Monday, December 29, 2014

God's Word Shall Not Return Empty

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that He may have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon. For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word be that goes out from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:6-11).
“Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near,” our text invites. The problem is that none of us has the natural ability to seek the Lord. In fact, left to ourselves, none of us even wants to seek the Lord. Like Adam and Eve after the fall into sin, we run away, we hide from Him. Why is that? Because ever since the fall we are enemies of God. We are conceived and born dead in our trespasses and sins. We want nothing to do with a holy God.
But God, in His grace does not leave us alone. He sends His Word to draw us to Him. We Lutherans confess this in the explanation to the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified, and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.”
The Lord God is extremely patient and gracious. Through His Word, the Holy Spirit invites us to seek the Lord and call upon Him in faith. He urges us to turn away from our wicked ways and to turn to Him while there is still opportunity. He promises to have mercy on the penitent sinner and to pardon him freely through His powerful, gracious Word. God’s Word works faith and bestows forgiveness. I know, it sounds too good to be true, but it is true! Our salvation is entirely in our Lord’s hands from start to finish. What a comfort for us sinners!
The death of a loved one, without fail, triggers every emotion in the human existence in very short order. For people of faith, the question also arises concerning the eternal welfare of the departed. And too often, our thinking becomes fretting in light of what we knew or thought we knew. It is difficult for us, in such a time as this, to reflect and focus our concerns with what God knows.
Through the prophet Isaiah, our Lord reminds us that He operates in ways that we cannot always understand; and He points out the arrogance of man in presuming to know all things. We don’t like to admit it when we don’t know the answer. It pesters us to no end when we are confronted with things that are beyond our limited human comprehension. We find it difficult to place the knowledge of all things with God alone and leave it in His hands. But so we must.
Fortunately, there is much that we can know, from which our Lord would have us receive strength and comfort, especially in times like this. We know, according to the Scriptures, that it is the Lord alone who searches the heart and the Lord alone who has the power to save. And He has promised you that His Word does not go out into the ears of His hearers in vain.
Through His prophet, God also tells us how His Word works. God’s Word comes down from Him like rain and snow from heaven, which waters the ground and makes it bud and flourish. When God’s Word comes to sinners, it works in the same way. God’s Word works when and where He pleases, simply by His grace.
The free gift of eternal salvation by grace through faith in Christ Jesus is just that—a free gift. And the Lord has told us in His Word how it is that He gives us this saving faith. He tells us in Titus, chapter 3, that He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
Dean was baptized at Zion Lutheran Church. That Word of God works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare. Dean publicly confessed his Christian faith and pledged to continue in this confession and Church. Like each of us, Dean was less than perfect in his keeping of his vows. Thankfully, our salvation is not dependent upon our keeping of vows, but rather on God’s keeping of His promises, or else none of us would be saved. And so, today we take solace in this promise of God: His Word does not return to Him empty, even when we can’t measure the results with our limited human minds and sinful hearts. Your peace and your comfort cannot come from what you know or think you might know, but must come from the certain and the eternal Word of God.
The Lord Jesus, true God, begotten of the Father from all eternity, and also true Man, born of the Virgin Mary, is the Word made flesh who dwelt among us. Our heavenly Father sent Jesus, His only Son to reconcile the whole world, Dean included, to Himself. He bought us back from sin and the power of the grave not with gold or silver, but with His own precious blood and His innocent suffering and death. Though the wages of sin is death, as we are grimly reminded today, the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Jesus paid the price for all of our transgressions, and gives the promise of everlasting life to all who would believe in Him through His life-giving Word.
It has been said that a funeral service is for the living and not the dead. That is most certainly true. Therefore also the funeral sermon is one for you, the living, and the applications must be made to you. For each one of us here... well, there will come a time when no doctor will be able to help... when no accountant will be able to give you a few extra days... when no repairman can fix what’s broken. We will each face circumstances in our life that we cannot possibly handle on our own; that just don’t make sense to our limited human reasoning. Moreover, your death and mine are also coming. And so we must seek the Lord while He may found.
And we need to do this today, not tomorrow. None of us knows if we will even be around at the end of this day. We don’t have any guarantees. Let Dean’s death be a sobering reminder for us to get our lives in order and our priorities straight. Tonight as you are in bed and it is dark and quiet, think about your own sin and your need for a Savior. Turn to God’s Word for comfort, peace, hope, and guidance. Pour out your heart to God in prayer.
If you have more questions or want to talk more about these things in the days ahead, please speak to your pastor or other mature Christian friend. If you don’t have anyone else, I would love to speak with you about these things, or I can certainly help get you in touch with someone else who can. I mean this. There is truly nothing more important. It is literally a matter of life and death—eternal life and death.
Seek the Lord while He may be found in His Word. Call upon Him while He is near in His means of grace. Forsake your wicked ways and unrighteous thoughts. Return to the Lord, that He may have compassion on you and pardon your sins. His Word will not return to Him empty. It shall accomplish His purposes. For by that Word, you have forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Indeed, you are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Will This Be the Day?

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“Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:25-26).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Will this be the day? Will this be the day that my dream comes true? Will this be the day that the doctor tells us we will soon be hearing the pitter patter of tiny feet? Will this be the day I make the starting team? Will this be the day that I get that promotion I’ve been working so hard for? Will this be the day that he finally pops the question? Will this be the day that my ship comes in?
Will this be the day? Will this be the day that my luck runs out? Will this be the day that he walks out the door and never comes back? Will this be the day that I get that telephone call that every parent fears? Will this be the day that I feel that first warning sign, that tingling in my fingers or tightening of my chest? Will this be the day that I draw my last breath?
Will this be the day? None of us really know, do we? You have some plans, but really, what can you be certain of? So much is out of your hands and beyond your control. So much of life is a mystery.
I guess you could say the same thing about our text. There are a lot of details about which we can only speculate. A man of mystery is walking in the temple. I say this because we don’t know much about him. We know his name is Simeon, but that’s about it. Traditionally, he’s pictured as an elderly man who has led a good life of many years; but we really don’t know. He could be a nineteen-year-old still working on a passable beard for all we know. Is he married? Widowed? Healthy? Ailing? Does he have kids? Grandkids? A good life? Bad?
We don’t know. The Bible doesn’t tell us. It tells us his name is Simeon. The Bible also says that Simeon “was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” That’s why Simeon is at the temple—he’s waiting to see the Messiah. Can you imagine—every day waking up asking yourself: “Will this be the day? Will this be the day that I meet the Lord’s Christ, the one promised so long ago?”
Suddenly, He appears. The long-awaited Messiah is there. The Lord Himself has suddenly come to His temple. The Son of God has become flesh to be the Savior of the world, and He is making His first incarnate visit to His Father’s house. The prophecy is fulfilled! The Messiah is on the temple grounds! And nobody notices. Nobody cares. Nobody except for Simeon.
Simeon knows, because the Holy Spirit has told him. He confidently walks up to the Messiah and His entourage. He boldly embraces the Consolation of Israel. And there, in the middle of all the temple activity, he sings so that everyone who hears will know: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy Word; For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people, a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel.” The Lord Himself has come to His temple with salvation. He has come to redeem His people. It is a glorious, divine truth; so Simeon sings the song of praise. Uninformed by the Holy Spirit, it’s quite likely that others think he’s nuts. Nuts or blasphemous, take your pick.
Today, temple-goers have come here to worship the almighty Lord who made the heavens and the earth, just as God’s people have for many centuries. There on the grounds, this Simeon is holding a 40-day-old baby in his arms, guarded by the formidable entourage of, well, a husband and wife so poor they only afford the most modest of sacrifices—two turtledoves.
But today, Simeon isn’t concerned with the Holy of Holies, where the Lord dwells in His glory. He’s staring at the Baby in his arms, and singing the strangest of lullabies: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word…” Like the Baby has words. Like the Baby is in a position to send Simeon along. As if the Baby is the Lord.
We’ve talked about this many times. If you go by your eyes alone, you’re likely to miss the Savior. Go by what the Holy Spirit says into your ears, and there He is. People who are looking for some glorious display of power to prove the presence of God will hustle by the Baby and keep on looking.
But by the faith creating Word of the Holy Spirit, Simeon knows. The flesh and blood he cradles in his arms is the Son of God. He is Immanuel, “God with us,” present with His people as God and man. The Lord is with His people to bring peace, salvation, light, revelation, and glory. Don’t let the hairless head and the tiny toes fool you. This is the almighty Lord of heaven and earth. And though that toothless mouth can’t form words yet, He has been speaking from eternity His plan of salvation. He is there. By faith, Simeon acknowledges His Savior and rejoices in His salvation. He embraces the Word made flesh, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, the Prince of Peace, who reconciles God and man. That’s why he can depart in peace.
Simeon departs in peace. And what happens to this privileged servant of God next? We’re back to “We don’t know,” for he disappears from Scripture. It’s a mystery. Traditionally, we assume he’s an old man who dies and is called to glory soon after. For all we know, he could have forty years of life left before he dies. Maybe a good life, maybe a terrible one by human standards. But Simeon departs in peace because God is faithful. He has kept His promises made through the prophets. The Virgin has conceived and borne a Son. God is with us. The Lord has come to His temple, where Simeon has held and beheld Him.
The prophecies will continue to be fulfilled. The Messiah will make the blind see and the deaf hear, the mute sing and the lame leap for joy. He will be stricken, smitten, and afflicted for our iniquities. He will be the cursed man on the cursed tree crucified with criminals, betrayed by a friend, His bones out of joint, His robe gambled away, buried in a rich man’s tomb, and raised from the dead, His body seeing nor corruption. All this will take place so that other promises of God will be kept: Promises of pardon and peace for the penitent people of God.
God is faithful, and the promises will be kept. That is why Simeon departs in peace. He doesn’t depart to peace. It is not that he faces a rosy, sublime sort of life because he has held the Savior. Whatever other trials lie ahead, he still faces death. He’s still in this sinful world. But he departs in peace. Simeon is at peace because God is faithful. He has sent the Savior. Whatever Simeon faces, he is at peace with God. The Lord has kept His promises, and Simeon knows the end of the story. The end of the story is life everlasting, because the Son has come.
So, taking stock right now, this is what you know about you. You’ve made it this far. And you have no idea what is going to happen to you tomorrow. The Lord could return at any time to take you home. The Lord, may be ready to bestow that long-awaited blessing. The Lord, in His wisdom, might ask you to bear some particular cross. Will this be the day? You just don’t know.
Not knowing leads to all sorts of temptations. You’re tempted to worry. And while a godly concern is good, worry too often turns into doubt of God’s will and faithfulness. You’re tempted to disappointment when things don’t go as you desire. We don’t like not knowing, because not knowing means you have to live by trusting. Faith isn’t natural. In fact, it’s impossible unless it is given by God. But God gives you faith. Today, you stand with Simeon because you behold your Savior. The Holy Spirit has revealed this to you—not through some mystical vision or writing in the sky, but by His holy, inspired Word.
His Word announces to you that the Baby in Simeon’s arms grows up and bears your sins to the cross. That same body is pierced and that blood is shed before He is placed in the tomb. That same Savior, with the same body and blood, is risen again on the third day. And before Jesus ascends into heaven, He speaks of Word and Sacrament, and promises, “I am with you always to the end of the age.”
The Lord is with you in His Word and Sacraments. It was He who washed you clean of sin in the waters of Holy Baptism. It is He, the Word made flesh, who is present in His Word when it is proclaimed. It is He who says to you, “Take and eat, this is My body…take and drink, this is My blood, for the forgiveness of sins.” It’s the same body and blood that Simeon held and beheld. That went to the cross. That rose again. And that ascended into heaven.
Like Simeon, you behold your Savior today. No, you don’t see tiny toes and a hairless head; you observe a middle-aged man preaching and then see bread and wine. But faith tells you this. God keeps His promises. His Son has come, died and risen, as promised. His Son is here, in these means, to forgive, as promised. You know this by faith, not by sight.
It is little wonder, then, that you sing Simeon’s hymn near the end of each communion service. You have heard the Word, and there the Holy Spirit has revealed to you your Savior. You have just received the Lord’s body and blood for the forgiveness of sins, just like Simeon. And just like Simeon, you sing: “Lord now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy Word. For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people. A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel.”
You sing with Simeon because the Savior has come to you, too; and then you depart in peace, though not necessarily to peace. You stand to face some ridicule along the way. If Simeon looks strange as he sings to the Baby, you can be sure you’ll draw criticism for looking for Jesus in, with, and under bread and wine, water and Word. Some will tell you that you’ve lost your religious sanity, if not your salvation. You’re nuts, perhaps even blasphemous, for believing such a real presence. But you know better. Christ is here because He promises, and He always keeps His promises. You have His Word on it, so you depart in peace.  
Not that life will always be peaceful. No, don’t leave here expecting that the devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh will go easy on you because you’ve been in the presence of God. This visit of your Savior only enrages these enemies all the more. Don’t hold the Lord to promises He hasn’t made, expecting an easy life in this world as His child. God’s only-begotten Son suffered unimaginably for our sake, and Jesus said that each of His disciples must take up their own crosses for His sake.
You can expect your share of trouble, then. This unholy trinity will work their hardest to convince you that the Savior’s presence at best does you no good, at worst only leads to trouble for you. They will wield their weapons of worry, guilt, anxiety, sickness, grief, and death. They will do their best to crush you. But the truth is that they have been crushed already; crushed by the Son of God whom you behold today. They can make you miserable for a bit, but their days are numbered. In Christ, yours are not. The Lord Himself will return, raise you and all the dead, and take His own to be in His holy presence forever.
Will this be the day? Who knows? But you do know this: The Lord promises that He will indeed work all things for your good, even as He promises that His Son has lived and died for you. No, you don’t know what chapters life still holds; but in Christ, you know the end of the story. And the end of the story is life everlasting. This is why you depart in peace. The One who suffered, died, and rose again is with you, to raise you from your sufferings and death to life everlasting. 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.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Lord Is with You!

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Or here.
“Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” (Luke 1:28).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
She’s a little girl—perhaps fourteen, maybe fifteen, years old. Still young by our standards, though old enough to get married in her time. She’s betrothed to Joseph. The vows are made, and soon they will be fully man and wife. Mary is wise and devout, a maiden who’s kept herself pure in her wait for marriage. But other than that, she has very few qualification for her upcoming assignment. Well, that and her family connections: She’s a descendant of King David, although many generations have passed since one of her ancestors actually sat on the throne.
Now, she and her family live in a little hick town, far from where anything ever happens. Nazareth isn’t exactly Jerusalem, you know. In Jerusalem, you have the king’s palace and frequent visits from Roman commanders. You have the temple—the House of God—where God lives with His people in that Most Holy Place. There’s none of this in Nazareth, that small town by the Sea of Galilee, a community with a reputation as glamorous as the drying fish netted the day before.
She’s a little girl in a little town, far away from where anything happens. He’s an extraordinary visitor with an extraordinary message. His name is Gabriel, and he is sent by God to a virgin betrothed to Joseph—a virgin named Mary in the little town of Nazareth. His extraordinary message begins like this: “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you.”
His extraordinary message brings an unusual reaction. Read through the Scriptures, and you’ll always find that people are troubled by the sight of angels. They shrink away or fall down on their faces and play dead. These heavenly messengers come straight from the glorious presence of God, and the righteousness that clings to them is enough to terrify sinners. Holy angels scare people.
But Mary is not troubled by Gabriel’s appearance. She’s troubled at his words. And what is it that’s so troubling for this devout maiden to hear? Is it “Greetings”? Probably not. “O favored one”? That’s a bit unusual and could leave her puzzled. But troubled? I don’t think so. For my money, I’d guess that the most troubling part of the greeting is this: “The Lord is with you.” If it isn’t troubling to Mary yet, it soon will be when she realizes all the ramifications.
How could the Lord be with Mary? He’s everywhere in His omnipresence, of course. But that sort of greeting means that He’s not just present out there somewhere, but that He’s present here to found. Maybe seen. Witnessed, somehow. “The Lord is with you” is the sort of thing you say to someone at the temple in Jerusalem, where God is dwelling behind the curtain. The Lord is with you at the temple because you’ve come to where the Lord promises to be for you. But this isn’t Jerusalem and the temple. This is Nazareth and Mary’s home. “The Lord is with you,” says Gabriel—here and now. How could the Lord be with her?
Gabriel fills in the blanks: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a Son, and you are to give Him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; His kingdom will never end.” That’s the message: Mary’s going to be a mom!
However, Mary notes one tiny obstacle to motherhood. It’s not a doubt-filled objection, but a hindrance all the same: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” she asks. Gabriel provides the details: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Ah, that answers that. Mary is going to be the mother of God. You see, the angel isn’t kidding when he says, “The Lord is with you.” Gabriel isn’t speaking in general terms, like, “Mary, I hope you know that the Lord has a special place for you in His heart.” As the messenger of God, he is speaking God’s specific, powerful Word. The Lord is with Mary, as really and as concretely as the cloud of glory that overshadowed the temple before descending into the Holy of Holies.
The Lord is with her, all right. By the Word of God that Gabriel proclaims, the power of the Most High overshadows her. The Lord is with Mary, literally. The Creator of heaven and earth is a single cell caught on the wall of her womb. He will divide into two cells, then four, then eight. With a few weeks, He will develop a beating heart, ears and nose, fingers and toes. By the promise of God, Mary has received the body and blood of her Lord Jesus Christ. God has become man. The Word is made flesh to dwell among us.
It’s just like the Lord promised long ago through His prophet Isaiah: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a Son, and will call Him ‘Immanuel’” (Isaiah 7:14) the name that means “God with us.” No wonder Gabriel says to Mary, “The Lord is with you.” Immanuel has arrived, exactly as promised seven hundred years earlier. Any objections?
If Mary weren’t so devout and accepting of God’s Word, I would expect she just might have one or two. Maybe one of those “reason rules religion” sorts of arguments. “It’s impossible. God becoming man isn’t going to happen. You can’t put the infinite God into a finite human body. You sure can’t put the infinite God into a single-celled zygote. It’s ludicrous, unthinkable.”
Then there are some practical considerations. Mary is now expecting an out-of-wedlock child. In her culture, this does not make her eligible for WIC or SNAP benefits or Medicaid. It qualifies her for worldly scorn, Joseph’s skepticism—even her own stoning and death if anyone wants to press the letter of the law.
Still she says, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” It’s a remarkable statement of faith—this acceptance of God’s plan, whatever the consequences. But faith is a gift of God, and Mary can make this confession because the Lord is with her. Let the world scoff and scorn. It knows humanity in the depravity of sin and selfishness, but the world cannot comprehend a God who would become flesh to sacrifice and serve. Let the devil rage in his jealousy. Ever since Eden, he’s tried to worm his way close to mankind, but he could never become man. But here in Mary’s womb, God has become man; and the Seed of the woman will crush the serpent’s head. The Lord is not just here to be here; He is here to go to the cross for the redemption of the world.
Don’t worry O highly favored one! Many will mock you, but all generations will call you blessed. Oh, it won’t always look that way. In the years ahead, you will often be troubled because of your sinless Son—like when He is lost for three days as a young boy in Jerusalem. Or when your family tries to stop His public teaching, because you’re afraid for His physical health or worry that perhaps “He is out of His mind.” Or even worse, when you stand at the foot of His cross. Your own soul will be pierced, too. But, don’t be afraid, Mary. The Lord is with you!
And so, here you are, dear friends, days before Christmas, in little Trosky, Minnesota, far from where anything ever happens. It’s not exactly New York City or even Minneapolis. About as glamorous as the odor that hangs in the air from hog confinement barns or cattle yards depending upon the direction of the wind on any particular day. But right here at St. John’s Lutheran Church, a messenger of God makes an extraordinary declaration to you. No, he isn’t an angel, just departed from the glorious throne of God. He’s flesh and blood, a redeemed sinner just like you (probably much worse than you), but robed in a plain white alb to draw attention away from himself to the Word of God he speaks. And the extraordinary Word that he says to you again and again is this: “The Lord be with you.”
The Lord be with you. These are pretty much the same words that Gabriel spoke that troubled Mary so. They may not trouble you at all. But this may not be a good thing, because it’s a symptom of the age in which we live. Contemporary religion doesn’t like to be pinned down. On the one hand, they tell you to forget laws about sin; it’s up to you to make up your own code of behavior, what is right and wrong for you personally. On the other hand, they insist that you keep God good and general and not-too-identified; that way it’s up to you to determine what He’s like. It’s also up to you to determine where He is for you.
So if you say “The Lord be with you” to your average somewhat-spiritual person, they will respond, “I know that. I know He’s here.” But if you ask them to point, specifically, to where He is, you might get a funny look. God is considered to be very abstract and vague these days. At best they might try to explain to you that “I have Jesus in my heart,” but they can’t explain what that really means.  
But this is not at all what these words mean when you hear them from the pastor here. “The Lord be with you” is not a pious wish, but a statement of awesome truth. The Lord is with you, bodily with you. He is as with you here and now as He was with Mary as He developed in her womb. Where the Word is proclaimed, the Word is present. The Son of the Most High, who stood His body in the Jordan River to be baptized by John, is present in your Baptism. The Son of God is present at the Lord’s Supper, saying, “Take and eat, this is My body…take and drink, this is My blood, for the forgiveness of sins.” The Lord is with you!
Do not worry that you can’t see Him. Those who journeyed to the temple couldn’t look behind the curtain, but that didn’t mean that the Lord was absent. Even if they had 3-D ultrasounds in that day, those who watched Mary’s belly grow couldn’t have seen that the Baby she carried was the Son of God; but He was all the same. But you’ve got something better than what your eyes see; you’ve got His Word on it. The Lord is with you as really and bodily as He was with Mary.
This means, of course, that you will hear the same objections that Mary likely heard. Even from other Christians, you will hear the “reason rules religion” argument: “Jesus can’t be present in water or bread or wine. Why? Because logically the finite can’t contain the infinite. It doesn’t make sense. You can’t put the infinite God in an inch-wide, paper-thin wafer of bread. Don’t look for Jesus in those Sacraments; look for Him in your heart.”
To this we respond with the words of the angel Gabriel to Mary: “Nothing is impossible with God.” The same Lord who is with Mary as a microscopic, fertilized cell in her womb is certainly capable of being with you in Word and water, bread and wine. Let us not impose our puny limitations upon the Lord God Almighty. And while we rejoice with those who say that they have Jesus in their heart, we might ask them: “But how did He get there? How did He come to be with you there if not by His means of grace?”
Unless you engage in theological debates on social media, you may not come across such arguments often. You should be aware, though, that this teaching of Christ’s presence among us makes us unique, and frowned upon, among many Christian denominations. So, while we rejoice with all Christians who trust in Jesus’ death for their sins, and look forward to an eternity with them in our Lord’s glorious presence, we also give thanks for the oft-denied truth that the Lord is truly with us even now.
Even so, you must face the practical objections, which the world throws your way. This world is about power, taking care of yourself, covering up faults and moving on to success. You go and confess your sins—to God no less!—and then hear words of Absolution, believing that Jesus is there to forgive you.
The world is about impressing people, gaining favor with people and quid pro quos. You keep thinking back upon your Baptism, where Jesus washed you with water and His Word, cleansing you of your sin and making you His child.
The world is about health and pleasure, excitement and buzz, free time and toys. You quietly come forward, kneel down, and receive bread and wine—because you believe the Scriptures when they tell you that Jesus is truly there with you in these humble means for the forgiveness of sins.
The world will voice all sorts of objections to spending time on Word and Sacrament, because such things will not help you get ahead in this world. But then again, no one—the Lord included—ever said that they would. You receive these things because there is more to life than this world that does not know God.
Baptism may not win favor with others; but there, in the water and Word, the Lord of heaven and earth says, “You are now My beloved child.” Confession and Absolution won’t prove your strength to a world that doesn’t want to admit fault; but by it the Lord says, “You are now faultless to stand before Me.” Holy Communion will not provide much bodily sustenance; but by the grace given there, you will live forever. Why do these means of grace impart such astounding blessings? For the same reason that the world which denies Christ denies them: because the Lord Jesus is there, with you, for you.
Christmas Eve is only a few days away, when we peer with wonder into the manger at Bethlehem, point to the Baby and say, “Behold the Son of God, present with His people.” This is indeed a great and mighty wonder. But here’s another great and mighty wonder that happens so often it is easy to overlook. It happens wherever and whenever God’s Word is preached and His Sacraments administered according to His Word. By these means of grace, the Lord is with you—just as much as He was with Mary. And because the Lord is with you, you are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Saturday, December 13, 2014

A Witness to the Light

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“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light” (John 1:6-8).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
This Sunday could easily have been called “John the Baptist Sunday.” But I’m quite certain that John would have objected. John was the forerunner of Christ, not the Christ. He was a witness to the light, not the Light. He was a voice, preaching Christ, the light of the world. He was a finger, pointing people to Jesus, and saying, “There He is, the One you’ve been waiting for—the Lamb of God.”
Ancient Christian art depicts John with an overly large mouth and a hyper-extended index finger pointing to Jesus. A big mouth and a pointing finger—that was John. Now, in our culture, such an image doesn’t seem very flattering, does it? As children, most of us were taught that it is impolite to point. Having a big mouth isn’t any better. It means you don’t know when to keep quiet. But for John the Baptist that picture is an accurate description. John was a witness—a mouth with a voice, a finger pointing to someone else.
Witness is one of those weighty words in John’s Gospel. It doesn’t mean quite the same thing as the way we sometimes use it for the activity of declaring the Gospel to another. Witness here means “an authoritative eyewitness,” one who tells exactly what he has seen and heard—like someone who testifies in court.
Scripture says that every matter must be established by at least two or three witnesses for it to be considered true. St. John does even better. In his Gospel, he lines up seven witnesses that testify that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God: John the Baptist, the Holy Scriptures, the works that the Father does through Jesus, Jesus Himself, the Holy Spirit, the apostles, and finally, St. John’s own Gospel.
John the Baptist was the first of these witnesses. His testimony was so that others would believe through him. Note that word! Through him, that is, through his testimony, not in him. John was an instrument, not the object. John’s testimony was not so that people would believe in John, but so that through John all people would believe in Christ. His message was not “follow me,” but “follow Him.” Remember: “He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.”
The problem is that we tend to confuse the witness with his testimony. We often pay more attention to the messenger than to the message. One occasionally hears of the congregation that tries to get rid of its pastor for no other reason than he doesn’t tell funny stories, or write amusing bulletin announcements. Or just as disturbing, we hear of people who only choose a church based upon the personality of the pastor, or his ability to pack a crowd into the church with his entertaining sermons. But the messenger should never overshadow the message. We must not confuse the witness with his testimony.
As we have just been hearing in our adult Bible study on 2 Corinthians, the apostle Paul affirmed this when he wrote: “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (4:5). That was how St. Paul distinguished the Lord’s ministry from that of the so-called “super-apostles,” those high-octane preachers who came into Corinth to separate people from the Gospel—not to mention their wallet and each other. He warned the people not to be so consumed with the messenger, but to listen to the message.
The religious leaders of Jerusalem were stuck on the messenger, and this caused them to miss the message. Messianic expectations in Israel at the time of John were running higher than those of a five-year-old two weeks before Christmas. John’s appearance in the Jordan wilderness created quite a stir. Enough of a stir that the religious authorities in Jerusalem sent a committee to ask John, “Who are you?” or probably more to the point, “Just who do you think you are?”
John had no delusions of grandeur. “I am not the Christ,” he confessed.
“What then? Are you Elijah?” they asked. Over 400 years earlier, the prophet Malachi had said that Elijah would come before the Christ. You’ll recall that Elijah had been taken up to heaven bodily in a fiery chariot. A popular expectation was that Elijah would return one day to signal the coming of the Messiah. Dressed in camel’s hair and a leather belt, John the Baptist sure looked the part. And in truth, John came in the spirit and power of Elijah. Jesus Himself said later that John was Elijah for those who would believe it.
But John would not apply the honor of Elijah to himself. “I am not,” he said.
So the investigators asked, “Are you the Prophet?” If John was not Elijah, perhaps he was the prophet spoken of by the Lord through Moses: “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers, and I will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him” (Deuteronomy 18:18). They wondered if John could be the great Prophet walking in Moses’ shoes.   
Indeed, John was the last and greatest of the prophets, the one who was sent to point directly to the Christ. But John declined once again to appropriate any glory for himself. “No,” he replied.
Notice how John’s answers became shorter as their questioning continued. He was a witness to the light. He wanted to talk about Jesus, not himself. That’s what true “witnessing” is all about—not what God has done for me lately because I’m so religious. Not even about how God has turned my sorry life around since I gave myself to Jesus. But it is telling other about what God, in His mercy and grace, has done for them in Jesus Christ to reconcile them and the sinful world to Himself.
By that time the priests and Levites were running out of questions and still had nothing to send back to headquarters. They became more direct. “Who then are you?” they asked. “What do you say about yourself?”
John answered, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” John wasn’t sent to talk about himself, to deliver stirring personal testimonials, or to win a huge following for himself. He was sent to prepare a people for the Lord by preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. His person and personality were completely covered and overshadowed by the person of Jesus. John said, “Don’t look to me, because I’m not the Christ. I’m not Elijah. I’m not the Prophet. I’m nothing but a voice ringing in your ears, telling you to prepare for the coming of the Lord.”
But the Pharisees ignored John’s words and pressed him further: “Then why are you baptizing?” Their question went beyond John’s identity to his authority. The Pharisees recognized that for John to baptize was no small thing. You didn’t go and invent a baptism on your own. John had to be claiming God’s authority in some way. But John refused to even address their question. There wasn’t time for more discussion. A Greater One than John was coming. In fact, the Greater One was already standing in their midst, in the same crowd, listening to the questions, hidden, but soon to be revealed. The light of the world was about to dawn. This was such a crucial moment that the evangelist even notes the location: “These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.”
The next day John would extend his piercing gaze out across the crowd and point his finger in the direction of the lone figure coming toward him and declare, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Only then would John answer the Pharisees’ question about his baptizing. “For this purpose I came baptizing with water, that He might be revealed to Israel. I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove and it remained on Him. I myself did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
John was not the light himself. He came as a witness to the light. He was a voice crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord.” He was the messenger sent with the announcement of Christ’s arrival. He was a finger pointing to “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
The church is that voice and a finger in today’s wilderness of sin and terror and death—a voice to proclaim repentance and forgiveness in Jesus’ name—a finger pointing to Jesus. “There’s the One for you! There’s your forgiveness, your life, and your salvation. There is true light, a light that already shines on you and on all. There He is, in the water of your Baptism. There He is, in the mouth of the pastor absolving your sin. There He is, in the bread that is His body, in the wine that is His blood. There He is, in the proclamation of God’s Word!”
That’s what being a witness to Jesus means. Not pointing to myself and saying “Be religious like me.” But pointing to Jesus in the Word, the water, the bread and the wine, and testifying on His behalf: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world—your sin. He died bearing your sin. He rose holding your life in His life. He reigns and in Him you reign too.” That’s the church’s testimony, her witness. That’s your witness.
One word of warning though—the word for witness, marturia, is the same word from which we get “martyr.” A martyr is a witness who testifies up to the time of his or her death. As a witness for Christ, you might even be called to lose your head for your faith, as John the Baptist did. Given recent events in the news that doesn’t seem so far removed from reality as it did just a few years ago.
But do not worry. You’ve already died in Jesus. In your baptism, you’ve been buried into His death. You are in the ultimate witness protection program, embraced by the death of the Son of God who loved you and gave Himself up for you. You have been clothed with Christ, covered from head to toe with His righteousness. You are already dead to the world, dead to sin, and dead to death. And your life is safely hidden in Christ, tucked away where no one can take it. You’ve got nothing to lose. That’s the beauty of being dead in your self, but alive to God in Christ: The dead have nothing to lose.
You don’t have to hide under false identities, like some frightened witness with a death threat over your head. You don’t have to put on the fake nose and glasses of phony piety and religion. You don’t have to remain silent for fear of being detected. You can be yourself, confessing the truth about your sin, and even more about your Savior, the world’s Savior. You can point people to Jesus: “Look! There’s a light who shines on you!”
You are not the light. Jesus is the light, the world’s light, who shines in this present darkness with a light no darkness can overcome—not even the darkness of your sin or the terrors of death. This glorious light, Jesus, who has been shining on the creation from the beginning, since day one as the creative Word, is the same light who redeemed the world with His death on a dark Friday. And you have the privilege to be a witness to this light even as I speak of Him and point to Him now:   “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of world! This is Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, your Lord and Savior. 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.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Gospel of Jesus Christ for You

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“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).  
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
When Martin Luther spoke about the forgiveness that Christ won for you, he spoke about it in a way that too few people speak today. Luther spoke about the message of forgiveness as though it was his own possession. Luther repeatedly spoke about “my gospel” and “my theology,” a habit he probably learned from the apostle Paul (Romans 2:16; 16:25; 2 Timothy 2:8). For example, when he described his now famous “Luther seal,” the reformer stated that this seal is “a symbol of my theology.” When speaking about the way he had come to believe, Luther said, “I didn’t learn my theology all at once. I had to ponder over it.”
Luther also believed that you and every Christian—not just pastors and theologians—should speak in these same terms: “A Christian often says: ‘This is my message, my Baptism, my Christ, my God, my gospel,’ although, strictly speaking, they are not his. He [the Christian] did not invent them; they did not come from him; they are not of his making. And yet they are his, his gifts, given to him by God.”
That’s a very good way to look at today’s text. St. Mark shows you where Jesus’ gospel becomes your gospel; where the good news concerning Jesus becomes the Good News concerning you; where Jesus’ God and Father become your God and Father; where the history of this only-begotten Son of God becomes your history and the history of all the adopted sons of God.
St. Mark goes straight to Baptism: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God… John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
It was the calling and privilege of John to prepare the way of the Lord. He was to preach so that the people were ready for Jesus. And what did John preach in order to prepare the way of the Lord? You have his doctrine summed up for you in verse four of our Gospel lesson: his message was one of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” In preaching repentance, John sought to turn the people from any sort of idol that they would trust in more than Jesus. In preaching forgiveness, John proclaimed that the One was coming who would forgive their sins and baptize them with the Holy Spirit for salvation. John was preaching repentance and forgiveness. In other words, John was preaching Law and Gospel.
As usual, St. Mark cuts straight to the chase, giving the major details without a lot of explanatory notes. We need to learn from the other Gospels just how John specifically applied this message of Law and Gospel to individuals.
In Luke 3, the people heard him preach of God’s judgment for sinners and convicted of their own sin said, “What shall we do then?” John answered, “He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise” (vv. 10-11). What he was saying, in effect, it this: “I’ll show you your sin, what keeps you from God. You do not love your neighbor as you should. You rely on your possessions for security, not the Lord. Repent: confess that you’ve made material things into an idol, because your trust in them keeps you from trusting the Lord.”
Tax collectors came to hear John, made fat by their extra collections, having lined their own pockets at the expense of their fellow citizens. “Teacher, what shall we do?” they asked, and John declared, “Collect no more than what is appointed for you” (Luke 3:13). In other words, “Your sin is that you’ve made an idol out of money, and you serve it by acts of greed and extortion. Your coins cannot raise you from the dead; and as long as you do trust in them, you’re not trusting in the One who can raise you from the dead. Repent!”
Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, “And what shall we do?” John said to them, “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:14). In other words, “Your sin is that you rely on your strength and your sword to get your way. And because you have that power at your disposal, you see no need for God’s mercy. Repent! As long as you trust in your strength, you won’t let the Savior be your Savior.”
In Matthew 3, John said to the Pharisees, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance.” In other words, “You believe that God is pleased by your works and many little rules. As long as you trust in yourself, and your own filthy works of righteousness you will not trust in the Savior. Repent!”
Do you see how this work? Sin says, “You don’t need a Savior. Cling to me, because I’ll fill the need.” Imagine lead weights in the pockets of a drowning man saying, “Keep us. We’ll save you.” Imagine an overloaded plane headed for the side of a mountain, with the cargo singing out, “You can’t live without us!” That’s what sin says to you. It wants you to cling to it so that you reject your Savior. It’s a dangerous, deadly lie. To hold on to sin is to say, “I don’t want Jesus to save me.”
Repentance, on the other hand, seeks to strip you of everything that would come between you and your Savior. It empties drowning pockets of those lethal lead weights and throws the burdensome cargo out the door. It prepares you for the Savior who forgives you all of your sins and gives you eternal life. It moves a sinner to say, “I cannot save myself, and I reject the idols I’ve trusted in.”
So John preached repentance. He didn’t tell anyone that they had to leave their vocation and join the monastery or do any other extraordinary works of righteousness. But to each one, he pointed out their sin, those things they clung to in order to keep Jesus from being their Savior. He urged each to cast away those chains that bound them to sin and the devil, and cling only to their Savior. Repent!
And once he preached that Law, he preached the Gospel. You know one of those proclamations well: having prepared the way of the Lord with the Law, John would soon point into the crowd and declared, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” It is still the calling and privilege of the Church to prepare the way of the Lord today.
John simply preached the same Law and Gospel, the same repentance and forgiveness, that Isaiah declared in our Old Testament lesson: “Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and His arm shall rule for Him; behold, His reward is with Him, and His recompense before Him” (Isaiah 40:10).  Peter declared the same in our epistle: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). That is how the way is prepared for Jesus among you: by this proclamation of Law and Gospel, preaching repentance and forgiveness of sins.
That’s the doctrine. It is pretty straightforward, basically the same for everyone. But any pastor will tell you that the application to each individual is the tricky part. But take a stab at it, anyway. Is the temptation knowledge? Do you believe that your knowledge of doctrine makes you more of a Christian than others? Then repent, for you are saying, “I need Jesus less than others, because I’m smarter than they are.” Confess the sin which seeks to push Jesus away, for He is the only One who is perfect in knowledge (Job. 37:16).
Is the temptation immorality? Are there illicit pleasures of thought or deed that you don’t want to give up? Do you say, “Since I believe in Jesus, He’ll go ahead and overlook my pet sins and immoralities”? Repent, for you are saying, “I am such a good Christian that the holy Son of God will excuse my unholiness.” Such thinking doesn’t want forgiveness; it wants a Savior who compromises and only saves you from some sins, but let you keep your favorites. Repent!
Is the temptation materialism? Do you look at the things that you have and says “My life with God is okay, because I’m taken care of”? Then you are measuring God’s love by things that rust, not the holy, precious blood of His Son who died for you. If you are trusting in your possessions as proof of God’s love, you are not trusting in His promises. Repent!
Is your temptation apathy? As in, “I’m just not that sinful, so I don’t need to worry about forgiveness that much”? You better go back to that confession you just made. You said you were sinful and unclean. Now you’re saying, “I don’t need Jesus to die for all that many sins. I’m better than that.” Repent.
Do you see? Every sin seeks to make you say, “I don’t need Jesus to be my Savior from that one. I don’t want Jesus to be my Savior.” To fail to repent is to cling to the sin. To cling to the sin is to shun the Savior and His grace. Repent.
Repent, because by repentance the Lord is preparing His way to you with grace. He has already gone the way of the cross to redeem you from your sin. He has washed away your sins and made you His own in Baptism. Now He comes to you by His Word and Supper to renew your Baptism, to give you the forgiveness of sins. And where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.
Why would you ever want to jump back into the depths of sin with lead weights in your pocket? Why would you ever want to leave the true freedom you have in Christ to go back to the bondage of death and the devil? Why would you ever want to cast away Christ’s robe of perfect righteousness and put back on those filthy rags of your own works and self-righteousness?
Repent, for the Savior is near. In fact, as your hearts are prepared by His Law unto repentance, I now point you to His Gospel and His Supper and declare, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” I point you to your Baptism. Remember, as far as St. Mark is concerned, Jesus’ Gospel begins with Baptism: a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Martin Luther’s somewhat unusual manner of speaking lays bare the great importance this Gospel has for you. Remember, Luther spoke about the Good News of Christ’s forgiveness as if it were his own possession. He called it “my gospel” and “my theology.” You should learn to think along the same lines. You should practice the habit of speaking about “your gospel” and “your theology.”
You could say things like: “My theology urges me to drown my Old Adam by daily contrition and repentance, so that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. It compels me to receive the sacrament of the altar regularly, for here I receive my Lord’s pledge and token of forgiveness and life.” “My Gospel grows more comforting for me every day, especially in light of all my repeated sins and failures.”  “My Gospel and my theology will give great benefits also to you.”
When you teach yourself to think and speak this way, you will be doing more than learning from or emulating a great theologian of the Christian Church. When you learn to speak about “my Gospel” and “my theology,” you will be wrapping your heart and mind around what St. Mark is proclaiming to you here today. “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God… John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
Using such phrases as “my Gospel” and “my theology,” you will be confessing before God and man that everything belonging to Jesus is now yours. Everything that Jesus earned by His suffering and death is now credited to you. The Gospel belonging to Jesus is your Gospel. The death died by Jesus is your death. The resurrection victory won by Jesus is your resurrection. The forgiveness secured by Jesus is your forgiveness.  Indeed, this is the Gospel of Jesus Christ for you: you are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Into the Wilderness

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