Sunday, January 27, 2013

They Spoke Well of Him and Drove Him Out of Town

Click this link to listen to an audio version of this message.


Jesus Unrolls the Book in the Synagogue by James Tissot

The text for today is our Gospel, Luke 4:16-30, which has already been read.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
We have in our assigned readings for today examples of one of the longest sermons in Scripture and the shortest.  Ezra reads the Book of the Law of Moses “from early morning until mid-day”—a period of about six hours.  Jesus reads two verses of Isaiah and preaches a one sentence sermon.  When Ezra finishes, the people bow their heads and worship the Lord with their faces to the ground.  When the people in the synagogue hear all Jesus has to say, they are filled with wrath, rise up, and drive Him out of town, so that they can throw Him down the cliff.
It would seem that in ancient days the longer the sermon, the better it is received by the hearers.  But I somehow suspect that would not be the case today.
So, what is going on here?  The Old Testament Reading takes us to a remarkable and beautiful event.  All the people of God are assembled and attentive as they hear the Book of the Law of Moses read by Ezra at the Water Gate in the rebuilt city of Jerusalem.  As he finished, “Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen,’ lifting up their hands.  And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.”
How do we explain this spontaneous delight in Moses’ words?  How could the reading of the first book of the sacred Scriptures bring immediate worship and confession of the Lord as God?  Can you imagine such a reaction in our day?  Such joy and reverence?  Indeed, what is your response when you hear God’s Word?
Let me suggest that Scripture should be just as captivating and exciting for you as it was for Ezra’s audience.  Why?  Because the content of Scripture is so wonderful and so true.  Here, God tells us how things really are, and through His self-disclosure all of humanity is invited into a rich relationship with Him.
Ezra’s people, hearing God’s Word that day, learned again that God had not abandoned them; He did not forget His promises.  Even though Adam and Eve fell, and all of their children continued in their rebellious, idolatrous ways, God still had not left them, but invited them to repent and return to life with Him. 
Ezra’s audience heard afresh about the promise of the woman’s Seed, who would reverse the curse and consequences of Adam and Eve’s rebellion.  They heard how that promise continued to be God’s gracious plan of deliverance through Seth, through Shem, through Abraham, and through Judah.
They were reminded how God had delivered Israel from Egyptian captivity and caused His glory to dwell with them in the tabernacle.  Even the sacrificial system was instituted with its attendant priesthood to provide forgiveness for the people’s sins, moreover to foreshadow the full and complete forgiveness won by Christ, the fulfillment of all Old Testament types and prophecies. Indeed, as Ezra’s people listened and worshiped, they were surrounded by gracious signs of God’s abiding presence with them: the second temple, Zion’s restoration, and the rebuilt walls of Jerusalem.  God had brought His wayward children home after decades of exile!  No wonder they rejoiced and humbly worshiped the Lord. 
Contrast this reaction to the people of Jesus’ hometown, Nazareth.  It is the Sabbath Day, and as is His custom, Jesus goes to the synagogue.  Jesus reads to the congregation from Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to proclaim Good News to the poor.  He has sent Me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
It’s a well-known passage—all about the Messiah who will come someday.  When the Lord sends His anointed Savior, He will preach and heal and set free.  For centuries and generations, devout worshipers have heard this text, praying that some day the Savior will come fulfilling this prophetic Word. 
You can understand, then, why it causes quite a stir when Jesus goes on to say, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  With those words, Jesus has just proclaimed: “I am the Messiah.  The time has come.  The Savior that Isaiah prophesied is standing right in front of you, fulfilling Scripture as I speak.” 
No wonder the room is buzzing.  Could it really be?  On the one hand, they’ve heard some stories about what Jesus has been doing in the villages around, and many are excitedly wondering if He is, in fact, the Savior.  But on the other hand… He’s Jesus.  He’s Joseph’s kid.  Could He really be the Messiah?
And what does He mean by saying, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”?  They’ve heard Him speak, but Isaiah talked about miracles, too.  The Messiah gives sight to the blind, relieves the oppressed, and sets the prisoner free.  But so far, Jesus is all talk and no action around His hometown.  If He’s going to call Himself the Messiah, then He’d better back it up with some proof. 
Jesus addresses their concerns: “Doubtless you will quote to Me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal Yourself!’  What we have heard You did at Capernaum, do here in Your hometown.’”  Then He says, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown.”  And He reminded them of Elijah and Elisha, two prophets who had been rejected by Israel, but who did miracles among the Gentiles.  This was just too much.  Filled with wrath, the synagogue full of worshipers who all spoke well of Him, now drive Him out of town. 
Two sermons—two completely different reactions.  Upon hearing the Word of the Lord read by Ezra, the people bow their heads and worship the Lord with their faces to the ground.  After Jesus reads the Word and adds a very brief commentary, the people rise up to kill Him.  Where does Jesus go so wrong?  What does He say that so offends His listeners—that they go from speaking well of Him to attempting to throw Him off a cliff?  Is Ezra a better preacher than Jesus?  Is Jesus not able to clearly communicate His point? 
No, they understand all too well; the problem is that they do not want to accept what Jesus has to say.  They reject Him and His Word.  I would submit to you that there are three reasons for this.  First, they perceive that Jesus is claiming to be the Messiah, the Son of God.  But they, of course, know better.  “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they ask one another.  There are rumors after all.  Even back in ancient days, the folks in small towns know how to count backwards nine months.  There is, at least in some people’s minds, this unsettled question of paternity; but certainly the Lord God is not at the top of the list of prospective dads.
Unfortunately, the people in Nazareth that day don’t have St. Luke’s Gospel for guidance.  Already in the first four chapters, the evangelist has taken great pains to establish that Jesus is, in fact, the Incarnate Son of God. 
In Luke 1, the angel Gabriel tells Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (v. 35). 
When they find twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple, Mary says, “Son, why have You treated us so?  Behold, your father and I have been searching for You in great distress.”  And Jesus respectfully corrects her: “Why were you looking for Me?  Did you not know that I must be in My Father’s house?” (2:48-49). 
In chapter 3, Jesus is baptized, and a voice from heaven gives His Fatherly approval: “You are My beloved Son; with You I am well pleased” (vv 21-22).  Then we have the genealogy beginning: “Jesus…being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph…” continuing with “the son of David…” through “the son of Abraham…” ending with “the son of Adam, the son of God” (23-38).
Then, in Luke 4, in addition to our Gospel for today, Satan questions Jesus’ paternity as he tempts Him to depart from God’s ways: “If You are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread… throw Yourself down from here” (vv 3, 9).  And even the cast out demons get in on the act, crying: “You are the Son of God.”
Jesus is the Son of God, the Anointed One that Isaiah prophesied.  But His hometown will have none of it.  Their curiosity quickly turns to outrage.  And I strongly suspect it would for us, too, especially if we’d watched Him grow up.  It’s hard enough to believe that Jesus is God in the flesh; it’s downright scandalous when you’ve watched the Word made Flesh grow up right before your very eyes. 
“Familiarity breeds contempt,” we say.  And that’s why “no prophet is acceptable in his hometown,” the second reason for offense.  How could Jesus grow up in this dense community and they somehow not realize that there is something different about “Joseph’s son”?  The surprising answer is this: holiness can be hidden.  Jesus’ divinity can be so completely buried beneath His humanity so that there is nothing to identify Him as anything other than fully human. 
And then there is this matter of miracles—or rather the lack of local miracles—the third and perhaps most damning offense in their eyes.  “Talk’s cheap, prove it.  Do miracles like the one you did in Cana, here, too!”  This speaks to our wrongheaded and wrong-hearted notions.  Miracles are not for believers, but for unbelievers!  They are for those who do not have the Word.  The Nazareth synagogue had the Word.  They had just heard the prophetic Word spoken to them by the Incarnate Word Himself.  What more could they possibly need? 
What more do we need?  Oh, we think we need more.  Remember, the old Adam is a religion junkie of the first order.  He loves those signs and wonders, which, as Jesus reminds us, can even deceive the elect.  Signs and wonders are nice, but they won’t save you.  Only God’s Word of love and grace can!
Jesus knows what we really need.  Yes, He does miracles for the fringes, for those dwelling in darkness, for those who do not have Moses and the prophets.  Jesus does miracles for His fellow Israelites—healing the sick, cleansing the lepers, raising the dead.  But they point to something greater.  Miracles are not an end in themselves; and when they become that, they become a form of idolatry. 
The greatest thing that could be said was said in the Nazareth synagogue: the Scripture has been fulfilled in the ears of people.  The Word of God has hit its target.  The Spirit of God is seeking to work faith through ears renewing minds and hearts.  That’s something a miracle can never do.
They want proof.  But Jesus offers no proof.  They had the prophets; they had Moses; they had the Word of the Lord.  That’s more than enough.  That is the one thing needful.  Jesus reminds them that there were many hungry widows in Israel at the time of Elijah, but only the widow at Zarephath had her oil and grain multiplied.  There were many lepers in Israel, but only Naaman the commander of the enemy Syrian army was cleansed in the Jordan River.  You would think that Israel had an inside line on miracles, but you would be wrong. 
When bad things happen to believers, we ask: “Where is God, and why doesn’t He do something?”  And that’s the mistake of unbelief, my friends.  He has done something.  Something much more significant and far reaching than any isolated miracle here and now.  Jesus has died on a cross, bearing humanity’s sin, the world’s brokenness, the curse of the Law, every disease known to man, even death itself.  He bore all of that one time for all time, one Man for all humanity.  Miracles pale in comparison to the cross.  In fact, miracles all point to the cross and find their source in Jesus’ death.  Every miracle costs Jesus His life.
Miracles are for one person only, the recipient of the miracle.  And if you don’t get yours, you’re disappointed, right?  Mad even?  The cross is for everyone without exception.  Miracles are temporary, a Band-Aid applied to a wound; the cross is eternal, the cure of Death itself.  Miracles treat the symptoms; the cross deals with the cause.  Miracles cannot save you; the cross does save you.  Miracles do not forgive sins or give eternal life; the cross is your forgiveness, life, and salvation.  You can survive a drought of miracles; in fact, you can go an entire lifetime and never experience one.  But you cannot survive a famine of the Word.
Thanks be to God!  You have the Word!  You have the Word, as surely as that day Ezra read and the priests preached.  You have the Word, as surely as the people did that day Jesus preached at the synagogue in Nazareth.  You have the Word in your Baptism, God’s signature seal upon you that you are His and He is yours.  You have the Word in the Absolution, that forgiving Word preached into your own ears, fulfilled in your hearing.  You have the Word of Christ in His Supper, speaking to you: “My Body given for you… My blood shed for you.” 
You have the Word in greater richness and abundance than any generation before in the history of God’s people.  And it is the singular evidence of our own sinful condition and the old Adam in us that we value it so little that we do not flock to hear and receive it; that we, like the Nazareth synagogue, would often rather throw Jesus down a cliff than deal with His Word.
Faith comes by hearing the Word.  Your faith comes by your hearing the Word of Jesus.  And that Word is here for you today, seeking its fulfillment in your hearing.  By the Word of Jesus, you are healed.  By the Word of Jesus, your faith is created and sustained.  By the Word of Jesus, you have freedom from sin, from death, from the devil, and from the damning sentence of the Law.  Indeed, by the Word of Jesus, 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, January 20, 2013

Good News for the Desolate and Forsaken

Click this link to hear an audio version of this sermon

The text for today is our Old Testament lesson, Isaiah 62:1-5, which has already been read.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Imagine a prisoner, sitting chained in a dark dungeon for years.  The hopelessness, the loneliness, the desolation, the feeling of being totally forsaken by everyone, including God.  Nothing could be sadder, could it?
Actually, it could be sadder.  It is sadder.  Because what this prisoner doesn’t realize is that she is not alone.  The darkness has kept her from seeing that there are many other sisters and brothers right there all around her.  The silence—hers and that of her fellow captives—has kept her from realizing that she is not alone.  Many others are held in the same chains. 
And to make matters even worse, the darkness and silence have kept all of them from realizing that the doors to their prison were flung wide open long ago.  They’ve sat silently enduring this feeling of desolation and forsakenness because they didn’t realize that their release had already been secured, their chains loosed.  They would have only needed to step out of the darkness, and their own shouts of gratitude would have alerted the others that their release had been won.
What could bring such darkness?  What could leave such silence?  Sin and the effects of sin—guilt and shame, anger and despair.  It could be any sin, but particularly today, as we are observing the Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, I want to speak about the sin of abortion.  Yes, abortion is political and controversial.  But, at its core, it is a sin, deserving of God’s wrath and condemnation.  But it also a sin for which the penalty has already been paid.  Jesus is the Lamb who was slain for the sins of the world.  By His blood He atones for the sins of all people.  His blood cleanses us from the stain of every sin and gives us a good conscience. 
That’s why we are compelled to speak out today.  We dare not remain silent.  While we are very clear to declare that abortion is not an unforgivable sin, we also make it clear that it is sin!  Abortion destroys, in very brutal ways, 3,000 times a day in this country, a tiny human life.  Abortion destroys a life gifted and created by God.  Abortion destroys a life for whom Jesus was born and died.  Therefore a Christian cannot legitimately defend abortion as a right or a good choice.       
But as tragic as this fact is, those little babies are less than half of the victims of abortion, though understandably, they get almost all of the attention.  I speak today on behalf of the millions of women and men who have been left desolate and forsaken because of this sin.  I do this, knowing that since 75% of those who’ve had an abortion are professed Christians, there could very well be someone listening today who has been affected by abortion.  You may feel like the people Isaiah was talking to when they realized the gravity of their sin: “We hope for light, and behold, darkness, and for brightness, but we walk in gloom” (59:9b). 
If that describes you, if that describes any of you because of any sin in your life, God has Good News for you today!  If you have had an abortion or pressured someone into an abortion, I’d especially like to talk with you right now.  You other sinners can listen in because we all need to hear this; but we don’t talk about abortion much in church and so those struggling with this sin and its effects don’t always hear the Good News applied specifically to them.  But I hope that you are hearing it today!  Take what you are hearing personally.  God’s restoration of the sinner is a complete restoration.  No matter what that sin!
You are precious to God, like a royal diadem—a crown of beauty, a badge of honor.  You may feel like you sit in darkness, but you walk in the light.  You may feel forsaken, but you are God’s delight.  It may seem like you are desolate and alone, but you are married, joined to God by His great love for you.  Indeed, He rejoices over you as a bridegroom over His beautiful bride.
Yes, this is Good News.  So stunningly good we are compelled to ask, “How can this be?” 
It comes as God’s gift through His Son Jesus Christ.  God restores us as “royal diadems” by emptying Himself of His divine royalty and taking the form of a servant.  God restores us as “crowns of beauty” by impaling His Son with a crown of thorns and nailing Him to a cross.  The blood that flowed from that cross cleanses the blood on our hands because of sin and our toleration of sin. 
This Good News comes as a gift from God through Jesus.  The only reason we can be called “My Delight” is because God made His Son in whom He delighted the Forsaken One.  God placed all of our unspeakable and idolatrous sins upon Jesus.  God forsook Him.  God turned His face away from Jesus so He could shine His face upon us and delight in us.
The only reason we can be called “Married” is because God made Jesus “Desolate.”  What Jesus suffered on that cross was more than torturous physical pain.  Jesus suffered the very desolation of eternal hell we all deserved.  What love that God would condemn His Son so He could rejoice over us!  Now, nothing separates us from that love.  Nothing stands between us and God.  We are married! 
The Bridegroom, Jesus Christ, gave Himself up for us, that He might sanctify us, having cleansed us by the washing of the water with the Word, so that He might present us to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that we might be holy and without blemish.  We, the Bride of Christ, are no longer abandoned, but reconciled, cared for, and protected.
Nevertheless, we live in a fallen world.  The darkness, the desolation, and the forsakenness make it so easy to forget the victory that has already been won on our behalf.  Though he is defeated, our enemy, Satan, seeks to take as many of God’s people with him as he can.  He seeks to separate us from Christ and His love.  As followers of Christ, we are in the middle of a spiritual battle.  
Two things need to be remembered as we consider this spiritual warfare.  First, we know that Satan is a liar, the father of lies, the arch-deceiver.  We therefore are likely to be outwitted by him if we rely on our own knowledge, experience, and power.  Second, we know that Satan masquerades as “an angel of light.”  He seldom, if ever, shows his true face.  He deceives us into looking to ourselves—our own resources and feelings—for answers to life’s challenges and achievements.  He tricks us into believing that right is wrong and wrong is right. 
The strategy of Satan is clever and yet simple.  He concentrates on attacking the two strongholds that are occupied by Christ here on earth.  The first stronghold is the Church, the beautiful, delightful Zion and Jerusalem of our text.  Christ, the Lamb of God, is present in the Church.  So wherever the Church assembles on earth, its prayers and praises undo the work of Satan.  The Church, therefore, is the main enemy of the evil one.  But he cannot destroy it, for it has been given a safe place by God, a place where it remains out of the devil’s reach.
The second stronghold of Christ is the conscience of each Christian.  Each person with a good conscience is a stronghold of Christ in enemy territory, a place where Christ is present and active.  And Jesus uses us as a base for His counterattack on Satan.  We are His elite troops, lamps through which His light shines out into the night and routs the power of darkness.  Voices that will not remain silent, but who warn of danger and point to safety and freedom in Christ.  Since Satan cannot destroy the Church, he sets out to destroy its disciples.  So, perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising that God’s people are drawn into the same sins, at about the same rate, as the rest of the world.
But what is surprising is how God uses even Satan’s attacks to fulfill His plans for us.  The devil, says Luther, is God’s fool.  He unwittingly ends up doing God’s work.  Satan’s strategy usually backfires on him by driving people to Christ rather than away from Him, to deliver us from the darkness and bondage of sin.
Permit me this illustration to demonstrate how this works.  Before I went to the seminary, my family and I lived on the edge of Freeman, South Dakota.  We had an older home, but half of a city block for our backyard.  Plenty of room for the kids to play and for me to have a garden.  On the edge of the garden, I had a compost pile, where I put all the lawn clippings, dead plants, and fallen leaves. 
We soon found a major problem with a compost pile: snakes and mice loved it.  The warmth of the composting materials attracted the cold-blooded creatures, and the food scraps attracted the mice.  Though the snakes tended to limit my wife’s excursions to the garden, it was the mice that bothered me.  If they would have just kept to the compost, I could have lived with them; but they had the uncanny ability to find the tomatoes the night before I was ready to pick them.
There are two ways to get rid of mice from a backyard.  You can poison them.  But that is, at best, a temporary solution, because as long as we continued to put the food scraps onto the compost pile, other mice would move in and replace those poisoned.  What’s worse, the poison can kill other creatures.  The better alternative is to eliminate the food source.  No garbage, no mice!
That’s how Christ deals with Satan and the evil powers that threaten to infest us.  He gets rid of evil by getting rid of the garbage we produce and stow away in our souls.  He cleans out what is unclean in us so that it cannot be used against us.  Sin makes us spiritually unclean.  Like composting garbage, it taints our souls and stains our conscience so that we feel uneasy and out of place in God’s presence. 
That goes both for the evil that we do and the evil that is done to us.  The evil that we do makes us feel guilty and afraid of God; we fear His disapproval and dread His rejection of us.  The evil that is done to us, fills us with anger and hatred against those who have abused us.  We withdraw into ourselves because we feel too tainted to be of any worth to God and the people around us. 
In both cases, we feel so ashamed of ourselves that we conceal the problem.  In the first case we cover up our guilt and shame; in the second case we cover up anger and hatred.  We therefore repress the sin and its effect on us, like hiding our rotting garbage in the basements of our homes.  Yet the evil still remains; it festers away and contaminates our souls, like a secret infection in our bodies.  That hidden garbage opens up a window of opportunity for Satan, who is an expert in impurity.
Because we belong to Christ, Satan has no real spiritual power over us.  The only hold Satan has on us is his skillful use of our hidden garbage.  He persuades us to keep it hidden in the dark recesses of our minds so deeply that we barely know either its cause or effect on us.  Then, when the time is ripe, our evil secrets are brought out, like a trump card, and wielded against us.  So Satan not only gets us to cover up the dirt in our lives, he also digs it up and throws it in our face.
Christ deals with the impurity from our sin in two ways.  On the one hand, He covers up our guilt and shame with His own righteousness and holiness so that we can stand before God and our fellow saints with a good conscience.  At first, He concentrates on rebuilding our faith in God’s goodness and our love for our brothers and sisters in the family of God.  He does not encourage us to discover the evil in our hearts, but He gets us to rely on the Father’s grace and mercy. 
Then, when we are ready for it, He allows Satan to dig up some sin or offense so that we let Christ deal with it and fix it up.  The devil loses another foothold in our souls; His darkness is exposed and expelled by the light.
Christ also uses the Law to diagnose our spiritual condition.  The Ten Commandments have been given to us as an instrument for the examination of our consciences.  Like a mirror, they help us to see ourselves as God sees us.  They identify the sins that need to be confessed and the offenses that need to be healed.  And they lead us to contrition and repentance, to make us ready to hear the Good News of full salvation that has already been won for us in Jesus Christ.
St. John writes:  “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us; but if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  Did you hear that?  All unrighteousness!  This is Good News!  No matter what the sin.  It is completely covered.  There is nothing for us to do.  There is nothing left to do.  We receive this gift through faith and humbly rejoice.
But we do not rejoice to ourselves.  When you have really Good News like this, you can’t keep silent.  Isaiah couldn’t.  “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet until her righteousness goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a burning torch” (v 1).  The blessings God prepared for His people are too important and too wonderful to keep hidden.
The Epiphany season is about making known this Good News.  It’s about shining the brightness of this Good News into a sin-darkened world and into sin-darkened lives, to the forsaken and the desolate.  And we have Good News!  We have the Good News of a Savior who loves us and forgives us, who knows about suffering and how to bring good from suffering.  For people who have their hearts burdened with the darkness of guilt and regret, we have Good News of a Savior who has taken our sin and taken our place on a cross because of that sin.  We have the Good News of a Savior who not only restores, but restores completely.    
We have the Good News of a Savior who continues to seek out the forsaken and desolate and unites us to Himself through His Word and Sacrament.  Who makes you His own in Holy Baptism, adorning you with His own righteousness and Name.  In His Holy Supper, He pours out the good wine, which is the new testament in His blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith.  In each of these means of grace, He continues to bring you this very Good News: You are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.      

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Heaven Is Now Opened

Click this link for an audio version of this sermon

The text for today is our Gospel, especially Luke 3:21-22: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on Him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are My beloved Son; with You I am well pleased.’”  Here ends the text.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Baptism of Christ by Pietro Perugino
“I can’t believe how quickly time passes.  It seems like it was only yesterday when we brought our little boy home.  Now he’s all grown up, and has started out on his own career.”  I’m sure that many of you have already pondered or expressed similar thoughts.  As a father of four and a Papa of three (soon to be four), I can assure you, if you haven’t yet, you probably will.  And much sooner than you’d ever think.  Time flies.  Children grow up so quickly.  You just turn around and they’re all grown up.  And so it seems with Jesus—at least according to St. Luke’s Gospel.  One minute, He’s a Baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.  And in the next chapter, He’s suddenly a grown man. 
Jesus is kind of like one of those soap opera children.  He is conceived and born under suspicious circumstances in one episode; and when He shows up the next time, He’s all grown up, ready to take on a starring role in His own major plot line.  Baby Jesus is all grown up.  Now He’s thirty—a fitting age for prophets (Ezekiel 1:1), priests (Numbers 4:3), and kings (2 Samuel 5:4) to begin. 
So, Jesus, what are You to be now that You’ve grown up?  What are You going to do with the rest of Your life?  Don’t you think it’s about time to choose a career and make a difference in the world?  Or more appropriately, to assume Your God-given vocation?  Yes, indeed.  More than you could ever imagine. 
Grown up Jesus comes to the Jordan River from Nazareth.  He’s come to preacher John’s church service for sinners.  John’s no respecter of persons—an equal opportunity preacher.  Peasant, tax collector, soldier, king—all hear the same message: “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance… The Mighty One is coming who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
Our text says, “With many other exhortations he preached Good News to the people.”  But Herod wouldn’t think it was such good news when John reproved him for adultery for divorcing his own wife and taking his brother’s wife to be his own.  He’d lock John up in prison.  Then in all caught up in the revelry of his own birthday celebration, he’d behead the meddling prophet to keep a hasty oath.
John’s been blasting away at all sinners in his camel hair vestments and desert pulpit, breaking every seeker-sensitive rule in the book.  “Brood of vipers,” he calls the crowds who come to be baptized by him.  “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees,” he warns.  “Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  John preaches real “hell-fire and brimstone” sermons—“the coming wrath of God” and “prepare the way of the Lord” kind of sermons.  “Bearing fruits in keeping with repentance” kind of sermons.
Most of us probably wouldn’t give John the time of day.  We’d blow off John’s “old-fashioned rural congregation” to go to Pastor Gabe’s hip and swanky megachurch in the city, where everything is permissible and nothing is forgiven.  Our Old Adam would take a happy clappy, come get your Starbucks, sit back, and enjoy the entertainment kind of congregation any day over one that takes sin and the forgiveness of sin seriously.  After all, no one wants to be reminded of his shortcomings.  It’s bad for your self-esteem!  Haven’t you listened to Oprah?  All that negative talk will only create negative energy.  And as one prosperity preacher would say, “You want to be a victor and not a victim.”
But evidently, Jesus hasn’t been listening to those purpose driven life coaches.  He’s not looking for His best life now.  He doesn’t seek to “Make Every Day a Friday.”  Or win the battle in your mind.  And so, lo and behold, grown up Jesus shows up at John’s service!  The one for poor, miserable sinners, those who justly deserve God’s temporal and eternal punishment.  Sinners like you and me.
Has Jesus come to sit back and watch John at work?  To see what kinds of sorry losers gather to hear John’s message?  To evaluate John’s preaching?  Observe how he baptizes—sprinkling or immersion?  Perhaps He wishes to teach John some people skills?  No!  Shock of all shockers!  Jesus has come to participate!  To take part.  To receive a Baptism for sinners from John!
What’s that about?  Jesus should baptize John.  Even John realizes that.  But no, grown up Jesus comes to make a difference in the world in a way we’d never have imagined.  His career path was chosen for Him centuries ago as the Suffering Servant prophesied in Isaiah 53.  “To justify many.”  “To bear their iniquities.”  Iniquities—that’s sins.  Justify—that’s “to make right before God.”  
Jesus is baptized, not because He needs it, but because we need it!  The sinless Jesus comes to take on all that is wrong with sinners here in a sinner’s Baptism.  Jesus identifies Himself with the people whom He came to save. 
The sinless One does not separate Himself from sinners, but becomes one with them in His own Baptism.  And so, grown up Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan.  Taking the world’s sin in His body in the river.  Absorbing it all like a sponge.  He’s going to take it with Him all the way to the cross. 
And there, as Jesus suffers and dies, what happens?  He is treated as a sinner!  A cursed sinner!  For “cursed is anyone who is hanged on a tree” (Deuteronomy 21:23).  As God the Father looks upon Jesus hanging on the cross and pours out His holy wrath upon Him, He sees the worst sinner who ever walked the face of this earth.
Calvary!  That’s what Jesus is going to do with the rest of His life.  He’s going to give it into death.  Purpose driven all the way to the cross.  That is His unique calling, His vocation—to be the sin bearer.  To give His life as a ransom for many.  For you!  For me!  And what a difference He will make!  He’s the Savior.  To save His people from their sins by taking them in His Body and answering for them all with His Good Friday death.  To make every day a Good Friday for you!  To bear God’s fiery wrath.  To suffer the eternal God-forsakenness of hell.  To be the sacrifice of atonement that covers all sin with His Blood.  To ransom Himself for your redemption!
It’s what the Father always had in mind for His only begotten Son—from before the foundations of creation.  This is where Jesus is supposed to be.  At the Jordan to be baptized by John.  To identify Himself with sinners.  To be anointed with the Holy Spirit for the work of His ministry.  And then on the three-year trek that ultimately leads to Golgotha.  
So when Jesus comes out of the water all heaven breaks loose!  The Holy Spirit comes down from heaven and descends on Him in bodily form like a dove.  And the Father speaks from heaven: “You are My Beloved Son.  With You I am well pleased.”  Before Jesus begins His public ministry, the Father puts His seal of approval upon Him.  Here is the Son of God, given by God to the world He so loved, that whoever believes in Him might not perish, but have eternal life. 
To read the Gospel simply as the story about a man who set a great moral example and established a world religion is an atrocity.  But to read the Gospel as the story about a man who dies on the cross is also to miss the point completely.  It is not just a man—it is the very Son of God who dies for sinners on that cross.
Again, all this in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy:  “Here is My servant, whom I uphold, My chosen one in whom I delight.  I will put My Spirit on Him and He will bring justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1). 
God’s promise through Isaiah is now being done as Jesus takes on sin in a sinner’s Baptism.  The Holy Spirit comes to Jesus to equip Him with power for His ministry.  The Spirit descends in bodily form to provide the promised evidence to John that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, the one whose way he was preparing.
With all that’s going on in this text: the Baptism of the sinless Son of God, the approving voice of the Father from heaven, and the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, it’s easy to miss the main action.  Did you catch it? 
Listen again: “When Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened.”  Did you hear that now?  Heaven was opened!  The opened heaven and the Spirit’s descent in bodily form highlight the Father’s words: “You are My beloved Son; with You I am well pleased.”
The opening of heaven is a theme throughout Luke’s Gospel, and it will be highlighted at pivotal points in Jesus’ life.  Heaven will open when the angels announce the Christ Child’s birth.  Heaven will open at Jesus’ Transfiguration as Moses and Elijah discuss Jesus’ upcoming exodus, and God the Father acknowledges the divine and human nature of His only-begotten Son with words similar to those at His Baptism.  Heaven will open at Jesus’ ascension, where He will be lifted up, taken into heaven, and seated at God’s right hand until the Last Day when He returns in the same way, to bring His people back to an open heaven.
The opening of heaven at Jesus’ Baptism is the beginning of the fulfillment of John’s prophecy: “I baptize you with water, but … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  Here, Jesus is baptized with the Holy Spirit.  At His crucifixion, Christ will be baptized with fire.  As Jesus gives up His Spirit, the temple curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the more earthly worship spaces will be torn in two, opening the way into God’s holy presence.  The opening of heaven at Jesus’ Baptism indicates that it will forever be opened to all humanity through the flesh of Christ by His Spirit.
This is the most important event in Jesus’ ministry outside of the crucifixion and the resurrection.  (That is why it is observed as a festival day.)  And it’s a very important event for our individual salvation, too.  I can safely say that we don’t get to the blessings of our own Baptism without going through Christ’s Baptism.
In His Baptism, Jesus Christ—true God and true man—is anointed with the Holy Spirit and acknowledged by the Father.  Jesus, in His humanity, as well as His divine nature, is graced with the Spirit and declared to be God’s Son, opening the way for fallen human beings to be incorporated into Christ through Baptism and likewise to receive the Spirit and to be adopted as children of God. 
From this moment on, Jesus stands in solidarity with sinful humanity.  He, therefore, stands for us under the wrath of God, wrath that will culminate in His crucifixion for the sins of the world.  But He also stands for us under the love of God, a love that is demonstrated by Christ’s willingness to lay down His life for us, by the gift of the Holy Spirit, and by the Father’s raising His Son back to life.
Christian Baptism is into Christ, and continues the pattern of Christ’s Baptism with water, the Spirit, and fire.  In the water of Holy Baptism, we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection.  Like Christ’s own Baptism, ours is Trinitarian.  It unites us with Christ and gives us the Spirit, and so what the Father said of Jesus, He also says of every person baptized into Christ: “This is My beloved child, in whom I am well pleased.” 
The Baptism of our Lord is an “Epiphany” of the one true God in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.  In divine mercy, Christ takes His place with sinners and takes our sin upon Himself.  “When all the people were baptized,” Jesus submitted Himself to a Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:21).  He had no sins of His own, but He took the sins of the world upon Himself—yours and mine, included—and so was baptized into His own death.
Grown up Jesus joins us in our sin.  He takes it in His body and bears it to the cross.  He moves from the Jordan to Jerusalem, making all the difference in the world for us.  For in bearing our sin, He is our Savior.  Your sin is His.  And it’s all been paid for, paid for with the perfect, all-sufficient atoning sacrifice—Christ’s own precious blood and His innocent suffering and death.
The Father is absolutely delighted in grown up Jesus doing just that—giving His life into death for you and for your salvation.  Into Christ’s sin-forgiving death you are baptized.  You are united with Him.  Into Christ’s resurrection you are baptized into eternal life.  You are now clothed with Christ and all His righteousness.  That’s right, His righteousness.  What’s His is yours. 
Therefore, “when you pass through the waters,” He is with you (Isaiah 43:2).  He created you for His glory, and He has redeemed you with His blood, that you may be His own and live with Him in His Kingdom (Isaiah 43:1,7).  As you are baptized with a Baptism like His, so also are you united with Him in His death and resurrection so that you “might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).  For all who are baptized into Christ Jesus receive His anointing of the Holy Spirit and are named by His Father as beloved and well-pleasing sons and daughters. 
Baptized into Christ, heaven is now opened to you.  You are God the Father’s beloved child.  You can bring your prayers to His throne.  His Holy Spirit now dwells in you, giving you faith and life.  Christ is with you always.  Indeed, through His means of grace—His holy Word and Supper—He forgives you again and again.  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, January 7, 2013

Merry Christmas of the Gentiles!


Click here for an audio version of this sermon.

 The text for today is our Gospel, Matthew 2:1-12, which has already been read.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Merry Christmas!  Actually, to be more specific: Merry Christmas of the Gentiles!  Those of you who follow the Church year perhaps noticed that yesterday was the twelfth and final day of Christmas.  Today begins Epiphany, the season in which the Child who was born in Bethlehem is manifested to the world as God. 
Epiphany has been called the “Christmas of the Gentiles,” because the story of the magi has been associated with it.  The magi were the first Gentile worshipers of the Messiah.  Until then, the only ones to worship Jesus were Israelites: a bunch of shepherds from the fields near Bethlehem, and Simeon and Anna in the temple courts in Jerusalem.  But the magi were Persians, (from the region of modern day Iraq and Iran).  They were about as uncircumcised and Gentile as you could get.  Yet, they, too, come to worship the Child and acknowledge Him as King and God. 
And since most of us probably don’t have a drop of Jewish blood in us, this is a big day for you and me, too.  So, in case you still wanted to hang on to Christmas, go ahead for another week.  It’s Christmas of the Gentiles—Christmas for the outsiders, for the nations, for you and me. 
Epiphany is a great story.  It’s where we get the fun stuff of Christmas—the star atop most Christmas trees, all those Christmas lights, and the whole notion of giving gifts.  And we have Matthew to thank for it.  Though Luke’s Gospel is more Gentile-oriented, it’s Matthew who tells us about the magi: partly because it’s all prophesied in the Old Testament, and partly to remind his Jewish readers that Israel’s Messiah comes for all and not just for a chosen few.  As Isaiah foretold: “Nations shall come to Your light, and kings to the brightness of Your rising.”
Yes, the feast of Christmas is over; and yet it has only begun.  God has let the word out because He can’t keep a secret—at least not one that’s this filled with Good News.  Angels announce the birth of the world’s King to the shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem, but God chooses a different media for the Gentiles—a star, visible in the eastern lands.  And here, another marvelous reversal takes place: Israel was once carried off into exile in the east to live under a foreign king, and now astrologers come from the east seeking the newborn king of the Jews.
No one really knows what the star was.  Some think it was a natural phenomenon.  The best explanation I’ve heard alone those lines is that it was an unusual alignment of Jupiter and Saturn that might have caught the sharp eye of the astrologers.  Genesis tells us that when God made the sun, moon, and stars on the fourth day of creation, He set them in the sky “for signs and for seasons.”  Perhaps the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn had been set from the foundations of the world so that they would shine at just the right moment for the magi to see. 
Others think it was a supernatural star, placed there by God specifically for that purpose.  After all, stars don’t stop over specific houses in Bethlehem, or anywhere else.  In the end it doesn’t really matter whether or not it was natural or supernatural.  It was in God’s hand and He is able to accomplish His purposes however He sees fit.  I can’t understand how He does many things, nor would I be able to do so, even if He lay all out the steps, the principles of astrophysics, and the complicated calculations necessary to pull it off.  I certainly can’t understand how stars in the sky—ordinary or miraculous—stop over houses.  But this one did!
Suffice it to say that those who worshiped the stars are now taught by a star; and by a star they are guided to the true Sun of Righteousness.  The magi see the star and somehow conclude that a great King has been born.  So they get their gifts together, pack their provisions, and set out on the dangerous seven hundred mile journey across the desert. 
Seven hundred years earlier, Isaiah had prophesied: “A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lord.”  As the Queen of Sheba once visited King Solomon to see for herself his renowned God-given wisdom, so the magi come with their gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh to pay homage to the little Christ Child who is King of kings and Lord of lords, eternal Wisdom and eternal God veiled in human flesh.
Their first stop is Jerusalem.  If a king of the Jews has been born, it makes sense to check in at King Herod’s palace.  But it turns out that there weren’t any baby boys bouncing around the Herod household that year—which was probably a good thing, since Herod eventually murdered his wife, three sons, mother-in-law, brother-in-law, uncle, and whoever else threatened his reign.  (You think your family holiday gatherings can get tense!)  The proverbial word on the street in Jerusalem is that it’s safer to be one of Herod’s pigs than to be one of his sons. 
Herod was more than a bit insecure.  Part of it stemmed from his own roots.  He was an Edomite, a son of Esau, not an Israelite.  Hardly a proper “king of the Jews” as he proclaimed himself to be, but a murderous, paranoid, psychopathic imposter.  He tried to buy the people’s affections with political pork projects, as insecure politicians are wont to do.  He renovated the temple and restored much of its former glory.  But everyone knew the dirty little secret that Herod was hardly a king much less a Jew.  He was a puppet of the Roman government, a figurehead.
“Where is he who has been born king of the Jews,” the magi ask, thinking perhaps Herod had had a son and they could welcome the little king into the world.  But as I already mentioned, Herod’s sons are an endangered species, and Herod is deeply troubled at their question.  So is all of Jerusalem.  Something fishy is going on here.  A king of the Jews has been born and these pagan astrologers seem to be in on the news before it even makes the headlines in Jerusalem!
Herod has no clue about the true king of the Jews, so he calls in the chief priests and the scribes and asks them where the Messiah is supposed to be born.  They point to the little suburb of Jerusalem, by way of the prophet Micah: “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd My people Israel.”
Bethlehem was the birthplace of David, the shepherd-king.  It was the burial place of Rachel, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin.  It was the place where lambs were raised for sacrifice in the temple in Jerusalem.  Bethlehem’s name means “house of bread.”  And so it is in Bethlehem that the Bread of Life is born, King David’s promised descendant, the Good Shepherd, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  Bethlehem finds it ultimate purpose in Jesus.
So off to Bethlehem the magi go, and the star reappears, and like some divine global positioning satellite, guides them to the house.  God reaches out.  He wants the whole world to know about Jesus, to come and worship Him.  He gives them signs to follow—a star in the eastern sky.  He gives them a prophetic Word.  Through Word and star they come to Jesus, a little child, perhaps one, no more than two, years old.  An ordinary toddler hiding behind the skirts of His mother. 
But this is no ordinary child; He is the promised Child, God’s Child, the Child of the woman who will crush Satan’s head.  And the world—represented by the magi—have come to see for themselves what God has given to the world.
The magi fall down on their faces, and they worship Him.  They worship a little kid!  Shepherds kneel before His manger; magi bow in homage before Him.  He doesn’t look much like a king.  His mother certainly doesn’t look like royalty.  There is no halo shining around His head like the old paintings.  He looks no different than any other toddler in Bethlehem.  Yet through the Word and the star, God has opened the eyes of the magi, making them wise beyond their wisdom, revealing the marvelous mystery that this Child is a King unlike any other.
They open their treasure boxes, costly gifts of gold and incense and myrrh.  In some ways, prophetic, though I doubt they intended it that way.  Gold is a gift for a king.  This is King David’s Son, the Ruler of the universe, the King of all kings and Lord of all lords.  Incense is a gift for a god.  This little Child is God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God.  Myrrh is the gift of suffering and death, used in medicine and for burial.  This Child comes to suffer, to die, to be buried, and rise “for us men and for our salvation,” for Israelites and Babylonians, for Jews and Gentiles, for everyone in the world. 
In this morning’s Epistle, St. Paul calls this a great and wonderful mystery, the Mystery who is Christ, hidden from the ages, revealed by the Spirit through the holy apostles and prophets.  This Mystery that the Gentiles are co-heirs together with Israel in the one body of Christ. 
“What does this mean?” you may wonder.  What does this epiphany to Gentiles mean to us living in small-town, rural America in the 21st century?
It reminds us, first of all, of our universal need. We are all poor, miserable sinners.  We are all, are by nature, little King Herods.  You may not like to think of yourself that way, but you need to recognize it, and own up to it.  We do not want competing kings.  We want to be king—in charge, in control.  We want no one over us.  The news of this Child is not welcome news to the old Adam in us.  Herod may say he wants to worship Jesus, but he actually has other plans.  He wants to get Him out of the way; He wants to kill Him.     
Oh, I know, you wouldn’t want to kill Jesus, especially the cute two-year-old version of Him.  But you might want Him out of the way when He interferes with you being the lord and master of your own life.  And therein is the Herod in each of us.  Think of how we bristle and bridle at being told what to do.  Think of all the ways we make excuses and justify what we do to those who threaten our reign.  But Christ the King came to save such would-be kings as you and me.
Epiphany also reminds us that no one has a monopoly on the Christ Child.  Jesus may be a Jewish boy, born to a daughter of David, whose bloodline flows back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  But the Jewish Messiah, who is the Glory of Israel, is the Light who brings God’s light to the nations.  He is the true King of the Jews.  He’s the Lord of the nations—even those nations who don’t know Him or acknowledge Him.  He’s God’s gift to the world.  Every sinner is spoken for in His death, every sin is atoned for in His blood.
At the same time, this text also teaches us that though there are many “religions” in the world, there is only one Way, one Truth, one Light and Life of the world.  God has only one Son, and His name is Jesus.  But God is gracious and merciful—even to those who don’t know Him.  He provides a star, a shining ray of truth in the pagan stargazers’ religion to draw them to hear the Word of the Savior.  Whatever truth there may be—in religion, philosophy, science, in all the wisdom of the ages—every truth has its source in the Truth Incarnate, Jesus the Christ.
Having bowed down before the world’s Christ, the magi are different men.  Who wouldn’t be changed?  They go back to their homes by another way.  You could say they lose their religion to find the Truth in the Child named Jesus.  And there is coming a Day to end all days, when every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess what the wise men learn that day—this Jesus is the Lord and Christ of all.  You’re in on the Mystery ahead of time.  Consider yourself blessed by God.
Finally, epiphany reminds each of us how privileged we truly are as baptized believers.  You, too, have been guided to the place where you might bow down and worship our Savior.  Not by a star in the sky.  More likely, it was the word of a godly parent, a believing co-worker, or friend.  And you didn’t have to go on a 700 mile journey through the desert.  You simply had to get out of bed this morning and come to this place where the Word is preached and Jesus’ body and blood is given.  Here is your Bethlehem, where He manifests Himself to you personally.
You’ve come to Bethlehem today, where God’s Son Jesus, who is Lord and Christ and Savior, is here to receive you, to wash you and feed you, to send you out as lights into this dark world.  Every Sunday is another “epiphany” where Jesus makes Himself known to you, revealing the Mystery of your inclusion in His saving death, bringing light and life to your darkness and death.  What a gift!  A Gift that keeps on giving!
Merry Christmas of the Gentiles!  “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 ...