Thursday, December 31, 2015

We Have a Code Adam!

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“And when His parents saw Him, they were astonished. And His mother said to Him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for You in great distress.” And He said to them, “Why were you looking for Me? Did you not know that I must be in My Father’s house?” And they did not understand the saying that He spoke to them. And He went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them” (Luke 2:48-50).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
“We have a ‘Code Adam!” More than any other announcement I heard over the speakers during my three plus years of working overnights at Walmart, this was the one I dreaded most. “Code Adam” means that a child is missing. And though it usually only took a few minutes until the child was found, that time between the announcement and the order to cancel was extremely nerve wracking.
In a “Code Adam” finding the child becomes the top priority of every employee on the floor, especially for those who carry walkie-talkies. A description was given of the missing child. Some of the associates closed and monitored all the exterior access to the building. The rest of us would go up and down each of the aisles looking for the missing child until he or she was located—most of the time, in a relatively safe place like the restroom or toy section. This was not such an unlikely place, just not where the child’s parents expected him or her to be.
Because of the seriousness of the situation, you could never take that happy ending for granted. If the child was not found in ten minutes, law enforcement needed to be called. Fortunately, the longest it ever took to locate a child on a night when I was working was about five minutes—some of the longest minutes of my life, but certainly not nearly as long as it seemed to the little boy’s frantic parents.
Imagine what it was like for Mary and Joseph!
But before we get to their “Code Adam,” I’d like to go back to the first.
The Father’s urgent call went out in the Garden: “Where are you?” It was a rhetorical question, of course. The Father already knew; He just wanted His children to realize the seriousness of their situation. They were in trouble, but the source of that trouble was not who they thought. They were hiding from the only one who cared, the only one who could help. Failure to properly fear, love, and trust God had led them to improper fear. But that’s often the case, isn’t it?
To be sure, this was not a case of parental neglect or carelessness, but outright rebellion. He was, He is, the perfect Father—the only perfect parent in history. Still, His children were missing. They were in what would normally be considered a safe spot, but they were not where their Father expected them to be. In their shame, they actually tried to hide from Him. Adam claimed the shame was due to their lack of proper attire, but the Father didn’t buy it. He had created them that way! No, their shame was caused by something far worse than nakedness. It was sin, and it was the shame and guilt of sin that caused them to try to hide.
Adam and Eve had failed to fear, love, and trust God above all things. They had sought to be like God. They had disobeyed God’s Word, failed to hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it. They had lied and coveted. Adam had failed to love and honor his wife or protect her, but had tried to shift the blame for his sin to her. The consequences for them and all their descendants were disastrous and deadly. As with all good discipline, they were also directly related to the offenses.
God first addressed Eve, who had believed Satan’s lies and fell for his temptation. Now, in the areas of her life, where Eve would have found the most joy, Eve and her daughters would experience heartache and pain. The pain of childbirth would be a reminder that sin brings sorrow and suffering. Marital strife and jockeying for position would mark marriage rather than mutual submission and humble service under God-pleasing headship. 
To remind Adam of his failure to provide godly headship for his wife and to help him in his daily battle with his sinful nature, the Creator cursed the ground. No more, would food simply be had for the picking. Adam, as well as generations to come, would experience misery and difficulty wringing a livelihood out of the soil. After the fall, all of creation would suffer under man’s stewardship.
The final penalty God announced for Adam’s sin was that his body, into which the Creator had breathed the breath of life, would one day return to the material from which it had originally been made. What a shattering message for Adam to hear! “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” God had warned Adam of the consequences of eating the forbidden fruit. Now, he and his descendants would know firsthand. St. Paul writes: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). 
Which is why the Second Adam came: “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:17-19).
And that brings us to the “Code Adam” of our Gospel—the time when twelve-year-old Jesus, the Second Adam, goes missing for three days.
Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph regularly went up to Jerusalem every year for the Passover. This feast celebrated the redemption of the people of Israel from Egypt and was observed in the spring of the year. It was the most important of the Jewish festivals and the Law made attendance mandatory for all adult males.
At the conclusion of the Passover feast, Mary and Joseph started back to Nazareth, supposing that Jesus was among the group of pilgrims who were traveling together. But at nightfall, the boy was nowhere to be found. A frantic search began for the missing son, a “Code Adam” that lasted for three days.
Finally, Jesus was discovered in the temple courts. He was making quite an impression on the crowd that had gathered. Here was no ordinary boy; His questions and answers showed superior knowledge and understanding. Mary and Joseph were also astonished—and a bit perturbed—when they found Him. This is evident from Mary’s words: “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.”
The words that Jesus speaks to His mother here are the first recorded in any of the Gospels. At this point we might expect a sheepish apology from any other boy; or, at the very least a string of excuses. But no apologies, no excuses, are forthcoming. Jesus, who had so effectively engaged the best religious minds with His profound questions, now respectfully questions His mother to lead her to a deeper understand of His purpose and mission: “Why were you looking for Me? Did you not know that I must be in My Father’s house?”
Jesus isn’t chiding Mary for looking for Him. I’m sure He knew, even when He stayed back three days earlier, that Mary and Joseph would be coming for Him. Nor is Jesus a petulant adolescent saying, “I can take care of Myself,” although that would never be more true for anyone than it is for Him. Jesus is asking why it took them three days to find Him, when they should have known from the very start where He would be—at His Father’s house.
There was, in these questions, a gentle lesson for Mary. She was tempted, to think of Jesus as an ordinary child, one over whom she had complete control. In many ways, Jesus was so ordinary it was easy for her to forget who He is. As she would be reminded again at the wedding in Cana, Mary had to learn that Jesus was directed by a greater will, the will of the heavenly Father, in a way no other child was directed.
Luke closes out this story by telling us that Jesus returned with Mary and Joseph and grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and men.
There are at least two things we can learn from our Gospel that are important to our salvation and our faith in Jesus. The first is that He was obedient to His parents under the 4th Commandment. Though He was Mary and Joseph’s Lord, He obeyed them as their son—and He did it perfectly.
Jesus came under the Law for us. To actively fulfill it. Where Adam failed, where you and I failed, where every man, woman, twelve-year-old boy, and baby has failed, Jesus kept it perfectly in our place. That’s what is going on with His circumcision, His presentation, His appearance at the temple. He is there in obedience to the Law for us, in our place, for our salvation. He is being prepared, yes; but not simply to be numbered with the men of Israel and participate in the Passover. He is being prepared for His own Passover, His sacrifice on the cross.      
Mary and Joseph could not have known that day what the future would hold. The angel had only told them that He would save His people from their sins. But He didn’t say how. In twenty years, Jesus would come back to Jerusalem for His appointed hour. Again Mary would be there, this time without her husband. At the cross, she would know what it meant that He had to be in His Father’s house to do His Father’s will. But for now she treasured all these things in her heart. Understanding what it all means is not a prerequisite for faith.
Jesus was obedient to Mary and Joseph. That’s the first thing to remember on this second Sunday of Christmas. This Child of Bethlehem was born to be like us in every way, yet without sin. Every facet of Jesus’ life reflects your life, except without sin. And it is done so ordinarily, that no one even notices that there is something different about Jesus—not even Mary. So never say it is human to sin. It’s not. Jesus did not sin, and yet He was so perfectly human, no one even noticed.
A second thought for today is this: God works hidden and humbly. We see this throughout the Christmas story and Jesus’ childhood. Jesus’ divinity is buried deeply, completely hidden from human eyes. He appears to be just another twelve-year-old in the temple. A rather precocious, theologically engaged twelve-year-old, to be certain. But no one was saying, “Hey, this kid is God!” You and I probably would have lost him in the crowd, too. The incarnation of God is like that. It doesn’t fit our way of thinking or our pious religious notions about God. A twelve-year-old God just does not compute.
One thing you can’t say about Jesus is that He doesn’t know what it’s like to be one of us. He really is Immanuel—God with us, and “with us” so hidden, so humbly that we wouldn’t have even noticed Him. But that’s precisely how God always works among us. Not out in the open, but hidden. Not in the powerful and mighty, but in the lowly and humble. A manger, a cross. A womb, a tomb. A boy. A man. He embraces your life in all its humanity. Why, He even knows what it’s like to be chewed out by your parents when you haven’t done anything wrong!
That hiddenness is not understood today, nor can it be. Who Jesus is and what He has done must be revealed to us by the Holy Spirit and seen through the gift of faith. There is no other way. Mary treasured these things up in her heart. And that treasured up Word had its way with her, creating and enlivening a living faith in her Son, God’s Son, and that would sustain her as she saw Him obey His Father’s will all the way to the cross and the tomb.
Jesus comes to you today in the same hidden and humble way. Where? In His Father’s house. In water and Word, bread and wine—means of grace, so common and ordinary, so easily ignored and rejected as a twelve-year-old kid in the temple. But the Word says there’s something more there than meets our eyes, our senses, or our reason. This is the power of God to save, God in the flesh come to save us, the Second Adam, Jesus Christ. In Him and through Him and by Him, 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 26, 2015

Put Off the Old and Put On the New

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“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful” (Colossians 3:12-15).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
For over three years I worked overnights as a support manager at Wal-Mart. And as you might suspect, the month of December is a real zoo. You have extra customers on the floor at all hours of the night making it even more challenging to get the freight out so it can be stocked. There are longer lines than usual at the checkout counters and service desks. There is extra freight on extra trucks, some of them running late due to weather concerns. This isn’t surprising to any of you, I’m sure. But what might surprise you is the content of the freight coming in.
You see, most of the special Christmas items—the electronic equipment, household appliances, toys—all of that comes in weeks earlier. The extra freight that comes in December is gearing up for the New Year—for people’s New Year’s resolutions to be more specific. Workout equipment, pallets full of Slimfast shakes and Nicorette gum and patches, all are ready for people looking to quit old habits and to begin new healthy lifestyles—to put off the old and put on the new.   
“Put Off the Old and Put On the New”: a fitting theme for today’s text, Colossians 3:12-17, where St. Paul urges us to put on Christian virtues: compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, love, harmony, peace, and thankfulness.
We’ll look at those virtues in a few minutes. But first we need to back up so that we might properly understand the context. Any passage of Scripture can be taken out of context and misinterpreted, and this one is especially susceptible to abuse. Taken by itself, this list of virtues sounds like a compilation of New Year’s resolutions that anyone might make—Christian or non-Christian. Character traits or good habits that I, by my own strength and willpower, resolve to work on and improve to be a better person, to live a healthier, longer, more productive life.
But this approach ignores one important factor: I, like you, am, by nature, a poor, miserable sinner. I am dead and blind, an enemy of God, opposed to Him and His Word and His will. I cannot, by my own reason or strength, believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him. I cannot pull myself up by my own theological or moral bootstraps, but I’m too obtuse to even realize my helplessness.   
That’s where context comes into play. Notice how this passage begins: “Put on then…” or also translated, “Therefore, put on…” Anytime you see “then” or “therefore” you have to know what came before it to correctly understand the text.   “Then” or “therefore” indicates cause and effect, or, at least, gives a sense of order:  “This is true, therefore it follows that …” or “That happens first, then this happens…” To see what St. Paul really means, we need to back up a bit.
In the first two chapters of his Epistle, Paul deals quite directly and thoroughly with false teachings that are threatening the Church at Colossae. He confronts the various elements of that false doctrine with the all-sufficiency of Christ and reminds them of how through the water and Word, they have been made alive in Christ. In Baptism, their sinful flesh has been put to death in Christ and they were raised with Christ in His resurrection. They are now children of the Gospel, not slaves to the Law. So they should not return to the shadows of Old Testament rituals or the lies of those who claim special revelation, but should remain centered in the substance that belongs to Christ and Him crucified.
Human traditions and rituals have the appearance of wisdom, but that is all they have. They lead not toward Christ and salvation, but away from Him and to destruction. Such human teachings have no value in overcoming sin. Those who follow them do nothing but indulge their own pride. The Christian faith is not something that can be reduced to a set of rules or principles for holy or successful living. The Christian faith is being in Christ; being rooted and built up in Him; being buried, made alive, and raised with Christ; walking and living with Him.
To be sure, we Christians will use God’s moral law as a guide for our lives. Its perfection is the goal for which we constantly strive, but our striving to keep the Law has absolutely nothing to do with gaining salvation. Rather it is the result of our being saved, the thankful expression of faith that has found its sufficiency in Christ. We must not put the theological cart before the horse. We are not saved by good works or holy living but saved for good works and holy living.
Having established the foundation for our salvation in the doctrinal portion, Paul follows with a practical section here, giving the Colossians encouragement and advice for their day-to-day Christian living. As he does, he shows us the vital connection between what we believe and how we live. Just as Christ is all-sufficient for our faith, Christ is also all-sufficient for our living out that faith.
Having been saved through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, we daily drown the Old Adam through contrition and repentance. We put off all that is of our sinful nature: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, covetousness, idolatry, anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk. Having been buried with Christ in His death and raised with Christ through the glory of the Father, we set our minds on heavenly things, rather than earthly things.
By God’s grace, we have been made a special people, a people who belong to God. We are His “chosen ones,” a name God had given to His people Israel, and a name that most applies to His Son, Jesus Christ—the Chosen One. From all eternity, God, out of pure grace, chose out of the mass of sinful humanity, all those whom He would call to be His children. This choice did not rest on any merit or worthiness of any of us, nor was it a matter of some of us being more inclined to believe than others. Since Adam’s fall, all human beings by nature are equally sinful and spiritually dead. We are all equally unable to save ourselves or to respond to the call of the Gospel. But in His undeserved and immeasurable love, God brings it to be that some believe the Gospel and are saved.
The fact that God has chosen us to be His saved people makes us “holy and beloved,” also designations applied to Israel and to Christ Himself in the Old Testament. Cleansed by the blood of Christ and delivered from the bondage of sin, we are God’s holy ones. We are set apart for Him to be the continuous recipients of His love and to be renewed daily in His image.
Compassion is the first virtue that Paul lists. This compassion is a deep feeling of affection rooted in the love of Christ. Clothed with Christ’s compassion, we extend compassion to others, especially to those who are suffering.
“Kindness” is related, but somewhat broader than compassion. Kindness is a cordial, loving disposition that knows no harshness. Kindness is shown by believers to anyone, including strangers, whom we can benefit in any way.
Compassion and kindness lead to humility, the virtue that guides us to strive to place ourselves below others and to put the welfare of others before our own. Genuine humility is recognition of our own sin and unworthiness and a true appreciation of what God has done for us in Christ. Humble Christians follow the example of Christ, seeking to serve God and neighbor in self-sacrificing love.
“Meekness” is also a Christian virtue. Meekness is not a spinelessness that refuses to take a stand on any principle; it is a quiet strength. We, who follow Jesus, will always stand firm in Him. At the same time, we will exhibit gentleness in our dealings with others, suffering injury rather than inflicting it.
Meekness is coupled with patience. Patient Christians do not bear a grudge and refuse to harbor thoughts of revenge when wronged. We must always remember that we are sinners living with other sinners. In spite of all our efforts, there will be occasions when we will hurt one another. But day after day, we bear with one another and help one another lovingly overlook slights and personality quirks. We help one another grow, rather than cruelly tearing one another down.
And we will cheerfully “forgive each other” as complaints against one another arise, just as Christ has forgiven us.         Jesus teaches us to pray: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” He forgave His enemies from the cross, and on the cross, He endured injustice that makes any of the injuries we may suffer at one another’s hands seem minor indeed. Even now, though we often spurn His love and fail to share it with others, He daily restores and forgives us. If we understand this, there should never be any question about our willingness to forgive one another.
Over all these, Paul concludes, put on love, which binds all these virtues “together in perfect harmony.” Love is the crowning virtue in every Christian’s life, the one without which all the others cannot even exist. This finds its perfect example and source in Christ. It is a love of conscious, purposeful self-giving. It is love extended even to the unloving and unlovable, without discrimination. This love gives value to everything we do, and it enables us to move forward together as we strive for the goal of perfect maturity in our lives, a goal we will ultimately reach, by God’s grace, in the glory of eternal life.
“The peace of Christ” is the rest and contentment of those who know Jesus and His forgiving love. It is the confidence that our loving Savior will work all things for our good. This peace, which passes all understanding, is bestowed upon us by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel. As it fills our hearts, it enables us to be at peace, not only with God but also with ourselves and with one another.
Christians whose hearts are filled with Christ’s love and are ruled by His peace will naturally be thankful. As our knowledge of Christ and the spiritual blessings we have in Him grow and mature, so will our gratitude; and that gratitude will become evident in our whole manner of living. Love and peace result in gratitude, and gratitude, in turn, promotes love and peace.
But remember, this is not a “To Do” list; this is a “Put On” list. We are to put on these virtues. These virtues are not ours to accomplish but are gifts provided by God. They are Christ’s virtues, His robe of righteousness, His garment of salvation, exchanged on the Cross for our fig leaves of self-righteousness and filthy rags of works-righteousness. They were bestowed to us at Baptism. We simply need to put on them, wrap ourselves in them daily, and continue wearing them until the great and glorious Day He bids us to enter His eternal wedding feast.
This new nature and the virtues it produces are the products of the Holy Spirit’s work through the Gospel. In order to stand firm and grow in these virtues, we need to maintain continual contact with the Gospel of Christ. That is why Paul urges “let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly.” The Scriptures should be more than something that we hear periodically or invite as an occasional guest into our homes. The Word of Christ should inhabit us continually, filling every corner of our lives with blessed spiritual wisdom, as we spend time in daily prayer and the study of God’s Word.
Obviously, the Scriptures should especially be the focal point of congregational worship and all of the church’s other activities. On the basis of the Word of Christ and the divine wisdom it imparts, we are to teach and admonish one another in public and in private. When the Word dwells in us, we will grow in faith and knowledge and Christian living, and we will be able to encourage one another. When we ignore the Scriptures or use them infrequently and carelessly, we deprive ourselves of blessings the Lord would gladly shower upon us.
So, put off the old, put on the new. Clothe yourself in Christ’s righteousness given to you in Holy Baptism. Daily put to death that sinful old man through contrition and repentance that the new man may arise to live in righteousness and blessedness forever. Let His peace rule your hearts as you receive Christ’s very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. Let Christ’s Word of wisdom dwell in you richly. Sing thankful songs of praise. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him. For Jesus’ sake, you have salvation and eternal life and peace. Indeed, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Monday, December 21, 2015

Christmas in the Shadow of the Tree

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“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall crush your head, and you shall bruise His heel” (Genesis 3:15).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
It is fitting, I suppose, that we speak tonight from the shadow of a tree. It is Christmas Eve, after all, and we Lutherans love our Christmas trees. In fact, it was a Lutheran pastor, Rev. H. C. Schwann, who is credited with putting up the first Christmas tree in an American church in 1851. What a beautiful tree we have here! Bright white lights! Shiny silver and royal blue ornaments! A dazzling star! But the fruit on this tree, though a delight to the eye, is obviously not good for food, nor does it promise to make one wise, like the forbidden fruit of the tree in Eden. 
The Lord spoke the words of our text from the shadow of that tree on one of the worst days ever—the day that Adam and Eve fell into sin. God had created the man and the woman and placed them in Paradise so that they might live with Him forever. He’d given them dominion over all creation, only withholding from them one thing—the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But tempted by the serpent, Eve ate the forbidden fruit while Adam stood by and said nothing, and then even participated in the sin himself. Sin came into the world, and death through sin. The days of creation were suddenly numbered.
The consequences of the Fall would be many and horrendous, and the Lord was about to tell Adam and Eve what would happen. But first, even before He spoke of the pain and strife and death which was to follow, He spoke to give them hope—a silver lining of promise in the dark cloud of judgment. To the serpent, He said: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall crush your head, and you shall bruise His heel.”
Enmity… an enemy of Satan was coming; and while the devil would manage to bruise his opponent’s heel, his opponent would crush the devil’s head. Who would this be? The Lord declared it would be the Seed of the woman, a strange phrase indeed, because women don’t have seed; men do. It was as if this devil’s enemy would be born of a woman alone, without her having known a man. Behold the great mercy of God on sinful man. Even before the Lord described the consequences of sin to Adam and Eve, He first promised that a Savior was coming. He’d be born of a woman; and while the devil would hurt Him for a time, He would destroy the devil and his power once for all.
While the Lord spoke to give Adam and Eve hope, His words gave no comfort to Satan at all. You see, the Lord didn’t specify which child born to which woman would be the Savior. So for thousands of years, each time a child was born, the devil would have to wonder if this would be the one who would crush him. For even Satan knows that God keeps His Word.
And so, in the course of time, God kept His promise. In the backwoods town of Nazareth, the angel appeared to Mary and spoke the Word of God; and Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit so that He might be born of the Virgin Mary in the little town of Bethlehem. The Savior was now become flesh, and from the moment He took the form of a single cell in Mary’s womb, His flesh and blood had one destination—a tree on a hill called Calvary.
Thus, our Christmas Eve finds us in the shadow of one more tree. A leafless tree, with only one fruit hanging from its branches, the fruit of Mary’s womb, the God-man Jesus Christ. Behold your Savior on the cross! It’s not as pretty as the Christmas tree, is it? It’s not as cute and cuddly as a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. But it’s oh-so-important to your salvation. For this is where the Lord keeps the rest of His promise to save His people from their sin. Here, the Seed of the woman crushes the serpent’s head.
From the story of Christ’s passion, you can visualize the physical suffering, at least as much of the wounds and the blood and the cruelty as your mind will permit you to imagine. By faith, you also believe what you cannot comprehend: not only does Jesus suffer physically on the cross, but He also suffers God’s judgment and hell for the sins of all the world. In other words, while the physical suffering is horrendous, it is only a small bit of the suffering that the Lord truly undergoes. You cannot comprehend the full, eternal agony that Jesus suffers on that cross as He bears God’s righteous wrath for each sin of every sinner.
And yet, you rejoice in this: while the suffering of the Lord Jesus Christ is infinitely unimaginable on the cross, for Him it is only the bruising of His heel. The Lord keeps that promise, too. Even as Jesus hangs on Calvary’s tree in God’s Judgment, He remains the Son of God who will be delivered from this condemnation. The Lord keeps His promise as Jesus suffers on that cross—for three days later, He is risen from the dead. The devil is thoroughly crushed.
That’s not to say that say that he won’t try to take you with him. Even as Satan struggles in the final throes of death, he will draw upon one of his various schemes and lies from his bag of tricks to trip you up, too. Given the chance, the evil one would use your sins against you in order to accuse you: “Do you see what you have done? Surely God has no love or mercy for the likes of you, and you can’t atone for your guilt.” But this lie is crushed at Calvary. Your Savior declares, “I see what you have done. But you, look at the cross and hear that there I have suffered for all of your sins, paid the price for them all. You can’t atone for your guilt, but I have. And no matter the devil’s accusations, I say you are forgiven.”
The evil one would also use death and grave to haunt you: “What hope do you have as a Christian? You grow sick and weary; you lose friends and loved ones; and eventually, you also will die and go to the grave. What advantage do you have being a Christian? Forsake this Savior, for you are still going to die.”
This weapon, too, is destroyed at Calvary. The Lord declares, “Until I return, it is given to you to rest in the grave; but look to the cross and hear this Word. I have already gone to the grave, and I have come back out. I am the death of death because the grave could not hold Me. And as I have been raised from the dead, so also I will raise you, My people, from death and grave to everlasting life.”
The devil will whisper that he still has the upper hand; sure, Jesus scored some points on the cross, but the evil one still has the power to snatch you into hell forever. But his power is destroyed at Calvary. The Lord declares, “I have paid the price and broken out of the tomb. Furthermore, I have descended into hell to declare My victory. The gates of hell could not keep Me out, nor could they keep Me there. I have conquered hell for you, and I will raise you up to heaven.”
The promise made long ago has been fulfilled for you. The Seed of the woman was born in Bethlehem in order to be the Sacrifice for your sin. He went to the cross and crushed Satan’s head, robbing him of every possible weapon by which he might snatch you away. One day soon, He will return to bring you home with Him. There, in Paradise, you will eat of the tree of life, that yields its fruit continuously, Christ Jesus Himself.
Joy to the world! The Lord has come—for you. The Savior has died—for you. Jesus is risen—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.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

A Body You Have Prepared for Me

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“Consequently, when Christ came into the world, He said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings You have not desired, but a body have You prepared for Me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings You have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God, as it is written of Me in the scroll of the book’” (Hebrews 10:5-7).
Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ!
“Frost glistens in the light as it melts from the back of wooly lambs, gleaming and shimmering and dripping as the animals doze. The lambs rise to stretch. They shiver, steam wafting from their warm legs and bellies. They look up expectantly toward a man standing near their gate. He leans on the edge of the pen and looks the herd over carefully, wondering which lambs to feed and which to choose for the morning sacrifice. It is a great and festive day—most holy. And yet, tomorrow he will have to choose again, and so the next day, and the next” (The Lutheran Study Bible, p. 2103).
It was a bloody cycle of death, repeated daily in the temple and multiplied in intensity during festivals and holy days. The temple in Jerusalem had, in fact, been dedicated by David’s son, Solomon, with a sacrificial offering of 120,000 sheep and 22,000 oxen. All of this happened according to God’s will and in accordance with the covenant He had established with His people Israel. All the sacrifices that time and time again were carried out in the innermost courtyard were constant reminders of the essence of sin and the seriousness of guilt. Because of sin we were separated from God. We deserved to die. The penalty for sin is death. Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness. The people confessed this as they brought their sacrifice. They prayed for purification and forgiveness. That purification, however, could never be complete; it has to be constantly repeated.
All of this was a foreshadowing. When the Messiah came, it was to finally, once and for all, fulfill the things that the sacrifices promised and depicted. Jesus had received a human body so that He, through His body, would carry our sins upon the tree, so that He could shed His holy precious blood to purchase and redeem you and me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil.     The words of our text are a quote from Psalm 40:6-8. It’s a beautiful conversation that the Son carries on with the Father, and it describes Jesus’ constant attitude toward His Father during His life and ministry here on earth. “When Christ came into the world” refers to His entire incarnation, beginning at His conception, when He first took on a human body.
Sacrifices of any kind were not what the Father desired. Rivers of animal blood and mountains of animal carcasses were not what God really wanted though He had commanded them in the Law. Also, God could not be pleased with just the outward repetition of such sacrifices if willing, obedient hearts were not behind them. These sacrifices were only pleasing to God when offered through faith. Moreover, the sacrifices themselves would not have been effective were it not for their fulfillment in Christ. What God desired was that to which all those Old Testament sacrifices pointed—the willing sacrifice of His Son.
“A body have You prepared for Me” refers to this willing sacrifice. The scope of that sacrifice is emphasized with the Messiah’s words: “Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God, as it is written of Me in the scroll of the book.” Wherever we unroll the Old Testament scroll, we find reference to the Son’s wholehearted delight in carrying out His Father’s will. Even when the divine will entails suffering that a human being would naturally seek to avoid, Christ is obedient to the holy will of His Father. Christ comes in the flesh to fulfill the Law, to satisfy God’s justice, and to redeem the human race. This is not a random accident, but the eternal plan of God foretold in the prophetic Word.
In one of our Lenten hymns, we have the flavor of this heavenly conversation beautifully captured: “‘Go forth, My Son,’ the Father said, ‘and free My children from their dread of guilt and condemnation. The wrath and stripes are hard to bear, but by Your passion they will share the fruit of Your salvation.’ ‘Yes, Father, yes, most willingly I’ll bear what you command Me. My will conforms to Your decree; I’ll do what You have asked Me.’ O wondrous Love, what have you done! The Father offers up His Son, desiring our salvation” (LSB 438:2,3).
And so we ask the good Lutheran question: What does this mean? What does it mean for you and me that the fruit of the Virgin’s womb, the Baby born in Bethlehem, is given that body to sacrifice Himself on your behalf?
A couple of things: one is about Jesus and the other one is about you.
The one about Jesus is this: the miracle of Christmas is God taking on a body to be your Savior. Along with the cross, this is the scandal of Christianity. Many are happy to acknowledge that they believe in a “God out there somewhere,” and many are happy to coo about a cute little baby in a manger in Bethlehem. But it is only by faith that one can point to the Infant in Mary’s arms and say, “That is the Word made flesh dwelling among us. Mary is holding the body of her Creator in her arms. Mary is truly “the mother of God” (SD VIII 24).
Nearly all the major heresies about Christ begin with a rejection of this point, this God-become-flesh. You can find them in the history books. You can also find them in religious thought today. By the grace of God, we confess the truth that Jesus is “true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary.” It is vital to do so, and it is what the Scriptures teach. He had to be true man to die in our place. He had to be true God to die for us all. So whether it be when you peer into the manger five days from now, or months later, hold fast to this truth: the Son of God became flesh, without sin, to save us from our sin. To lose that confession is to lose so quickly your certainty of salvation.
The second point is about you and your body. The Christian faith is not just concerned about your soul or the thoughts of your mind, but your body, too. Adam and Eve were created to live forever—both body and soul. That’s why Jesus honors your body by taking on a body like yours in order to save you, all of you. It may well be that you don’t give your body quite the credit it deserves. You’re tempted to see yourself as a soul wrapped up in a body, with only the soul really counting before God. You’ll sometimes get that idea at a funeral, where the focus is on the soul of the deceased now in heaven, but sadly, little or no mention of the greater hope we have of “the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” 
I guess that higher view of the soul over the body is understandable. After all, you can see the effects of sin on your body in the form of pain, injury, and disease. You can’t see the effects of sin on the soul—you take that on faith. And because we are usually trusting our eyes more than our ears, you’re going to tend to think “soul: good, body: bad.” But once you start doing that, you’re in trouble.
Take, for instance, your view of other people. They have both bodies and souls, created by God and died for by Jesus. The world will argue that it’s only the body that matters, and so it is useless for the Church to devote itself to the care of souls. The world is wrong, of course. The Lord appoints rulers, doctors, farmers. and others to tend and protect bodies, so body-care is pretty well covered. The Church is the only institution appointed by God to care for the soul, and to do so in His Word and Sacrament. So we are careful to focus on the proclamation of Christ and Him crucified with the knowledge that redemption is for both body and soul.
However, you’ll be tempted to say, “Since I’m caring for the soul, I need not worry about my neighbor’s body.” James warns, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (2:15-17).
This is not just about others, but also about you. Your body is fearfully and wonderfully made by God, and your body has been redeemed by Christ on the cross. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the devil will tempt you in all sort of ways to believe that your body is a throwaway, that God only cares about the soul.
One of the first heresies that early Christians had to contend with was Gnosticism, which taught that physical bodies were evil and God only cared about souls. The Gnostics were divided into two camps. Some said that because the body was evil, you needed to deprive your body of any sort of pleasure and comfort whatsoever. This meant staying in a perpetual state of hunger, sleep deprivation, etc. The other camp said that since the body was evil and didn’t matter before God, you could use your body for any sort of activity that gave you pleasure.
Gnosticism is false teaching to the core, but this view of the body slips into Christianity, too. Consider the attitude of the medieval monk, who said, “Because my body has sinful desires, I must punish my body by fasting, whipping, and sleep deprivation. In doing so, I will prove to God my desire to follow Him.” When you commit sins of the flesh, you may have the same desire to punish your body, too.
We must make two important points: one is that hurting your body doesn’t get rid of your sin; forgiveness does. The other point is that your body certainly needs discipline, but that’s different from punishment. For example: should you regret using your eyes to fill your mind with wicked images, the answer is not to gouge them out. The answer is to confess your sin, be forgiven; and then discipline your body to avoid those images and fill your mind with godly things instead.
Punishment of the body is perhaps more common than we might think, especially when one includes eating disorders, cutting, and other troubles we find especially among youth. These certainly have a psychological side that needs to be treated, too. But do not neglect the spiritual part, for punishment of the body indicates trouble between that person and God.
We must move on to the temptations of the other camp of Gnostics, the ones who said that you can do anything you want with your body because God only cares about your soul. This is a much more popular temptation because indulging is always preferred to punishment. In a pleasure-driven society like ours, it is far too common for Christians to excuse sin by compartmentalizing their lives. In cooperation with your sinful flesh, it is far too easy to say, “I can indulge in immorality or addiction, or whatever, but this doesn’t affect my faith.”
It is a striking demonstration of sin that one can convince himself that he can terribly misuse the gift without offending the Giver. But your body is God’s gift, created and redeemed by Christ’s blood. Thus, Paul declares in Romans, “Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness” (Romans 6:13). Do not give up your body to sin and pretend your soul is fine. This will kill your faith.
When confronted with this truth, your sinful flesh will say, “But I’m so weak! God’s grace is enough to strengthen my soul, but not my body against temptation.” This is only self-serving, and it accuses Jesus’ cross and forgiveness of being insufficient. His grace is sufficient for you. Repent. Be free. Pet sins may haunt you for life, but that does not make them acceptable to God. Repent and rejoice that the blood of Jesus Christ covers the sins of His repentant people.
We have time for one more application, one that has to do with sickness and especially the end of life. When it comes to discussing end-of-life decisions, the world seeks to justify euthanasia by arguing that there is a point where life becomes too much of a burden. But life is never a burden; life is a gift of God. The curse of sin is a burden that afflicts life. The solution is not to get rid of burdensome life, but continue to live a repentant life, joyfully looking forward to the time when the Lord delivers you from this vale of tears to life everlasting.
Likewise, when it comes to health issues, it is tempting to start to view the body as the problem. The body is not the problem. It is a creation of God. It is corrupted by sin, but it is still God’s gift. Disease and injury are the trouble, not the body itself. Therefore, we do our best to take care of the body, always looking forward to the time when Christ will raise us from the dead. St. Paul writes, “For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like His glorious body, by the power that enables Him even to subject all things to Himself” (Philippians 3:18-21).
There’s that miraculous statement again! Jesus Christ has a body. A glorious body. A real body and real blood for real sin and real sinners. He was born of Mary to have a body, and with it, He has borne our sins to the cross. He rose again three days later—body and all, and He kept that body as He ascended into heaven. He even continues to give you His body and blood, His very real body and blood, for the forgiveness of your sins. His embodiment, His Incarnation, is what Christ is about. And it says to you that there is no part of you that is not redeemed. He has saved you, body and soul. He will raise you up to eternal life, body and soul, for He has reversed the curse of sin, and He will not leave any part of you in the grave.
In the meantime, you were bought with a price, so glorify God in your body. You are the Lord’s, body and soul, because His grace is for all of you. You are His, body and soul, because you are forgiven for all of your sins.

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

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Blessed Are the Unoffended

Click here to listen to this sermon.

“Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by Me” (Luke 7:22-23).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
We live in a day where it seems that everyone is easily offended. Just look at the news or social media. Some people are offended if you say, “Merry Christmas!”, others are offended by “Happy Holidays!” Some are offended by nativity scenes in public places, others are offended by red Starbucks cups that fail to mention Christmas. Some are offended by just about anything said by President Obama or Hillary Clinton, others are just as scandalized by Ben Carson or Ted Cruz. Only Donald Trump seems to be able to offend just about everybody and get more attention and gain popularity. What does it take for someone or something to offend you? Can you remember the last time you were genuinely offended? What caused it? How did it make you feel? Angry? Shocked? Vengeful? What was your response? Was it something like, “How dare you!”? “How dare you question my integrity!”? “How dare you question my intelligence!”? “How dare you accuse me of wrongdoing!”? Or did you just give them “the silent treatment”?
Our Lord Jesus was no stranger to people taking offense. His earthly ministry lasted only three years, but it was enough time to offend all sorts of people in all sorts of ways. Some, like the Pharisees, were offended by Jesus because He threatened their authority and positions of power. Others, even some of His disciples, were offended because He was not acting the way they expected of the Messiah. The Gospels record how, time and again, people were scandalized or offended by something Jesus said or did, or even by something He didn’t say or do.
There were times when His words were just too hard to swallow. In John 6, Jesus proclaimed that He is the bread of life, “the bread that came down from heaven” (v. 41). That was enough for many to begin grumbling and arguing among themselves. And when Jesus eventually used the language of eating His flesh and drinking His blood (v. 53), “many of His disciples turned back and no longer walked with Him” (v. 66). Later in John’s Gospel, the words of our Lord created a scandal when He told the Jews, “Before Abraham was, I am” (8:58).
At other times it wasn’t Jesus’ words that caused offense; it was what He was doing. Jesus had the audacity to give sight to a blind man on the Sabbath. In response to this miraculous event, “Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for He does not keep the Sabbath’” (John 9:16). When Jesus healed the paralytic and told him his sins were forgiven, the scribes asked themselves, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:5-7).
And, of course, there were those times when Jesus was judged by the company He kept. Think how many of the culturally elite took offense as Jesus ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners or when He allowed Himself to be associated with prostitutes and Samaritans. They called him “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34).
In the end, it wasn’t only what Jesus said and did that caused so many to reject Him. For some, what Jesus failed to do caused the greatest offense. Consider all those who greeted the Savior on Palm Sunday, laying down their palm branches and shouting their hosannas, believing that Jesus was the conquering hero who would lead them to political and military victory against their Roman oppressors. How disappointed, discouraged, and offended they were when Jesus turned out to be a compassionate and forgiving Messiah, full of mercy and not vengeance. In other words, He wasn’t exactly what they were expecting.
So it is, then, that John the Baptist, sitting in prison by order of Herod the tetrarch, sends two of His disciples to Jesus with the question, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Luke 7:20). A strange question, considering the fact that John is well acquainted with Jesus. He had leaped in his mother’s womb when the mother of our Lord came to visit Elizabeth, carry the recently conceived Christ child. He had been present at the Baptism of Jesus—when God the Father spoke from the clouds and proclaimed Jesus to be His “beloved Son, with whom [He is] well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). He had pointed to Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
John is no shrinking violet. John is no “reed shaken by the wind.” He is not a “yes man” or “flip-flopper,” one who changes position with every shift in public opinion. He’s in prison because he had the chutzpah to call out King Herod for his adultery. In just a minute Jesus is going to say that “among those born of women none is greater than John.” “This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I sent My messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your way before you.’”
So why this question of doubt? Is John wavering in his faith? Is he a reed shaken by the wind? Or is it his disciples who need to be certain of who Jesus really is? It’s likely that all of them, to some degree, are struggling with the ministry of Jesus. After all, John is in prison, the Romans and other enemies of God are still in power, and nothing extraordinary seems to be happening. If Jesus is the Coming One, He certainly isn’t living up to their expectations!
It really doesn’t matter why. Here is a reasonable question put forth by those who would follow Jesus. So He directs their attention to His miracles among the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the poor, and even the dead. Jesus points to His miracles as evidence that He is the One promised in the Old Testament. His message to John: “Don’t look for any other Messiah.” And then He concludes by saying, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by Me.”
The word “offended” or “scandalized” is a translation of a Greek verb which pictures a person stumbling over a stone. Isaiah had prophesied the Messiah “will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel” (8:14). St. Peter would apply that prophecy to Christ. For some who believe, Jesus is the cornerstone of God’s presence among His people, for those who reject Him, He is the stone of stumbling (1 Peter 2:6-8). The Pharisees and experts in the law stumble over Jesus; so do the people at His home synagogue in Nazareth. They are offended by what He teaches and does and does not do. Jesus urges John and his disciples not to be offended by the Gospel, too.
“Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Those words ring loud and clear even in our day, don’t they? We live in a time where many are scandalized by Jesus. Just a week ago, one of the nation’s largest newspapers mocked Christians for offering our thoughts and prayers for the victims and families of those shot in San Bernardino, with the headline “God’s Not Fixing This.”
Oh, in the days leading up to the Christmas celebration, it might seem like the world is less offended than at most other times, but there’s no getting around the fact that for most, Jesus Christ is far too controversial to be included in our holidays—let alone the thought of including Him in every day of our lives. Particularly if that following involves any sort of hardship.
The offense of the Gospel is understandable, if not regrettable, among unbelievers. But the truth is, even those who profess themselves to be Christians can, at times, seem embarrassed by the exclusive claims of Christianity. Over the years, many television talk-show hosts have interviewed well-known television evangelists. During the course of these interviews, the question always comes up: “Are Christians the only ones going to heaven? What about devout Jews, Muslims, and others? Are these good and sincere people really going to hell just because they don’t happen to believe that Jesus is their Savior?”
It’s usually at this point the evangelist will say something like, “Well, it’s not for me to judge,” or “That’s in God’s hand, not mine.” Instead of confessing the truth that Jesus is the only way to the Father, too many have allowed their convictions to melt under the television camera’s bright lights. They have cared more about public opinion than confessing the exclusiveness of Christianity.
But is it just the television preachers who sometimes have a problem when it comes to speaking and living the truth about Jesus? Hardly. We’re all guilty. We’ve all acted as though Jesus was offensive to us. I’m sure you can remember times when you’ve failed to speak a corrective word to an erring brother. Or those times we were too squeamish to defend our Christian beliefs when confronted by a neighbor, a co-worker, or a family member? Or what about those times, even now, when Jesus doesn’t exactly live up to our expectations—when our lives seem to be coming apart at the seams and our hope for a brighter future is waning?
Why do we so often fail to let our Christian light shine before men? Why do we become so easily discouraged when it comes to matters of faith and Christian hope? Are we afraid? Are we worried about what other people will think of us? Or is it that deep down inside we wonder whether or not we have any faith, let alone a faith that we can speak about and share with others?
To us reeds shaken in the wind, us discouraged disciples, Jesus’ words to John and his disciples apply as well: “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by Me.”
Let me remind you: It’s Advent, a season of repentance. A time to prepare for the coming of the Lord. Which is to say, it’s time to confess our sins, hand them over to Jesus, and then move on forgiven, strengthened, and encouraged by the grace of God! It’s almost Christmas! When God became one of us, a physical, breathing human being, so that He could speak a word of blessing to us.
“Blessed are you. Blessed are you—not because of anything you have (or haven’t) done, but because of what I’ve done for you. I’ve done it all for you! I created you to be My own, and I’ve given you everything you need to support you in this body and life. I redeemed you when you were a lost and condemned creature. I purchased and won you from all sin, from death, and from the power of the devil with My precious blood and My innocent suffering and death on the cross, so that you may be My own, live under Me in My kingdom, and serve Me in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. I have called you by the Gospel. I’ve enlightened you with My gifts. And I have sanctified and kept you in the one true faith. All this I have done for you out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness on your part, so that on the Last Day I can raise you from the dead and give you and all who have died in the Lord eternal life. There is nothing that I have left undone for your salvation and eternal life!”
As we ready ourselves once again this Advent season to hear and believe the message of the Christmas Gospel, blessed are the unoffended! Blessed are those who are not offended by Christ and His Word of forgiveness and His work of salvation—His Incarnation, His Nativity, His perfect obedient life, His sacrificial death, His victorious resurrection, His glorious ascension, and imminent return to judge the living and the dead!
Blessed are those who are reminded of all their blessings. Blessed are you who have been washed clean in the waters of Holy Baptism. Blessed are you who hear the words of Absolution spoken to your troubled hearts. Blessed are you who receive the body and blood of our Lord for complete forgiveness. Blessed are you who trust in God to be faithful—because He has been, He is, and He always will be! Blessed are you, for you are forgiven of 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 ...