herod fails to kill Jesus, because Jesus’ time has not yet come.  An angel warns Joseph and by the time the soldiers arrive, Baby Jesus is safely on His way to Egypt.
But that is little consolation the following day around Bethlehem.  A voice is heard—weeping and loud lamentation as these daughters of Rachel weep.  They refuse to be comforted, and what shall we say—“Don’t cry”  “It’s going to be okay”?  Such phrases are so trite and futile as to be patently offensive.  It’s not going to be okay.  They weep for their sons who are no more.
There is no comfort that will take away their mourning; but there is comfort that will give them hope even as they grieve.  The “Slaughter of the Innocents” fulfills the prophecy from Jeremiah 31:15.  But don’t miss the two verses that follow: “Thus says the LORD: Refrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for your work shall be rewarded, says the LORD, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy.  There is hope in your future, says the LORD, that your children shall come back to their own border.”
“Your children shall come back to their own border,” promises the Lord.  But how can this be?  It can be because this Child is chosen by God for the world’s redemption.  His journey to Egypt is part of His journey to the cross, so that, despite the sin and evil of the world, there is the hope of eternal life after death. 
But not all are saved, so how can these mothers be sure that God’s redemption is for their sons?  The answer may surprise you.  For them at that time, the answer is circumcision.  In the Old Testament, the Lord declared that baby boys were to be circumcised on the 8th day of life; and that mark meant that they were part of Israel, part of God’s holy people (Genesis 17:10f).  So, in the midst of that unimaginable grief, there was this hope of the mothers: “My son was circumcised, and there God promised that my son belongs to Him.  Although he is not here with me, I’m sure that my boy is with the Lord.”
And what if, Herod’s soldiers happened to kill a baby boy who was less than 8 days old?  There was still hope.  David and Bathsheba’s first son died on the seventh day, yet David said he would go to be with him (2 Samuel 12:23).  You see, while the child might die before the Lord’s plan for man could go into effect, God is not helpless or uncaring.  The people would commend the child to the Lord’s mercy, because God is a merciful God.  There is no way to make this text into a cheery one, for nothing can remove the horror of Herod’s slaughter.  But there is hope.  Even on that day of death, the Lord was faithful to those sons; and He was faithful to them for the sake of His only-begotten Son.
So before we go on, we note a few things from this text.  First, Scripture clearly teaches that rejection of the Lord leads to death; and truly, death awaits us all.  However, it is also true that the more one rejects the Lord, the less one values His gift of life; and the more one is apt to permit, even pursue, the death of others.  Hideous though it be, Herod chooses to kill little children to make sure that his life and throne are not jeopardized, even though Christ was never a threat to him.
Second, it is important to note that although God allowed this evil deed, He did not purpose it, nor is He ever the cause of evil.  That is why Matthew writes: “Then was fulfilled what was spoken…” (2:17) instead of his usual formula: “that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled (2:23). 
“The only other time Matthew writes this way is in 27:9, regarding the money paid Judas for betraying Jesus—another evil deed that God foreknew, but did not purpose” (Matthew 1:1-11:1, Gibbs p.143).  God is not the author of evil, but nevertheless is able to use all things for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purposes.  This includes the death of our loved ones.
Third, we note the remarkable faithfulness of God.  Herod’s crime is despicable beyond words, but not at all uncommon.  Anyone who pictures biblical times as the “good old days” is seriously mistaken.  Wars were fierce, conquerors were brutal, and sinful man put little value on human life at any stage.  Yet, true to His promise, God still sent His Son into the world, knowing full well that sinful man would crucify Him, too.  And then, the Lord used His Son’s death not as further justification for destroying mankind, but for man’s salvation.
With that in mind, we remember this day the “Holy Innocents, Martyrs,” those little boys who were victims of Herod’s sin.  They are innocent in the sense that, though conceived and born in sin, they committed no crime against Herod that deserved death.  They are martyrs, because their deaths testified to the hatred that sin has for life, and more importantly pointed to the Innocent One who would die for the world’s sin.  And because of Jesus’ death, they are holy.  They are redeemed, forgiveness surely given them in the Old Testament rite of circumcision. 
Rachel still weeps as we leave the text, but she is not without hope.  For the sake of Christ, there is hope…hope that her children shall come back to their own border, the kingdom of heaven, where they will live forever. 
There’s nothing worse than the death of a child.  The grim horror of death is never more terrible than when it takes a young life, and it is something I don’t even like to talk about.  Still, it does happen; and it would be foolish to pretend that it doesn’t.  But we speak of it for a better reason: Even when death strikes, we have hope to offer those who grieve—hope that will not disappoint.
It is here, dear friends in Christ, that you and I give special thanks for Holy Baptism.  Circumcision was of the Old Covenant, and that mark upon baby boys pointed to the seal of Baptism for both boys and girls.  By Holy Baptism, the Lord washes away the sins of even the smallest infant.  He shares His death and resurrection with that child; and no matter how long or short that child’s life in this world, the Lord has already given him or her eternal life.
There is no command to wait even eight days, and one can be baptized as soon as he or she is born.  That’s why I encourage parents to have their children baptized as soon as possible.  Because, no matter how hard we try to protect our children, we don’t know what tomorrow brings.  This is why I give thanks for the gift of Holy Baptism.  No matter what happens today or tomorrow, the Lord has given my children and grandchildren forgiveness and faith and eternal life by water and the Word.  I’ve no doubt that a tragedy of that enormity would shatter me for life; but that hope of Christ’s Word and promise will stand for eternity.
This is the comfort and hope that we gently offer to those who suffer the loss of a child: Christ was born to redeem all nations—little children included.  He promises forgiveness and faith and life, and He gives these gifts in Holy Baptism.  Are you baptized?  Then He has given them to you.  Do not forsake this precious gift, for there is eternal life.  This is why, as soon as possible in this unpredictable and dying world, we urge parents to get their children to the baptismal font.
Still, there will be parents who must grieve the death of a child who never had a chance to make it to the font.  I speak of a child who is miscarried or stillborn, or one who is born but dies unexpectedly before Baptism.  There is still hope for such children as these, too.  As we mentioned with the son of David and Bathsheba earlier, the Lord is still able to save such a one.  He binds us to His means of grace, but He does not limit Himself to them.  Therefore, when a child dies before Baptism is possible, we commend such a one to the mercies of God.
This is part of His unsearchable judgments, and we have no clear Word from the Lord.  However, the Lord is merciful; and while David certainly could not call in any favors from the Lord because of his own righteousness, he still declared that he would go to his son, whom the Lord had saved by His mercy alone.  Those who have lost a child before birth or Baptism may still look forward with hope to meeting that one in the Lord’s presence.  However, where you are able to baptize the child, then by all means do.  It is far better to say, “My child is certainly forgiven by means of Baptism” than, “As far as I know, the Lord will have mercy.”
The death of unborn children leads us to one more subject that we cannot ignore, given the story in the Gospel lesson today.  In our own nation, millions of innocents are robbed of life by medical procedure before they are ever born.  I speak, of course, of the wickedness of abortion.  Boiled down to simplest terms, the justification for abortion is much like Herod: “I don’t want this child, and I choose to have my life without this child.”  Now, with the “morning-after pill,” abortion is available without prescription at your local pharmacy, along with cough drops and aspirin.  Infanticide is available over the counter, off the rack.  If it was better to be Herod’s pig than his sons, it is apparently much safer to be a whale or spotted owl than it is to be an unborn human being these days.  Lord, have mercy.
“That’s different!” you might hear.  But not all that different.  In both cases, the law of the land permits the taking of innocent life.  And perhaps our current situation is more reprehensible, besides the sheer numbers involved.  In Matthew 2, those boys (estimated to be between 10-20) died because of one tyrant’s madness.  In 2013, over 1 million boys and girls will die in our nation alone, and it is permitted ostensibly because it is “the will of the people.”  We Christians are sometimes criticized for making abortion a “litmus test” of society.  That is fine with me.  This issue reveals whether one sees life either as sacred or disposable, and that will have a profound effect on all that you are.
There is one other thing that makes today’s situation even worse, though you will not hear about it in the news coverage.  Abortion robs its victims of the opportunity for Holy Baptism!  Not only does it rob a child of life in this world, but it seeks to rob that child of eternal life.  The Lord desires to share His death and resurrection at the font with each one for whom He has died on the cross; man destroys the child before he ever has such a chance.
Even then, however, we offer this comfort.  Where man in his wickedness deprives unborn little ones of opportunity for Baptism, the Lord remains merciful.  Once again, this is a matter of His secret things (Deuteronomy 29:29) and unsearchable judgments (Romans 11:33); but we commend such children to the merciful Lord who saved David’s son on the 7th day, praying that He would gather them into His loving arms forever as a hen gathers her chicks.  The Lord is merciful, and the Lord is faithful.  That is the hope that will not disappoint. 
As this sermon draws near to an end, you may feel a bit more saddened than when you arrived.  Perhaps you will even experience the pangs of unresolved guilt, remorse, shame, or grief.  The sadness, however, is not the fault of the Gospel; it is a recognition of the death wish of the world.  But where sadness comes, cling to the Gospel all the more, for it will not disappoint.  Not now, not ever.  Even should we be given to endure the grief of a child’s death, even if we suffer the guilt over past choices, Christ’s life remains for such little ones and for us. 
You see, Christ died for all sins; Jesus is Savior for everyone.  Jesus died for Rachel who weeps: the Rachel suffering barrenness or miscarriage; the Rachel who now realizes the guilt and shame and sense of loss because of her choice; the Rachel who doesn’t yet realize her loss or feel its hurt.  Why, Jesus even died for wicked old King Herod, and all the other men who have encouraged the death of the little ones for their own selfish reasons.  Jesus comes into such a culture of death, bringing forgiveness, salvation and life—eternal life. 
There is your comfort.  Death will, at times, strike the cruelest of blows; but death is already defeated in Christ, who raises both young and old to everlasting life.  That life is given to the people of God, to you and to your children, with such simple words as these: “I baptize you—and thus forgive you all of your sins—in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  Amen

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Gift of Christmas Presence

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The story is told of a man and his son.  For the weeks and days before Christmas, the son kept pestering his father, saying, “Dad, what are you going to get me for Christmas?”  Hard to believe for you parents, I know.  “I want this” and “I want that” and “What are you going to get me?”
Finally, the father said, “Son, stop saying that.  Christmas isn’t about getting.  It’s about giving.”
The father was pleased when he saw his son quietly thinking about this.  Perhaps he was learning the real meaning of Christmas.  Then the boy asked quite seriously: “Dad, on Christmas, what are you going to give me?”
Thanks to Old Adam, our sinful nature, we have a way of messing up the whole idea of gifts.  Gifts are, by definition, undeserved.  A paycheck is not a gift because you’ve done the work to earn it.   A bonus is not a gift, because—even though it’s more than you usually earn—you’ve still worked to earn it.  A gift is a gift because nothing has to be done to earn it.  Likewise, a gift has no strings attached.  When someone gives a gift and thinks, “If I give A, then they’ll do B,” it isn’t really a gift.  It’s a payment made in anticipation of compensation. 
So, you see, in a perfect world, people only give gifts because they want to, with absolutely no expectations.  They say, “I’m giving this gift freely; and even if they throw it away after burning it to ashes, I’ll love them just the same.”  And, I suppose, in a perfect world, people receive gifts with thanks and contentment for what they have, not disappointment and jealousy for what they didn’t get.  But we do not live in a perfect world, do we?  We live in a fallen world, and we are not immune to its temptations.  Within this sanctuary tonight, there is, without a doubt, a man who is reasoning, “If I give her this, then maybe she’ll do that.”  There is a woman thinking, “If I give him this, maybe he’ll stop doing that.”  And there are some who have reasoned, “I can get that gift if I keep bugging them until they get sick of the hassle and buy it for me.”  All such thoughts indicate that you are interested in getting, not giving.
So here we are on Christmas Eve, and Old Adam is hard at work.  In this sinful world, few, if any, gifts are ever given with absolutely no strings attached.  Few, if any, gifts are received with true graciousness and no suspicion.  If Christmas is about gifts between people, then disaster lurks just beneath the surface.  And all of this shows us how much we need a Savior.
That’s why, on this night, I declare to you that Christmas is not about gifts.  It’s about presence.  Not presents as in gifts, but presence as in being there.  It’s the phenomenal reality that Jesus Christ dwells among us, as one of us.  It’s the surprising news that the eternal, almighty Lord God wore diapers!
The birth of a baby in Bethlehem is not life-changing news.  Babies get born all the time.  And as the world laments that far too many children are born in poverty, it makes no sense that this birth should bring us hope or comfort or joy—so poor is this family that the Baby’s first bed is a manger, a cattle trough! 
But this is not just another baby.  The virgin has conceived and borne a Son, and His name is Immanuel, “God with us.”  The Son of God, begotten of the Father from eternity, has become flesh and been born of Mary for you.  Where you were born in sin, He is born holy to redeem you.  Where you could not live without sinning, He lives a perfect, righteous life so that He can give you the credit for it.  Where you deserve death for your sins, He dies your death and rises again three days later—so that He can share His death and resurrection with you in Baptism.
And what is the cost to you for this great sacrifice?  Nothing.  Nothing at all.  Jesus does all the work and demands nothing in return; it is pure gift to you.  He is the perfect Giver, giving the perfect gift.
I know that many Christians spend a lot of time rightly trying to keep Christmas a Christian holiday rather than the cultural, consumer-driven season it’s become.  That’s good!  But I have to disagree when they say “Jesus is the reason for the season.”  As Adriane Dorr Heins, the managing editor of The Lutheran Witness, recently pointed out: “Jesus is not the reason for the season.  You are!  Jesus didn’t become incarnate for Himself.  He did it for you.”
The Son of God comes to take on your flesh, to take your place in life and death so that you could have life everlasting.  He does it freely, willingly, not expecting anything in return.  He certainly doesn’t need you to set aside a day to satisfy His ego.  Worship is not for His sake; it is for yours!  For it is there in His Word and Sacraments that He comes to you with His best gifts—forgiveness, salvation, eternal life, His very presence. 
Look in the manger.  That Baby is born for you, given to die for you, to redeem you from sin for eternity.  Risen from the grave and ascended to the Father’s right hand, He remains present even now, forgiving you in His Word and Sacraments.  I guess Christmas really is about receiving, even more than giving! 
I pray that you have a blessed Christmas.  One in which Christ is truly the center.  May each gift you give or receive be a reminder of the great gift of God’s Son for you.  And where selfish expectations or disappointment or jealousy creep in, make the sign of the cross and say, “It is because of this sin that Christ was born for me!  He came to dwell among us to take my place and save me!”
That’s the great gift of Christmas—the gift of His presence.  Where you are selfish, Christ is selfless.  Where you are resentful, He humbly bears your sin.  Where you attach strings, He freely pours out grace upon grace.  Where you, by nature think, “What is it going to cost me?” He says: “It’s all a gift of My mercy and grace.  I’ve done it all for you!  All so that you might be forgiven for all of your sins.”  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Genesis of Jesus (2.0)

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The text for today is our Gospel lesson, Matthew 1:18-25.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
“This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.”  So begins our text.  Actually, the Greek word translated as birth is “genesis,” the same word used for the first book of the Bible.  Depending on its context, the word can mean “birth,” “genealogy,” “beginning,” or “origin.” 
We know from Scripture that as the Son of God, Christ had no beginning.  He’s at the Father’s side from eternity.  But we also know that as a human being He had a beginning, and it’s this origin the evangelist relates.  Matthew tells us of the way the Messiah assumed human nature and took upon Himself our flesh. 
No other person had an origin in this way.  Oh, yes, the origin of Adam was wonderful: “God formed the first man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7).  But the origin of the second Adam is even more spectacular; “He was conceived by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary.”
Matthew places us at the moment when the miracle involved in the human origin of the Messiah becomes apparent to human eyes.  “[Jesus’] mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.” 
No doubt, Joseph was happily looking forward to the festive day when, with his friends, he would go and bring his wife to his home.  But before that happened, Mary was found to be with child.  Her situation was not only delicate, but distressing and humiliating.  Even though Mary knew herself to be innocent in this regard, and was fully convinced that her condition was due only to the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit, she couldn’t expect anyone else to believe her defense.
It seems likely that Mary had revealed nothing to Joseph of the angel’s message and of her submission to the will of God.  The angel had directed her to go to her relative Elizabeth in the hill country, and she had quickly gone.  So as far as telling Joseph was concerned, Mary left it all in God’s hands.  This act of absolute reliance upon God is all the more admirable as we realize her situation.  An engaged woman, if found unfaithful, could be punished with death.  Mary had absolutely no means of proving her purity. 
The virgin birth through the Holy Spirit is an important doctrine, upon which our whole text hangs, indeed, everything else that the New Testament reports concerning the Word made flesh.  You see, either the eternal Son of God entered humanity through the Holy Spirit as Matthew tells us, or He didn’t.  If He didn’t, if Jesus was an ordinary human being born from an illicit affair, or even Joseph’s natural son by an act of forbidden union, then we, who call Him Savior are putting our hopes in one who cannot save himself, much less us and the world.
Joseph faced a difficult dilemma.  He was a righteous man, a respecter of the Law, which was especially strict and uncompromising on infidelity.  Therefore, Joseph could not think of completing his marriage to Mary under the perceived circumstances.  But at the same time, he did not wish to expose Mary publicly and thus heap disgrace and shame upon her.  He truly loved her, and was torn with grief because of what his eyes saw in one whom he had always found a model of purity.  And so, his love and mercy, and his sense of righteousness were put to a severe test.
Two courses of action were open to Joseph.  The one harsher—to charge Mary with adultery and to make her a public example, letting Jewish law take its course.  The gentler course was to make use of the lax divorce laws of the day, and quietly give Mary a letter of divorce.  Joseph had resolved to take the milder course. 
And at this point God intervened in behalf of the mother of His Son.  “An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’”
In taking Mary as his wife, Joseph would not compromise himself, condone sin, or do anything hurtful.  On the contrary, by bringing his wife to his own home, Joseph would do God’s will.  He would serve God’s Son, protect the mother of his Lord, and show himself a true son of David. 
Joseph’s role then becomes one of mirroring Christ: He takes the death penalty away from Mary by marrying her.  Isn’t that how the New Testament describes us, we in the Church, as the Bride of Christ?  It’s as if Joseph was going to present Mary to himself “in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any other blemish—holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:27).  And that’s how Joseph will come to see Mary (at least after the angel explains the whole situation to him).
But the real point which changed Joseph’s mind about divorcing Mary is found in the angel’s statement: “because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”  This child was not the result of an adulterous affair, but of the Holy Spirit, begotten by deliberate intervention of God. 
Joseph’s fears are dispelled even more when the angel adds: “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give Him the name Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.”  By giving Him His name, Joseph would publicly recognize and formally adopt Jesus as his own legal son.  Such naming was customarily the responsibility of the father.  Only in this case, the choice of names was not just left to Joseph, for he is under a far higher Father who Himself attended to this important task.  God the Father first named His Son, “Jesus,” a name that means “Yahweh saves” and describes the very essence of His person and work.  As the angel explains: “He will save His people from their sins.” 
“He will save His people from their sins.”  That is the end and object of His coming.  That alone is His mission.  He, and no other, only He, completely saves.  He brings full pardon, free salvation, complete deliverance, not only from the pollution and power of sin, but also from the guilt of sin.  This is the Gospel message, not that Jesus makes allowance for sin, but that He has made atonement for it.  Not that He tolerates sin, but that He destroys it.
“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’–which means, ‘God with us.’”
Jesus’ genesis was no coincidence, but was fully planned by the Lord in eternity and announced centuries before through the prophet Isaiah.  The Lord promised a sign to King Ahaz in order to assure him that the enemies of Israel would finally be overthrown.  In this sign, the Lord had in mind the spiritual Israel and its enemies—sin, death, and the devil—from whom the Messiah would deliver.  Now seven hundred years later, the sign was to be given and the prophecy fulfilled.  The virgin chosen by God was now about to bear a son.  And everyone who would know Him and accept His salvation would call His name Immanuel, “God with us.”  In the son of Mary these words are fulfilled.  He is God Himself. 
“When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.  But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son.  And he gave Him the name Jesus.” 
This is the genesis of Jesus.  If you think about it, it seems like a rather inefficient, if not dangerous plan, doesn’t it.  Why would God use human beings—fallen sinners at that—as His instruments to bring the Savior into the world?   Couldn’t He have used His holy angels?  Couldn’t He have just sent a full grown Jesus to earth?  And if He had to be born, why did Jesus have to be born of a virgin who was engaged, or betrothed, to be married? 
Well, we know that Joseph gave legitimacy to Mary.  After all, he was a descendant of King David, from whom the Scriptures prophesied the Messiah would come.  But it was more than that, much more!  God was also making a theological point that He wants us to get.  The Law would consider a woman in Mary’s position—being pregnant and unmarried—as an adulterer.  According to the Old Covenant Law, adultery carried the sentence of death.  So, based upon how it looked, Mary had earned herself the death sentence.
It was in the Lord’s mercy and wisdom, then, that He chose a young, betrothed, virgin to be the mother of Jesus, and Joseph to be His foster father.  What a great privilege and joy!  But it also meant a great degree of misery and hardship, because it meant the Mary and Joseph would both lose their good reputations.  They would look to all the world like just another couple who got too caught up in their emotions and hormones before the wedding night.  A stigma much harsher in heir day than in ours.  But nevertheless, they accepted their roles willingly, for they looked in faith to the One who would take away all our reproaches and give us purity and life eternal.
That encourages us when we bear hardship or difficulty.  Instead of thinking that God has abandoned us, we can remember that God is working through the events of our lives—the embarrassing ones, the inconvenient ones, even the bad ones.  St. Paul writes: “We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God and have been called according to His purposes” (Romans 8:28). 
So much for the genesis of Jesus.  Now I have a question particularly for you parents.  Do you remember what it was like when you found out you were expecting a child?  Do you remember the first time you held your son or daughter?  (Pause) If you were like me, you suddenly realized how unfit for the task ahead you really were.  You felt so incapable of the great responsibility ahead.  
Imagine how Joseph and Mary felt.  They were sinful human beings, and this was God’s holy Son, the Savior of the world for whom they were now responsible.  Though He is the infinite, almighty Creator of heaven and earth, He had allowed Himself to be confined in a human body.  Not only that, his human body was small and helpless and reliant upon them for sustenance and life.
Jesus went through all the same stages of physical human development as you and I.  He started as a zygote, implanted in Mary’s womb, when she received the angel’s surprising news.  Then as a clump of cells, a blastocyst, while Mary traveled to her relatives, and His cousin John leaped for joy in Elizabeth’s womb.  Within three weeks of His incarnation, Jesus’ heart was beating, pumping His holy precious blood through His own enclosed circulatory system.  If EEG’s had been available, brain waves could have been detected at less than eight weeks.  By the time Mary ended her three month stay with Elizabeth, all His basic body systems were in place and He needed only to grow and develop until He was born. 
During this whole time, Jesus was certainly very vulnerable.  Ultimately of course, God the Father was responsible for His Son’s care and welfare.  But He chose to use a human mother and father for carrying out this task on a daily basis.  If you think about it, God could’ve used His holy angels for this important task just to make sure there were no mistakes.  But the heavenly Father chose Mary and Joseph—a simple carpenter and his young virgin bride-in-waiting.  They were to feed His Son and burp Him and change His dirty diapers and show Him love. 
It goes to show you just how highly God regards His human creatures.  Instead of the archangel Michael and his mighty host, God chose Mary and Joseph to protect the infant Christ from Herod’s insane rage, and to kiss His owwies when He got hurt.  Instead of angelic messengers, God had Mary and Joseph teach the Incarnate Word the stories and lessons from Scripture and to impart the wisdom that comes from His holy Word. 
As He does for you and me in our various vocations, God also promised Joseph and Mary that He worked in their weakness.  Though His angels, for the most part, would be hidden in the background, they would still intervene to help keep Jesus safe.  Mary and Joseph could always come to the Father in prayer and search His Word for guidance.  When Jesus’ giftedness went beyond their own understanding, God would supply them with patience and faith.  After all, this is the Savior through whom God planned our salvation in eternity.  What is more, when they failed, God gave Joseph and Mary something even more important—forgiveness!  Forgiveness for the sake of His Son, Jesus of Nazareth!
Forgiveness: That is the reason God so loved the world by sending His only begotten Son.  Jesus becomes human in every way, except sin, through every stage of life, from virgin’s womb to borrowed tomb, so that when He dies His death, He can give you His life.  That’s what the angel Gabriel meant when he said, “Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will give birth to a son, and you will name Him Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20-21).
That’s the salvation you need.  That’s the salvation that becomes reality on Christmas, when the infant God in human flesh comes for all the world to see.  Jesus becomes one of us, only much better, the perfect human being, sinless and perfect, to save you from your sins and defects.  He comes to live within your heart through His Gospel message, the preached Word you hear with your ears.  He comes to you in the bread and wine of His Supper, giving you the holiness and life in the very body and blood that He brought into the world by His Incarnation.   He brings you absolution from the mouth of His called and ordained servant.
Through each of these means of grace, your Savior Jesus comes bringing you forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.  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

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Genesis of Jesus



The text for today is our Gospel lesson, Matthew 1:18-25, which has already been read.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
“This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.”  So begins our text.  Actually, the Greek word translated as birth is “genesis,” the same word used for the first book of the Bible.  Depending on its context, the word can mean “birth,” “genealogy,” “beginning,” or “origin.” 
We know from Scripture that as the Son of God, Christ had no beginning.  He’s at the Father’s side from eternity.  But we also know that as a human being He had a beginning, and it’s this origin the evangelist relates.  Matthew tells us of the way the Messiah assumed human nature, and took upon Himself our flesh. 
No other person had an origin in this way.  Oh, yes, the origin of Adam was wonderful: “God formed the first man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7).    But the origin of the second Adam is even more spectacular; “He was conceived by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary.”
Matthew places us at the moment when the miracle involved in the human origin of the Messiah becomes apparent to human eyes.  “[Jesus’] mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.” 
No doubt, Joseph was happily looking forward to the festive day when, with his friends, he would go and bring his wife to his home.  But before that happened, Mary was found to be with child.  Her situation was not only delicate, but distressing and humiliating.  Even though Mary knew herself to be innocent in this regard, and was fully convinced that her condition was due only to the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit, she couldn’t expect anyone else to believe her defense.
It seems likely that Mary had revealed nothing to Joseph of the angel’s message and of her submission to the will of God.  The angel had directed her to go to her relative Elizabeth in the hill country, and she had quickly gone.  So as far as telling Joseph was concerned, Mary left it all in God’s hands.  This act of absolute reliance upon God, is all the more admirable as we realize her situation.  An engaged woman, if found unfaithful, could be punished with death.  Mary had absolutely no means of proving her purity. 
The virgin birth through the Holy Spirit is an important doctrine, upon which our whole text hangs, indeed, everything else that the New Testament reports concerning the Word made flesh.  You see, either the eternal Son of God entered humanity through the Holy Spirit as Matthew tells us, or He didn’t.  If He didn’t, if Jesus was an ordinary human being born from an illicit affair, or even Joseph’s natural son by an act of forbidden union, then we, who call Him Savior are putting our hopes in one who cannot save himself, much less us and the world.
Joseph faced a difficult dilemma.  He was a righteous man, a respecter of the Law, which was especially strict and uncompromising on infidelity.  Therefore, Joseph could not think of completing his marriage to Mary under the perceived circumstances.  But at the same time, he did not wish to expose Mary publicly and thus heap disgrace and shame upon her.  He truly loved her, and was torn with grief because of what his eyes saw in one whom he had always found a model of purity.  And so, his love and mercy were put to a severe test.
          Two courses of action were open to Joseph.  The one harsher, to charge Mary with adultery and to make her a public example, letting Jewish law take its course.  The more gentle course was to make use of the lax divorce laws of the day, and quietly give Mary a letter of divorce. 
Joseph resolved to take the milder course.  And at this point God intervened in behalf of the mother of His Son.  “An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’”
In taking Mary as his wife, Joseph would not compromise himself, condone a crime, or do anything hurtful.  On the contrary, by bringing his wife to his own home, Joseph would do God’s will.  He would serve God’s Son, protect the mother of his Lord, and show himself a true son of David.  But the real point which changed Joseph’s mind about divorcing Mary is found in the angel’s statement: “because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” 
This child was not the result of an adulterous affair, but of the Holy Spirit, begotten by deliberate intervention of God.  Joseph’s fears are dispelled even more when the angel adds: “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give Him the name Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.” 
By giving Him His name, Joseph would publicly recognize and formally adopt Jesus as his own legal son.  Such naming was customarily the right and responsibility of the father.  Only in this case, the choice of names was not just left to Joseph, for he is under a far higher Father who Himself attended to this important task.  God the Father first named His Son, “Jesus” a name that means “Yahweh saves” and describes the very essence of His person and work.  As the angel explains: “He will save His people from their sins.” 
“He will save His people from their sins.”  That, is the end and object of His coming.  That alone is His mission.  He, and no other, only He, completely saves.  He brings full pardon, free salvation, complete deliverance, not only from the pollution and power of sin, but also from the guilt of sin.  This is the Gospel message, not that Jesus makes allowance for sin, but that He has made atonement for it.  Not that He tolerates sin, but that He destroys it.
“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’–which means, ‘God with us.’”
Jesus’ genesis was no coincidence, but was fully planned by the Lord in eternity and announced centuries before when He spoke through the prophet Isaiah.  The Lord promised a sign to King Ahaz in order to assure him that the enemies of Israel would finally be utterly overthrown.  In this sign, the Lord had in mind the spiritual Israel and its enemies—sin, death, and the devil—from whom the Messiah would deliver. 
Now seven hundred years later, the sign was to be given and the prophecy fulfilled.  The virgin, the one designated and chosen by God was now about to bear a son.  And everyone who would know Him and accept His salvation would call His name Immanuel, “God with us.” 
In the son of Mary these words were fulfilled.  Her son is God Himself.  In His person the Almighty Lord is with us, not according to His condemning justice, but according to His loving kindness and tender mercies.
“When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.  But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son.  And he gave Him the name Jesus.” 
So much for the genesis of Jesus.  Now I have a question particularly for you parents.  Do you remember what it was like when you found out you were expecting a child?  Do you remember the first time you held your son or daughter? 
(Pause) If you were like me, you suddenly realized how unfit for the task ahead you really were.  You felt so incapable of the great responsibility ahead.  
Imagine how Joseph and Mary felt.  They were sinful human beings.  This was God’s holy Son, the Savior of the world for whom they were now responsible.  Though He is the infinite, almighty Creator of heaven and earth, He had allowed Himself to be confined in a human body.  Not only that, his human body was small and helpless and reliant upon His own creatures for sustenance and life.
Jesus went through all the same stages of physical human development as you and I.  He started as a zygote, implanted in Mary’s womb, when she received the angel’s surprising news.  Then as a clump of cells, a blastocyst, while Mary traveled to her relatives, and His cousin John leaped for joy in Elizabeth’s womb. 
Within three weeks of His incarnation, Jesus’ heart was beating, pumping His holy precious blood through His own enclosed circulatory system.  If EEG’s had been available, brain waves could have been detected at less than eight weeks.  By the time Mary ended her three month stay with Elizabeth, all His basic body systems were in place and He needed only to grow and develop until He was born. 
As any of you know who’ve experienced a pregnancy—either personally or vicariously—during this whole time, Jesus was certainly very vulnerable.  Ultimately of course, God the Father was responsible for His Son’s care and welfare.  But He chose to use a human mother and father for carrying out this task on a daily basis.  If you think about it, God could’ve used His holy angels for this important task just to make sure there were no mistakes. 
But the heavenly Father chose Mary and Joseph—a simple carpenter and his young virgin bride-in-waiting.  They were to feed His Son and burp Him and change His dirty diapers and show Him love.  It goes to show you just how highly God regards His human creatures.  Instead of the archangel Michael and his mighty host, God chose Mary and Joseph to protect the infant Christ from Herod’s insane rage, and to kiss His owwies when He got hurt.  Instead of angelic messengers, God had Mary and Joseph teach the Incarnate Word the stories and lessons from Scripture and to impart the wisdom that comes from His holy Word. 
As He does for you and me in our parental vocation, God also promised Joseph and Mary that He would fill in their weakness.  Though His angels, for the most part, would be hidden in the background, they would still intervene to help keep Jesus safe.  Mary and Joseph could always come to the Father in prayer and search His Word for guidance.  When Jesus’ giftedness went beyond their own understanding, God would supply them with patience and faith.  After all, this is the Savior through whom God planned our salvation in eternity.
In a way you could say we’re witnessing another “genesis” this day—the “genesis” of Risen Savior Lutheran Church.  And I’d like you to consider some of the similarities to the genesis of Jesus our Savior.  For one thing, this new church —like the baby Jesus—is also strange mix of the human and divine.  The body is made of people, human flesh and blood, but the force that gives it life is the Holy Spirit, who calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies through Word and Sacrament.
From a human standpoint, it started out as a thought, a prayer, and a hope.  Perhaps a church could be planted in Tea, a place and a people at which, in which, to which, and from which, the Gospel would be preached and taught.  Then, a tiny cell group of people started meeting for Bible study.  After some time, that group, supported by the South Dakota District of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod decided to start holding Sunday worship services.  Trinity Lutheran Church agreed to share the time and attention of their pastor.
As we met here at the Tea Elementary School gymnasium in God’s presence at 8:00 a.m. on Sunday, March 7, 2004, all of the basic body systems of a church were present.  We had an assembly of saints gathered around God’s Word and Sacraments.  All that was left to do before being born was to grow and develop. 
As we’ve been meeting, you’ve been steadily growing and developing.  I’m not talking strictly about numerical growth, though, by the grace of God, that has happened, too.  I’m speaking about growth in faith and hope and love.  I’m speaking of individuals developing into functioning members of the body of Christ.  God has equipped you with leaders, teachers, and lots of loving, caring people who aren’t afraid to grab a paint brush or bake potatoes, or do most anything else to show love to God or your neighbor.  He has given you a thirst for spiritual growth and a burning desire to share your faith. 
In a manner of speaking, this last nine months has been the prenatal period.  But today, you’re privileged to witness the official birth of this church, which you’ve given the name Risen Savior Lutheran Church, as it is received into membership in the SD District of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. 
But you are not just witnesses of this blessed event, you are also participants.  God has placed the daily responsibility for this infant church into your hands.  Like Mary and Joseph, who were given charge of God’s Son, you are to care for God’s church here at Risen Savior.  You are nurture it with the good stewardship of your time, talent, and treasures.  You are to watch over it and protect it and give comfort to any of its bodily members who may get hurt.  You are to see that God’s Word is taught and preached to His children of all ages.  You are each, in a way, the adoptive parents of this infant church.
Do you feel scared?  Do you wonder if you are up to the task ahead?  Do you worry you might not be capable of the great responsibility that God is placing in your hands?  (Pause) Good!  Because you’re not!  I’m not!  We’re sinful men and women, called to watch over God’s holy church.  Just as Joseph and Mary were not of themselves fully capable or worthy of the great responsibility of parenting the Savior of the world, none of us is capable of the work to which God has called us here, either. 
Thanks be to God that He has promised to prepare us and equip us for the task ahead with His Word and Sacraments.  In Baptism, we are given the Holy Spirit who calls us to faith, cleanses us of our sin, teaches us God’s will and Word, and enables us for godly living.  In the Lord’s Supper, we are fed Christ’s very body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our faith.  God’s Word of Law shows us our sins and leads us to repentance.  His holy Gospel brings us forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.
No doubt there are many challenges that lie ahead for this little baby, Risen Savior Lutheran Church.  But by God’s grace, you will be ready to meet them because the Holy Spirit has called you to faith and equips you for service.  Your Savior Jesus Christ has saved you.  And for His sake, you are forgiven of all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen
Now may the peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.  Amen.

Christ Is Coming in Weakness, but with a Powerful Key



The text for today is 1 Peter 3:18-22: “For Christ also suffered once for sins… being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit… who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to Him.”  Here ends the text.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Lord Acton of England once said that power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Isn’t that true about power as we see it?  Those who don’t have it want it; and those who have it abuse it.  The powerful may have started out with good intentions, but sooner or later, that same power corrupts them.  Just read the newspaper and you’ll find plenty of examples in governmental agencies and large corporations.
But the corrupting influence of power is not confined to Washington, D.C. or Wall Street.  We all want control and power, don’t we?  We all want the power to tell our boss the project we’re working on won’t work.  We want the power to make it rain on our crops.  We want the power to keep the kids from fighting!  We may even want the power to take care of the disadvantaged and promote global peace.  But when we do get that power, how do we use it?  The road to hell is paved with good intentions for the use of our power.
Tonight we look at two more of Advent’s “O Antiphons.”  This time it’s stanzas 4 and 5 of our hymn “Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel.”  The first antiphon describes Christ as the Root of Jesse.  The second says He’s the Key of David.  Both of these antiphons speak of Christ’s authority and power.  But they also show how God’s understanding of “power” is not the same as ours.  In fact, God’s power looks for all the world like total weakness.  But God’s power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). 
I suppose, before we go too far, we should ask: “Who is this Jesse?  And why is Jesus called his “Root?”  Well, actually, Jesse is not mentioned very many times in the Bible, but the few times he is, it is very significant.  Jesse’s claim to fame is that he is the father of David, the great king of Israel, and so all the kings descended from David likewise come from his line.  And that line of kings, including David and Solomon, lasted for about four hundred years—a lengthy dynasty from historic perspective.  But then it was cut off, at least as far as kings actively ruling in Jerusalem.  Oh, the physical line of descendants continued, but they were no longer reigning as kings.  Other powers took over the nations: first Babylon, and then Persia, followed quickly by Greece, and then Rome.
And so the royal line of kings was cut off.  It was like a tree being cut down.  What was left looked like a dead stump.  Could another king come from that dead stump?  Not a chance!  But that’s exactly what our antiphon is talking about when it says, “O Root of Jesse, standing as an ensign before the peoples, before whom all kings are mute, to whom the nations will do homage.”  Unexpectedly, after all worldly hope is exhausted, a king will come, a descendant of Jesse, before whom the nations will bow down. 
David, who reigned over Israel about 1,000 years before Christ, ended up being quite a powerful king himself.  He was surrounded by growing empires, but he ruled over a growing and prosperous nation that was respected by the other nations around him.  In fact, if there’s one king of Israel that the average Christian knows by name, even if he hasn’t been in church in years, it’s King David. 
We tend to remember David for his power.  But he hadn’t been chosen for his leadership abilities.  He wasn’t an obvious choice for king by any stretch of the imagination.  In fact, he was the young, “artsy,” least promising son of the Israelite, Jesse.  The Lord directed the prophet Samuel to look for a king in Jesse’s household.  And Jesse didn’t even think to bring David out for a look! 
When it was left up to Israel to pick a king, they had picked Saul.  They had judged by his appearance.  He was tall and good looking.  He had an air of authority about him.  But that had been a disaster.  So God would select His own man, “a man after His own heart.”  He elected a king that no one would have thought of: David.  David became the first ruler from “Jesse’s stem.”
Christ is called the Root of Jesse.  It could have said, “Root of David,” but instead it takes it one step back from David, back to Jesse.  This is to say that the new king will not just be another descendant of David; He will be a whole new David, a new and eternal King, even better than David, even more powerful than David.  David 2.0, if you will.  So many of the Davidic kings fell short, including David himself.  Some were downright evil, their hearts far from God and His Word.  But there would be no mess-ups with this King.  He will far surpass them all.  And so will His kingdom surpass any previous kingdom of this world.
          This Son of David, Jesus of Nazareth, was not an obvious choice to be King, either.  Scripture says of Him, “For He grew up before Him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; He had no form or majesty that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him.  He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we esteemed Him not” (Isaiah 53:2-3, ESV).
Jesus wasn’t born in a palace, but a barn in Bethlehem.  He wasn’t born into power and wealth, but into a poor, obscure family from Nazareth.  He didn’t rise to the throne, but ended His life nailed to a cross that stood between two thieves.  But that is the way Christ established His kingdom—through His suffering and death.  You see, His is not your run-of-the-mill earthly kingdom.  Asked by Pilate if He was the King of the Jews, Jesus replied: “My kingdom is not of this world.  If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would have been fighting that I not be delivered over to the Jews.  But My kingdom is not from the world.”
Christ’s power didn’t mean He commanded troops and counselors and a court, giving orders all day long.  Christ’s power was revealed in His suffering and death.  He did not inherit in some earthly way the throne of David.  But like David, He was elected by God’s special choice.  In that way, He’s not a branch of David, but a root from David’s obscure father, Jesse. 
One of the church’s earliest pastors, just a few decades after Christ’s resurrection, put it this way: “The scepter of the majesty of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, appeared not with pomp of pride or arrogance, though well He might, but in humility” (Clement of Rome, 16.2).  That’s how God’s power works.  Not the way we think of power, with armies and money and prestige, but in weakness. 
You see… our worldly power doesn’t get us very far.  Every earthly kingdom falls—from without or within.  Every military power is eventually defeated.  Financial security is fleeting.  Just a few years ago almost everybody’s 401K dropped to half its value almost overnight.  The economy is so sluggish that the only way the unemployment numbers have gone down is that so many people have just taken themselves out of the job market.  Billions of dollars that our federal government doesn’t have were printed to bail out financial institutions that were deemed too big to fail.  China holds IOUs that they could call in any day.  The housing bubble burst.  Millions of people defaulted on mortgages they should have never taken out in the first place.  And when’s the last time you saw an infomercial where some smart man or woman tells you that they can teach you how to make gobs of money flipping houses using borrowed money?       
What did all that financial power gain?  Nothing of any good, that’s what.  Unemployment.  Disillusionment.  Despair.  Depression.  Insecurity.  Hopelessness.  That’s the way worldly power works.  It hardly ever makes things better.  It usually ends up making things worse.
King David found out the same thing.  Once he became well-established as king, his power went to his head.  Even David, who the Lord said was a “man after His own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14), ends up sleeping with another man’s wife and having the man killed to cover up the sin to boot.  Talk about an abuse of power!
Yes, David used his power to accomplish a lot of good.  Yes, he tried to worship the Lord faithfully.  But in sinful human hands, any authority and strength end up being abused.  The more power—even godly, divine power—the more our sinful nature twists it for its own ends.  So who could ever wield the tremendous power it would take to undo sin and death and not be completely corrupted?
Only God Himself could do it.  Only God could wield all the power David was meant to have for good.  Only God would use such authority selflessly, instead of selfishly. 
That’s what the Key of David antiphon is all about.  It’s about authority, and who’s using it, and how he’s using it.  That’s the “key” to understanding this antiphon.  Keys are used for opening and closing things.  If you’ve been given the key to something—a door, a building—that means you’ve been entrusted with a certain amount of authority.  If you’ve been given the key to the city, that means you’ve been given the run of the town.  An officeholder holds the keys, so to speak, to exercise the powers of that office in a responsible manner.  And so, to say “the key of David” means that someone is exercising the powers that David did. 
Our O antiphon describes the Key of David as a ruler of great authority and power: “You open and no one can close.  You close and no one can open.  And then it pleads: “Come and rescue the prisoners who are in darkness and the shadow of death.”  That’s an impressive King.  Certainly like no other kings, greater than any of the Davidic kings, greater than even David himself.  Here is a case where the man exceeds the office and takes it beyond what it has ever been before. 
We meet Him in the only New Testament passage where the specific term “Key of David” is used.  In one of the letters to the seven churches in the Book of Revelation, this one identifies Himself, basically quoting Isaiah 22: “The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.”
This, of course, can only be the risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ.  He holds the key of David in a much greater and glorious way than any king ever did.  This is the same Lord Jesus Christ we meet in Revelation 1.  There we see what it is that He holds the keys to, and how He gained that authority.  John sees “one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around His chest,” who says to him, “Fear not, I am the First and the Last, and the Living One.  I died, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.
Dear friends, see the authority of your Savior.  See how He gained it and how He uses it!  If we had had Christ’s power, what would we have done with it?  Probably struck down our enemies, first of all.  If you and I had Christ’s power, would we have let the Jewish leaders hand us over to death?  Would we have let Pilate waffle and give in to their demands?  Would we have let our enemies have their way?  I doubt it!  We would have encouraged our disciples to pick up their swords.   We would have called down the legions of angels to wipe them all out.
 But Christ did no such thing.  He used God’s power perfectly, in peace, in kindness, out of love.  The One who is “the first and the last,” that is, the almighty, eternal Son of God, came down from heaven, emptied Himself of His rights and His honor, humbled Himself, and died.  Yes, that is who the man, Jesus is—God in the flesh dying on the cross.  He did that for you.  That was His saving mission, to rescue mankind from their sins, by dying in our place.  His blood, shed on our behalf, purchases your forgiveness.  He has the authority to forgive sins, and He does.
And so, by His death, by His taking away our sins, Christ Jesus took away the power that Satan held over you.  Death and Hades are conquered and defeated; they are powerless to hold you any longer.  They lie vanquished at the feet of the mighty King.  Christ’s own resurrection proves this.  It shows us what Christ has won for us.
Now, the same Christ who suffered and died, has now “gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God.”  That’s how Peter puts it in his first Epistle (3:22).  Peter goes on to write that “angels, authorities, and powers [have] been subjected to Him.”  That means that heaven is now open to Him.  That means that heaven is now open to you! 
Christ has opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.  He opens your prison doors and sets you free from your dark, dank dungeon of death.  He brings you out into the light and freedom of His everlasting kingdom, full of life.  The path of misery you were on has been closed, and now you have been set to walk on a new road, the path of life.  The way ahead is open and clear, with Christ Himself leading the way.  For His sake, 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

"Christ in the Wilderness" by Ivan Kramskoy Click here to listen to this sermon. “The Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out ...