Friday, December 30, 2016

By His Blood and in His Name

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“And at the end of eight days, when He was circumcised, He was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb” (Luke 2:21).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Those of you growing up with siblings can probably relate to this scene. It’s the day after Christmas. As you shower, get dressed, and eat breakfast, you plan your entire day. It’s going to be a great day! You’re going to spend all your time playing with that favorite gift. But when you go to get it, it’s gone! Immediately, you know where to start looking. You noticed that covetous look in your brother’s eyes. Barging through his bedroom door, you catch him red-handed. “Give it to me!” you yell. “That’s mine!” And even though he knows full well it was your Christmas present, he replies, “I don’t see your name written on it!”
Thinking back, I realized that’s maybe why Santa brought my brother, sister, and me label makers. Wise old man that he is, he realized that if we each had our name on all our own things there would be no need for such arguments. That’s how I came to have a roomful of stuff all marked with a green, plastic label that had the name “Bob” written on it. That label marked that stuff as mine. It was to prevent someone else from running off with my things or, at least having to return them if they were “borrowed.” Putting our name on things marks them as our own.
Guess what? God does the same thing. He also puts His name down to mark His property. “Wait a minute,” I can hear you say. “We’ve been taught that everything belongs to God. We’re His stewards given the responsibility to manage everything for Him. But it’s all His! Psalm 24:1 says, ‘The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.’ Wouldn’t that mean His name would have to be plastered across creation?”
Good question. It is true that everything already belongs to God. But it’s also true that God Himself has some special possessions, some properties that seem dearer to His heart than others. Like Andy from Toy Story, He indelibly marks those that are especially dear to Him with His own name.
Think of the temple in Jerusalem, which the Old Testament often speaks of as the place where God’s name dwells. In fact, God Himself had promised King David, “Your son, whom I will set on your throne in your place, shall build the house for My name” (1 Kings 5:5). At the dedication of the temple, Solomon prayed, “that Your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which You have said, ‘My name shall be there’” (1 Kings 8:29). Certainly, every building on earth is God’s own. But that building was special because that’s where God promised to meet His people to bless them in His name.
And so we come here today because this is the place where God promises to meet us and bless us in His name. Today, as strange it may seem, we celebrate the circumcision of Mary’s Son. No, we don’t celebrate this painful and bloody surgical procedure itself, but rather its significance. For a first-century Jew, the practice of circumcision was theological rather than medical or cultural. It had to do neither with good hygiene nor social standing but with God’s promise.
God instituted circumcision with Abraham and his descendants as a sign of His covenant with them. Every male was to receive this sign on the eighth day of his life. It served as a visible sign of God’s promise to Abraham that through his offspring all nations on earth would be blessed. They were to live as God’s people by walking in His ways and trusting in His promise to send a Savior through Abraham. Sadly, although the bodies of God’s people were circumcised their hearts were not. They frequently worshiped and served other gods and walked in other ways rather than fearing, loving, and trusting in God above all things. Just like you and I are so prone to do!
About 2,000 years later, one of Abraham’s many descendants was marked with that same bloody sign on His eighth day. Unlike previous circumcisions, His was not the sign of promise made but of God’s promise kept. This son of Abraham lived according to His circumcision with His heart as well as His body. That is, He kept and fulfilled the entire Law, and so showed Himself to be the true Son of God. In this way, “Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4).
God always required the shedding of blood as part of His covenant. In fact, very early on God explained: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life” (Leviticus 17:11). The author of Hebrews adds: “Under the Law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (9:22).
That shedding of blood normally consisted of the substitutionary sacrifice of animals. But circumcision required the shedding of human blood. Though a helpless baby who depended on the care of His parents, Jesus began to fulfill His mission to save the world from sin, shedding His precious blood in obedience to the Law for the first time. The cutting off of the foreskin is representative of the cutting off of sin and rebellion against God (Colossians 2:13). While Jesus Himself is without sin, He takes all humanity’s place as the sin-bearer. Through this One who represents all humanity, all people are circumcised once and for all.
At the same time He was marked by circumcision, Mary’s Child was also marked with the name “Jesus.” The purpose of the name was not to be cute or creative but to confess and describe who this Child is. In the ancient world, names were not merely identification tags. They were carefully chosen to reveal some characteristic trait or significance of the individual. Generally, the father named the child and if the baby were a firstborn son, he would give him his own name.
In this case, Mary and Joseph were given the name, just as they were given the Child miraculously and without any choice or say in the matter. Don’t overlook the theological significance of the miraculous revelation of Jesus’ name by God through the angel. In a unique sense, Jesus’ name is chosen by His Father! In fact, Jesus is named after His Father! “Jesus” is a Greek translation of “Joshua”, which means “Yahweh saves.” Like Joshua of the Old Testament, Jesus is to take His people into the Promised Land in victory. But Jesus is much greater, in that His victory will not just be over the Canaanites, but over the forces of evil and death. And the new Promised Land into which He leads His people is eternal.
Jesus will fulfill His name perfectly and completely. Already at His circumcision, the eight-day-old child sets upon the road that will lead through the sufferings of Calvary, the stony silence of the tomb, and the jubilation of Easter morning. In fact, in this eight-day-old Child, Yahweh, the Lord Himself, has come in the flesh “for us men and for our salvation,” as we say in the Nicene Creed.
By His submission to the Law and His perfect keeping of it, Jesus saves and redeems those who are under God’s Law. On the cross, He credits His perfect obedience to you, and He bears the penalty for your failure to keep the Law. In the Great Exchange, what is yours becomes His and what is His become yours. So the circumcision of Jesus is also your circumcision. Its former theological meaning is now found in Him. You no longer need circumcision; instead, you need Jesus—His circumcision and His perfect fulfillment of the Law.
In our Epistle, Paul describes our “adoption as sons” in Jesus. In Him, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female,” but only Christians baptized into Christ and belonging to Him. “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:26-29). Through your Baptism into Jesus, His circumcision counts for you—male or female—and gives you the rights of a son of God.  
How does He give it? How has God ever given His grace and blessings? With His name. Always He puts His name on someone, and that someone ceases to belong to God in general but instead belongs to God in specific as a precious and prized possession. Like me putting name labels on my possessions so my brother or sister couldn’t run off with them, God has put His triune name on you with all its blessings so that you might never be lost but belong to Him forever.
Just before He ascended to heaven, Jesus told His disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20). Jesus—the Lord who saves—is with you, for you have been baptized into His name. Every time you say His triune name and make the sign of the cross, you recall how the Lord has made you one of His own people, His own child. You are an heir of forgiveness, life, and salvation through Jesus’ blood and name.
In Baptism, you are given the benefits of Christ’s once for all sacrifice for the sin of the world. In Baptism, you are washed in the blood of the Lamb of God who bears the sin of the world to the cross. Baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, you receive the forgiveness of sins earned by the shedding of His blood, from that first blood at eight days to His bloody Good Friday death.
Risen and ascended, the Lord still comes to you. In His Word, He speaks to you through His called and ordained servant. In His Supper, Christ gives you His body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins. At the altar, you receive Jesus and everything earned by the shedding of His blood, including His name. That includes the privilege of calling upon the Father in prayer in Jesus’ name. Jesus intercedes for you on your behalf. When you pray in Jesus’ name, the Father promises to hear your prayers. You may approach Him with your requests with all boldness and confidence, asking Him as dear children ask their dear father.
The whole rest of Christian life is just unpacking the joy of what it means to live life and die death as one who belongs specially to the triune God—what it means to live under the promise and mark of God’s holy name, as a person walking the way home to the Father and His Promised Land.
St. Peter described this new life as one baptized in God’s name this way: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
Now there’s a resolution worthy of a new year! May you, people marked as God’s own by His blood, declare to all the world the praises of the one who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. May you, people marked with God’s triune name, share His glorious name and all the power it brings with all of your family, friends, and neighbors. May you, God’s chosen, holy people, spend this year with the Word of God in your ear, the blood of Jesus on your tongue, and the name of Jesus on both your forehead and your heart. For through His Word, and by His Blood, and in Jesus’ name, you are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Mid-week Advent: The Lord Will Give You a Sign--Himself!

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).
Ahaz, the king of Judah, was in a tight spot—mostly of his own making, and he was very afraid. He was facing two enemies, the northern kingdom of Israel and Syria, both of whom were looking to conquer the Promised Land. To make matters worse: Ahaz was looking in all the wrong places for help. When God offered to help, Ahaz refused, and sought an alliance with heathen Assyria instead. Rather than worshiping and trust the Lord, Ahaz was bowing down to false gods—he even sacrificed his own son as a burnt offering to one idol. We could cite more examples of his faithlessness, but that’s enough to demonstrate that Ahaz was dead in sin and an enemy of God.
But Ahaz was the king of Judah, and God had promised to preserve a remnant of Judah. Therefore, God sent Isaiah to the wicked, fearful king and said, “Ask a sign of the Lord you God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven” (Isaiah 7:11). To which Ahaz responded, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” Unfortunately, Ahaz kept his near-perfect record of disobedience alive.
It’s normally wrong to demand signs from God. It’s an act of distrust—unless God tells you to ask for a sign. This was Ahaz’s golden opportunity, and he wanted nothing to do with it. We thus acknowledge the Scriptural truth that sinners are not only dead and enemies of God, but also spiritually blind.
Even though Ahaz would not ask, God would still give His sign: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted” (Isaiah 7:14-16).
Regarding this passage, Martin Luther notes that there are two signs. On the one hand, the Lord was promising Ahaz that in short order—during the nine months of gestation and the typical time until the weaning of a child—He would deliver Judah from the two kings threatening them. In fact, their subjects would be fully swept away by exile. On the other hand, the Lord promised something remarkably different from a typical pregnancy, a miracle that would have shocked Ahaz’s unbelieving hearts: a virgin will conceive and give birth to a Son.[i]
In itself, that’s quite a miracle. But there’s even more going on here. The Lord has eternal salvation in mind, not simply Judah’s temporal deliverance. Note the name: Immanuel. Literally, “God with us.” This virgin-born son would be no ordinary child. He would be Yahweh in in human flesh. He would be the holy, almighty, eternal God with finger and toes just like Ahaz. Just like you and me. Furthermore, He would be sinless, righteous. Instead of a blind, dead enemy of God, this child would actually choose the right, not the wrong.
You know what all that means: that sign wouldn’t be just an empty, feel-good symbol to give Ahaz peace of mind. That sign would be the Lord God Himself in human flesh, doing all that was necessary to win salvation for all the world. That Son of Mary and God would grow up, go to the cross, and die as the perfect sacrifice atoning for the sins of the world.
Now, to highlight God’s faithfulness even more, consider this: Ahaz didn’t repent. He went on to live a life so wicked that his people chose not to bury him with the other kings because he didn’t deserve the honor. Ahaz chose to sacrifice his own son rather than trust in God’s Son who would sacrifice Himself.
But even though Ahaz was faithless, God remained faithful. God kept the promise. He sent the sign. The Son was born. And here is your good news: That Son is Immanuel. That Son is God in human flesh. That Son is your Savior.
Jesus is the Messiah who was foretold by the prophets, not some wannabe who claimed the title for himself and then died. In our Epistle, St. Paul declares that Jesus descended from David according to the flesh—in other words, He was fully human, just like you. In fact, He is more human than you, because He does not suffer the corruption of sin that makes you less than God made you to be.
Furthermore, Jesus is the Son of God, as demonstrated by His resurrection from the dead. Remember, you don’t just need nice feelings of grace and peace, or a new way of life. You need a Savior who saves you from being dead and an enemy of God. This is what He has done. Jesus, the Son of God, became flesh—human, just like you—in order to be dead in your place. He shouldered all of your sin and sinfulness that would have you dead for eternity, and He bore that awful mess to the cross on your behalf.
On the cross, Christ became the enemy of God as God made Him to be sin for you. On the cross, the Father turned His face away from His Son. Why? So that He might turn His face toward you—so that He might say, “You are no longer dead, because My Son has made you alive. You are no longer My enemy, because My Son has made you My beloved child.”
You needed real grace and peace for your body and soul, your thoughts and words and deeds. So Jesus became flesh, to be perfect in body and soul, to think pure thoughts, speak true words, and perform godly deeds for you. He has done this to robe you in His righteousness, to give you the credit for His perfection and perfect life. He has done this to die in your place, to take away your sin, so that He might raise you up as He has been raised from the dead.
How do you know this is true? Once again the Lord will give you a sign. And let’s be clear: He does not point to empty signs that merely symbolize. He gives you signs that contain the fullness of the promise.
The Lord will give you a sign—Himself! 
God gives you the sign of His Word; and don’t forget the Christmas news that Jesus is the Word made flesh. Where God’s Word is present, He is present. In other words, when I speak God’s Word to you, I don’t just speak about Jesus to you. I speak Jesus Himself to you, because He’s present in His Word. Jesus remains Immanuel. He is God with you, as present as He was in the manger when the Virgin gave birth. The Lord will give you a sign—Himself!
God gives you the sign of water in Holy Baptism—not an empty sign, because Jesus is there. He remains Immanuel. At your Baptism, He said, “I am with you always. You’re not dead in sin, because I’ve joined you to My death and resurrection. You’re not My enemy, because I’ve made you My beloved child.” Your Baptism was not just a fine wish or a good intention. There, God-with-us was with you, and is with you to this day. The Lord will give you a sign—Himself!
God gives you the sign of bread and wine in Holy Communion, and there is no doubt that Jesus is there. The same body and blood that Mary held in her arms, that died on the cross, that rose on the third day, is given for you, for the forgiveness of sins. Your Savior is not far away. He is present, He is Immanuel. God-with-us, with you, for the forgiveness of sins.
The Lord will give you a sign—Himself! And because God is with you to save, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[i] Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 16: Lectures on Isaiah: Chapters 1-39. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 16, p. 84). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Good News of Great Joy for All People

“And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger’” (Luke 2:10-12).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The heavens are not silent in shame when the eternal, almighty God is born a helpless baby. They sing! “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!” Perhaps they’ve chosen the shepherds as their audience because they are the only ones who might appreciate a Savior whose birthing room is filled with the pungent aroma of hay and manure. But there in the manger lies the swaddled Creator, all wrapped up in the things of creation—infant holy yet infant lowly, a diapered divinity.
You might suppose all this to be beneath God, but you’d be wrong. The Incarnation is not so much God-made-small as it is man-made-big. The God who made man in His own image outdoes Himself: He makes Himself into His own image and thereby exalts you. Jesus becomes what you are—a woman’s child—that He might make you what He is—a son of the Father. That’s what this is all about. One small step for God, one giant leap for mankind. He becomes no less, but we become infinitely more in Him—God’s dear children.
Within Mary’s womb, something completely new happens: A woman is pregnant with God, by God, for us. Conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, Jesus comes forth as the first man of a new race. This race calls God “Father” and means it. “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5).
That is what you need: redemption, adoption. You don’t need a Santa Claus god who makes a list to check to find out if you’re naughty or nice. You don’t need a deadbeat deity who’s so busy taking care of the universe that he shows no concern when his children go astray. You need the God for whom nothing matters more than to save you, to redeem you with His own flesh and blood, to adopt you as His own flesh and blood. You need the God who cares enough to tell you the truth, to say, “Apart from Me, you are depraved, dead, and damned. But I love you. I want you. I desire you to be My child more than anything else. So I have done all and everything necessary for you to be Mine.”
This is the God—the God-made-man—you need. He is the Lord you have. He gives purity to the unclean, life to the dead, salvation to you who were under hell’s thumb. He did not come to earth to save us from global climate change. The Bread of Life was not born to rid the world of hunger. This Prince of Peace did not come to stop the ravages of war. The Son of Man came to be for every man what no man has been or could be for himself.
Born under the law, Jesus fulfilled the law He Himself had given. He was the perfect infant, perfect teenager, perfect adult. From womb to tomb, He bore your flesh and blood through every stage of life, bearing it to the cross, bearing it out of the grave. And all of it is credited to you. You—perfect infant; you—perfect teenager; you—perfect adult, all in Jesus. For God so loved that world, that He sent His only Son, so that everywhere He went and everything He did is credited as though you went and you did also. And all your sin is reckoned to Him.
For your sake, this blessed Babe of Bethlehem will be counted a sinner and hung up between two evildoers as a curse. The tiny hands and feet will be pierced as He is nailed to the cross of Calvary. The little Lord Jesus who lays down His sweet head will be crowned with thorns. Those little lungs that draw their first breath that night, will breathe their last as He commits His spirit to His Father.
The baby swaddled in clothes and laid in a manger will be wrapped in grave clothes and laid in a borrowed tomb. Three days later, He will rise from the grave, still fully man, still perfectly flesh and blood. Because He is sinless, His body does not see corruption. He is able to rise again after death, and He reigns for eternity.
Now, fellow sinners whose bodies face brokenness, here is a worthy Christmas wish: If only the One who shared our flesh and blood and life and death, could share His death and life and flesh and blood with you now.
He does. In your Baptism, Christ shares His death and resurrection with you. Though you still face sickness and physical death in this life, you already have eternal life; your body has to catch up with your soul, but already you live forever. What does this have to do with Christmas! Everything! If Jesus did not become flesh, He could not die for you or conquer death for you. But because He is born, He will die and rise. That’s what makes Him your Savior.
By His Word, Jesus continues to share His life with you. To the paralytic, He said, “Rise up and walk,” and the man stood up, completely healed. The Lord spoke and commanded, “Lazarus, come forth!” and the dead man walked out of his tomb. The Lord says to you, “I forgive you all of your sin, because I’ve died for you and risen for you.” What does this have to do with Christmas? Everything. Again, had Jesus not been born of Mary, He could not have sacrificed His body and shed His blood to win forgiveness and salvation for you.
And, of course, the Lord shares His body and blood with you in His Holy Supper. He says, “Take and eat, this is My body… Take and drink, this is My blood…for the forgiveness of sins.” Into our dying bodies, Christ gives His immortal flesh and blood that strengthens you—body and soul—unto life everlasting. Again, what does this have to do with Christmas? Everything! If the Son of God is not conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary, then He has no body and blood to give you for the forgiveness of your sins.
But He has!
Behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord!
Immanuel, our God is with us! He comes for all. Those trapped by their own sin and its consequences. Those who are victims of others’ sins or life in this fallen world. Are you bruised and battered by the cares of this world? He comes for you, this Great Physician of body and soul. Are you betrayed and abused, divorced and lonely? He comes for you, this faithful Bridegroom of the Church! Are you lost and lonely, anxious and afraid? The Good Shepherd comes to seek and save you and lead you to eternal life. Are you rich and happy, well-fed and comfortable? Yes, Jesus comes for you, too, to show you that true riches are found only in Him, who shared your flesh and blood, who gave up His flesh and blood to purchase and redeem you from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; that you may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. This is most certainly true.
So, sing your Gloria in excelsis Deo this eve of Christmas, dear people of God. The virgin daughter of Israel has entered motherhood. Her son, the promised Seed of the woman, who will crush the serpent’s head is born. God’s only-begotten Son has come into the world and the host of heaven follows after Him. Humble and meek, the Son of David lies swaddled in a manger in the city of David as the angels rejoice and the shepherds praise and glorify God. This is Christ the Lord, your Savior. For His sake, you are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Mid-week Advent: How Has He Saved Us?

Click here to listen to this sermon.

“They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you’” (Isaiah 35:2b-4).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Almost plaintively, the cradle hymn cries, “Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay close by me forever and love me I pray” (Lutheran Service Book, 364:3). How every Christian’s heart burns with this desire! To have the Lord near us, to have Him so close at hand, you can see Him and hold Him and hear Him! That would be wonderful, wouldn’t it?
As we have heard repeatedly this Advent, the Lord has heard our cry. Jesus became Incarnate and lived among us, starting His life here on earth humbly, His glory hidden as the Baby in the manger, fully newborn man though fully eternal God. As St. John reminds us in our Gospel: “We have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:18).
In our Old Testament lesson, Isaiah tells us that at Christ’s second coming He “will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you” (Isaiah 35:4). Jesus came once, conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, and He has promised to come again to judge the world. To raise those who have died in Him to eternal life, and take us to be with Him forever.  
But how does Jesus respond to our cry now, caught as we are between these two “comings”? Must we manage without His nearness now? Has Jesus left His Church without a head? Of course not! Jesus continues to come among us in His Word and Sacraments. There is no “best before” date on His promise to be with us always. You might say the “manger” is never empty.
Even as the Christmas Eve service always includes a crude wooden manger—and always the same manger—so our Lord uses the familiar and seemingly crude means of speech and water and bread and wine to be among us. Like our Savior, these means of grace have no outward beauty that should attract us to them. They, too, share the apparent weakness of the little Lord Jesus, “asleep on the hay.” They, too, hide the glory of the Child, as did the clothes in which Mary, His mother, swaddled Him. But common, ordinary words, water, wine, and bread are now employed by God to bear heavenly blessings to His people.
The Word of God—whether in its spoken or visible forms—bears God to us. Every time the manger of the Word is opened, it is a little Christmas as God comes to us. As we read and pray and preach Scripture, God comes near to us through the Word. Martin Luther says of this coming: “It is in Scripture and nowhere else, that He permits Himself to be found. He who despises Scripture and sets it aside, will never find Him. We heard earlier that the angel gave a sign to the shepherds [Luke 2:12]; but to Mary or Joseph or to any other man, however pious they may have been, He gave no sign except the swaddling clothes in which He was wrapped, and the cradle into which He was laid, that is, the Scripture of the prophets and the Law. In these He is enclosed, they possess Him, they speak of Him alone and witness to Him and are His sure sign” (AE 52:171).
Such a sense of weakness surrounds the Word of God that some among us choose to ignore, blaspheme, disregard, or ridicule it. Yet Christ places this Word in our hands, in our ears, on our lecterns, on our desks, and on our nightstands. But this Word is most powerful in our mouths and hearts, as St. Paul says. “The Word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (Romans 10:8). If we have the inscripturated Word, the Word that is God Himself, swaddled in the pages of Holy Scripture, we have the Incarnate Word conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary in a form we can grasp—literally and figuratively.
Let me give you an illustration to show why that’s important: Young children often are frustrated by the limits of their immaturity. For example, they may be able to stand, but they cannot reach the cupboard or refrigerator handle or have the strength to pull it open themselves. This has been a matter of frustration for my grandchildren. Unable to open the door themselves, they would pout and cry. As time went by, they figured out how to get help faster. They come over to Papa, lead me by the hand to the refrigerator or cupboard and say, “Show me,” which I’ve figured is toddler shorthand for “Let me show you what I want.” Now understanding the source of their frustration, I was able to get out the juice or milk and pour them a cupful, or take out a slice of bread, spread a little peanut butter on it, and put it on a little plate on the table where they could reach it and eat or drink.
In a similar way, our heavenly Father understands our spiritual needs far better than we, His children, do, or are able to express even when we think we know. Through the Sacraments, God brings Christ, our salvation and our heavenly food, to us. God puts the gift of life into the bowl of the font, in the cup, and on the table of our church, so to speak. We do not have climb up to the divine cupboard; God opens the storehouse and pours out His abundant gifts to us here, right where we need them, in the way we can access them.
When we cry, “Be near me, Lord Jesus,” He responds, “Here I am in the Sacraments.” Water combined with the powerful Word of God is applied to us through the apparently childish means of the washing of Baptism to cleanse us and wash away our sin. Wine and bread combined with the powerful Word of God are placed in our mouths for the forgiveness of sins. Cradled in our hands, placed in our mouths, this precious gift of Christ’s body and blood now resides within us. He can come no closer than this, until He comes to rescue us from this present evil age (Galatians 1:4). And His true body and blood deliver His forgiveness and strengthen us in body and soul unto life everlasting
Sinners constantly need to hear the words of God giving us forgiveness. We need to hear these words often and personally, because in our weakness we doubt that God could truly be gracious to the likes of us. Our pastors uses their filthy mouths cleansed from the altar to speak God’s Holy Absolution in His stead and by His command: “I forgive you.” We cry for the Lord Jesus to stay, and He sends ministers from whom “we receive absolution, that is, forgiveness, from the pastor and from God Himself” (Luther’s Small Catechism, 26).
In His first coming, Jesus paid the ransom to make us His people with His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death on the cross. He rose on the third day and ascended to the right hand of God the Father Almighty, promising to be with us always to the end of the age.  Now we receive the fruits of Christ’s ransom through the means of grace, God’s Word and Sacraments.
Long before our asking, Jesus has determined to stay close by us forever. He has used the mundane means of Word and Sacraments so that between His first coming as the Babe of Bethlehem and His second coming on the Last Day there is still a coming of grace for us sinners. The manger is never empty. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Midweek Advent: For What Has He Come?

Click here to listen to this sermon.

Your God Will Come with Vengeance

Click here to listen to this sermon.
“Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy’” (Isaiah 35:3-6).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Today is the Third Sunday in Advent, Gaudete, the Sunday we light the pink candle as a symbol of joy. So why are we talking about God’s vengeance and recompense? Why do we need the pep talk? Even John the Baptist, the last of the Old Testament prophets and the first of New Testament, seems to need his weak hands strengthened, his shaking knees made firm, his anxious heart stilled. Where is the joy? I suspect that John might have been having the same questions.
Locked in prison, facing imminent death, it seems the forerunner of Christ is having second thoughts. Had he misunderstood? Has his work been in vain? Is Jesus the Messiah whose way John was sent to prepare? I mean, He’s not exactly acting like the Messiah everybody is expecting. So John sends His disciples to Jesus and asks, “Are you the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
Jesus replies: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by Me.” In other words, Isaiah 35 gave some of the signs that the Messiah would do. Jesus is doing all these things. Therefore, John should conclude Jesus is the long-promised Messiah—not just because He performs miracles, but because He perform the miracles that the Old Testament said the Messiah would perform. In other words, Jesus fulfills the Word of God.
This is, first and foremost, the reason that Jesus performs these miracles in the Gospels, to demonstrate that He is, in fact, the promised Messiah. It is important to keep in mind because of a common objection of skeptics today: “If Jesus is truly risen and still powerful, then how come we don’t see a bunch of miracles happening today? How come there are still so many blind and deaf and mute and lame, even within the Christian Church? If Jesus is really a miracle worker, how come He isn’t still working miracles today?”
This challenge isn’t helped by some church bodies and faith healers who teach that Christians should expect a steady stream of such wonders wherever the Holy Spirit is present. They would persuade you that you know you’ve found a truly Christian church when people enter on crutches and leave dancing a polka or schottische. If that is true, which we in no way grant, then this little old church is in a world of hurt. Just look around. We aren’t exactly getting healthier as time goes on. Are we doing something wrong? Are we missing the Holy Spirit?
Not at all. Remember that Jesus performed these miracles primarily to prove He is the Messiah, to prove that He is the fulfillment of the Word of God. Now that He has done so, He’s established His credentials. He’s proven that He’s the Christ. He doesn’t have to do that again. In fact, to demand of Jesus, “You must prove to me that You’re the Messiah by doing some big miracles in my life,” isn’t faith. It’s doubt. It’s saying, “The Scriptures aren’t enough for me. Your Word’s not good enough to give me faith. I’ll only believe if You do some special healing for me.”
To put it more positively, you don’t need miracles to prove that Jesus is the Savior because you have something better. You have the Word of God. Furthermore, faith comes by means of the Word of God, not by miracles. It comes by hearing the Gospel, not by seeing wonders. No one gets to heaven by being healed of blindness in this life. Everyone who gets to heaven does so by having their sins forgiven. By trusting in Christ’s atoning sacrifice for their sins.
So, if someone says, “Why doesn’t Jesus do miracles today?” we need not be left without a proper response. We gladly say, “He certainly still can work miracles; and, in fact, He works far more miracles than you or I will ever be aware of. But He doesn’t have to. He’s not a dog who does tricks at our bidding. He doesn’t have to work miracles on our command. He doesn’t have to prove Himself again. He already has in His Word, and His Word is good enough for us.”
Furthermore, there are greater miracles to speak of in Isaiah 35.
The miracles of Jesus are not just stand alone wonders. They are inseparable from the Gospel, from His work as Messiah.
The wages of sin is death, and every last sickness and affliction and injury is a consequence of sin. This is a world governed by the law of entropy, a fallen world in which everything falls apart, and that “everything” includes everybody, you and me. Even if we are born in good health, time and circumstances take their toll. Accidents and disease will hurt and maim. Age will wear down our mind and our senses. God gives life, and sin works to take it away. Eyes dim, hearing becomes hard, limbs and organs are damaged or even lost. All of this seeks to take you away from your Lord, to fill you with fear and doubt of His grace.
Where the Lord would have you see His blessings, sin works to take sight away. Where the Lord would have you be with Him, sin seeks to keep you separated from God—both now and for eternity. Death hounds you every step of the way. And no matter how hard you try, no matter how careful you may be, you can only avoid disease, injury, and death for so long. Eventually, death wins.
Or, at least, it would—except that Christ has broken into this world and destroyed the power of sin and death. This is what He demonstrates by working these miracles in the Gospels. Where sin leads to the affliction of blindness, Jesus restores sight to the blind. He often heals simply by speaking! He speaks His powerful Word, and sight is restored—blindness has no choice, but must flee. Jesus speaks, and the deaf hear His Word—and then hear everything else, too. He speaks His living Word, and the dead come back to life. All of these healing miracles are a deposit, a down payment, for the day when Jesus will come and heal all sickness, injury, and death for eternity.
This is a far greater miracle than those to which Jesus refers to strengthen John the Baptist’s wavering faith: Jesus sends the wages of sin fleeing simply by speaking His Word. Thus Isaiah 35 declares, “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.’” In Christ, God comes with vengeance: not to condemn you, but to save you. Not vengeance against you, but against sin and death. By His death, Christ has destroyed the power of sin and death. By His Word, He sets you free from them.
When it comes to sin and death, we’re like the little kid facing the bully on the playground; and even though he’s shaking in his boots, the little one says, “I’m no match for you—I know you can beat me. But you’re no match for my big brother.” Likewise, you might face sin and death with weak hands and feeble knees, but you say” “You’re too big for me to beat, but just wait for my Big Brother, Jesus. He’s come with a vengeance! He’s destroyed your power on the cross! You can rough me up a bit, but Christ is going to raise me from the dead.”
Remember: Jesus sends the wages of sin fleeing away simply by speaking His Word. He speaks His Word to you. He says, “I baptize you,” and your old sinful flesh is drowned on the spot. He says, “I forgive you,” and you’re cleansed and sanctified as sin must flee. He says, “Take and eat, take and drink,” and He gives you His very body and blood and that has already defeated sin and death for the forgiveness of your sins, and strengthens you in body and soul unto eternal life.
Christ forgiving you is a greater miracle than making the blind see or the deaf hear. That healing was only for this life, for the body that would still eventually cease to function. But by forgiveness, Christ tells you that He will use the enemy of death to deliver you to everlasting life.
But as we said before, Jesus’ miracles of healing in the Gospels are inseparable from the forgiveness He has given to you, so here is more good news for you, dear children of God: when Jesus performed those miracles, He was giving you a foretaste of the Last Day. He was demonstrating to you that He has the power to raise you up from the dead, perfect in body and soul, better than you have ever been. In the words of Revelation 21:4, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
This is not just wishful thinking, but has the certain promise of your Savior. Let me give a few examples of what this means on a practical level. Those with once failing kidneys, will no longer need dialysis. Diabetics will be able to do away with the constant blood sugar testing and insulin shots. Those who suffer chronic, debilitating pain will experience complete relief. Our loved ones whose minds are now trapped in the prison of Alzheimer’s will be raised with clear minds. Those with MS or Parkinson’s or ALS will never again be betrayed by their nervous systems. Those who’ve suffered the ravages of cancer and its treatment will be restored to full health, vitality, and life. Those who have battled depression or other mental illness will see and experience life in a whole new joyous, hopeful way. This life isn’t the end. The Last Day is coming—the Day of Resurrection: then the ears of the deaf will be unstopped and the wheelchair bound will leap for joy. The Lord Jesus will come with a vengeance, with the recompense of God, and He will save you. All disability, disease, and death will be swept away, and our joy will be made complete. It’s certain. God promises, and God always keeps His promises.
Forgiveness and healing of the body are both part of Christ’s victory over sin. The Lord can still work miracles of physical healing right now if He wishes, and He often does. But even if He does not grant you healing in this life, He gives you the assurance that He will perform that miracle when He raises you up on the Last Day. That miracle is sure, because He speaks this greater miracle even now: you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Flee from the Wrath to Come

"John the Baptist Preaching" by Rembrandt
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:7-8).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
John the Baptist is preaching in the wilderness of Judea, down by the Jordan River. This is a big deal. And Matthew wants you to realize this, so he gives you some of John’s credentials. John is the fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 40:3, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.’” John is there to flatten mountains and fill valleys, to prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah—and the saving comfort that He brings.
John’s wardrobe and diet is as coarse as his demeanor: a robe of camel’s hair and a leather belt tied around his waist, locusts and honey for breakfast, dinner, and supper. It’s not the latest fashion or fad diet, but the same attire and menu of the prophet Elijah back when he preached repentance to Israel years ago. Remember: as we heard a couple of weeks ago in Malachi 4, the Lord promised He would send an Elijah just before the Messiah. He was talking about John the Baptist.
John’s appearance in the wilderness is a big deal. The prophets Isaiah, Elijah, and Malachi have all pointed to John; and John is there to point to Christ. That explains his sermon: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” And the kingdom of heaven is at hand because the King is about to appear. That explains his location—out in the wilderness by the Jordan. It’s time for the people of Israel to repent, to “cross the Jordan and enter the Promised Land” all over again.
The people understand this is big, and it seems like everybody is going out to hear John preach repentance. They listen to him, and they understand that their sins just won’t do. They haven’t been living up to God’s expectations for His people Israel. So they repent. They confess their sins. They’re baptized by John in the Jordan. They’re taking his preaching seriously. They understand he’s calling for a change, a turning. But what kind of change? What kind of turning?
Let’s think this through as they’re thinking it through, because this is critical to understand the story. John has called the people to repent, to confess their sins. It makes sense that, if you’re turning away from sin, then you’re turning toward not sinning, right? To put it another way, if you’re turning away from doing bad things, then it only makes sense that you’re turning toward doing good things, right? That would be a 180, a complete turnaround in the opposite direction.
It only makes sense, then, when the Pharisees show up at the Jordan River. The Pharisees are all about doing good things, about keeping the Law—they’re admired by most people for the good example they provide. They’re also all about washing things: they baptize their dishes, cups, and couches before every meal so that they’re clean. So when the Pharisees show up, you can bet that a lot of people expect John will welcome the Pharisees as role models. Oh, they’re not perfect—nobody is—but they’ve got a good start. They’re setting the bar for how Israelites should be acting. This is also true of the Sadducees, who don’t have a lot in common with the Pharisees, but also hold to a code of good behavior. So John will welcome them and hold them up as role models; and the Pharisees and Sadducees will be baptized to demonstrate their commitment to making the turnaround.
That’s what a lot in the crowd expect. It’s almost certainly what the Pharisees and Sadducees expect. But then John drops the bomb: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:7-10).
Is John crazy? He’s just called the religious leaders and good examples vipers, snakes—dangerous and deadly to others. He’s told them that their ancestry and careful lives mean nothing to God. He’s called them trees that bear no fruit, about to be cut down and thrown into the fire. What on earth is John up to?
And if the Pharisees and Sadducees are that bad off, if their righteousness isn’t enough before God, if they haven’t made the turn… who then can be saved?
John’s outburst against these leaders is earth-shaking. Everybody thought they had John figured out, but now they’re dumbstruck. This is the forerunner of the Messiah, and he’s just told the role models that they’re under God’s wrath? How can he say such things? I mean. It’s almost like he looked at the Pharisees and said, “These tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.” John doesn’t go that far; but the Messiah Himself will (Matthew 21:31).
One thing’s for sure: when John speaks of this repentance, he’s not talking about turning from “sinning” to “not sinning”—not if he’s reserved his ire especially for the Pharisees. Whatever he’s talking about must be something different, something new. The “something new” is this: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The kingdom of heaven is at hand. It isn’t far away. It’s near—not just in time, but in location. The kingdom of heaven is near because the King of heaven is near. He’s born of Mary, God-made-man, and He’s about to be baptized by John. The King is near, and the kingdom is wherever He is.
If the King stays far away along with His kingdom, then it makes sense that you’ve got to go to Him. If you’ve got to go to Him, then it makes sense that you get on your way by cleaning up your act, by flying right, by walking straight, by turning from “sinning” to “not sinning as much as possible.” But the King is coming to you, and that changes everything. The turn is not from “sinning” to “not sinning.” The turn is from “trusting in yourself” to “trusting in Him,” from “trusting in your works” to “trusting in His work” for your salvation.
That’s what repentance is. Repentance is not saying, “I’ve sinned and so I’m not going to sin anymore.” The one who says that is lying to himself. Repentance is saying, “I’ve sinned and I can’t save myself, so I trust in Christ to forgive me and save me.” As St. John writes: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9).
That’s why the Pharisees, the Sadducees and many in the crowd are so far off and under the wrath of God. Everyone who thinks that repentance is about doing better and sinning less is still unholy and unforgiven. The one who says, “I am sinful and I need the King to save me” is the one who has truly repented, even if he still sins. If you want proof, then fast-forward to Calvary: the Pharisees, counting on their own righteousness, have arranged for the death of Jesus. It’s the thief on the cross, with no good works to his name, who says to the thorn-crowned King, “Remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” And it’s to that thief that Jesus says, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
Repentance is a turning: not from “sinning” to “not sinning,” but a turning from trusting in one’s own righteousness to trusting in the King to save. That’s what John declares in the rest of our text: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor and gather His wheat into the barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:11-12).
The King comes to save. He baptizes with the Holy Spirit, who gives faith and salvation. His baptism purifies like fire, leaving those who trust in Him sinless and holy. Trust in yourself, no matter how good a life you live, face the coming wrath of God, you’ll be swept into unquenchable fire. Turn from that and trust in Him, and you’re in the kingdom of heaven forever.
 We proclaim the same message as John the Baptist, because we have the joyful privilege of pointing to the King who has come, died, and is risen again for our salvation. So we proclaim, “Repent! Flee from the wrath that is to come! Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” And when we proclaim repentance, we mean this: “Turn from trusting your own righteousness to save you, and trust in the King who died on the cross to deliver you from sin.”
We do not mean, “Turn from sin and do your best to stop sinning.”
That’s a controversial statement for a couple of reasons. One reason is that most people who identify themselves as Christians (even many non-Christians) perceive Christianity to be all about doing your best to live a good life, loving your neighbor, and keeping the commandments. In other words, so many believe that the message of Christianity is that “if you keep the rules, God will save you.” That is salvation according to the Law; and it is a view that is held by many very nice, very sincere, very pleasant people who are even holding society together.
But to those who believe this, John would say, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? You’re dangerous to others because you tell them to rely on their good works, and you’re not bearing good fruit before God because you don’t trust in Christ and you’re not forgiven, so sin clings to everything you are and do.” Be ready: when you speak of salvation in Christ alone, a lot of “Christians” are going to be put off.
It’s a shocking statement for another reason: as soon as we say that repentance does not mean, “Turn from sin and do your best to stop sinning,” the response will be, “Oh! So you’re saying that it’s perfectly fine for Christians to keep on sinning as long as they trust in Jesus?” Our answer: Not at all! If someone says, “I can keep on sinning as long as I trust in Christ,” he is worse than the Pharisees of our text. Why? Because he’s saying, “I trust in my own righteousness so much that I believe I can keep on sinning, be unforgiven, and still be saved!”
To put it another way, true repentance is turning from trusting in your own righteousness to trusting in Jesus; and the one who trusts in Jesus will, by definition, work to keep God’s commandments and avoid sin as much as possible. He’ll still stumble, fall and sin, daily and much. But he’ll continue to repent, confess his sin, and trust in Jesus for salvation.
So, like John, we continue to proclaim, “Repent! Turn from trusting in yourself, and trust in Christ for salvation instead.”
And, like John, we continue to proclaim, “Repent! Flee from the wrath to come! Turn from trusting in yourself, and trust in Christ for salvation instead.”
And, like John, we also proclaim, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand,” because it is. The kingdom of heaven is at hand because the King is at hand. Your crucified and risen King is not only enthroned in heaven at the right hand of the Father. He is as near to you as His Word and His Sacraments, His means of grace. By His Word, He gives you forgiveness. He gives you faith. He gives you His Holy Spirit. He gives you true repentance. Do not neglect that comfort of the King at hand: the more distant you believe Jesus to be, the more you will believe it is up to you to get to Him by your own works, your own righteousness. But it is not so: Christ your King comes to you, to give you forgiveness, life, and salvation.
So repent—for the kingdom of heaven is at hand! Rejoice to confess the truth of your sinfulness and inability to save yourself, for that confession is a gift of God: if you deny your sin, you still believe the lie that you can get to heaven unforgiven. So rejoice to repent. And rejoice that the kingdom of heaven is at hand—by His grace, the Lord has turned you: from impenitence to penitence, from unbelief to faith, from death to life…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

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Small Church Sunday

Whether you join in the commercial chaos or not, I’m sure you’re all familiar with Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving that has become the biggest shopping day of the year. I would guess that many of you are also aware of Cyber Monday, the first Monday following Thanksgiving, in which e-commerce businesses offer specials and deep discounts. But not as many of you may have heard of Small Business Sunday, an event established to encourage holiday shoppers to patronize brick and mortar businesses that are small and local.

One of the things I’ve always appreciated about small, locally owned stores is their personal service. When we lived in Freeman, SD I bought almost all my hardware and building supplies from Wipf’s Coast to Coast and Freeman Lumber Company. I was willing to pay a little bit more for the convenience and service. Whenever I was in the middle of a do-it-yourself home improvement project I could drive five blocks, purchase my supplies and get expert advice from Monte, Dan, Roman, Don, Willis, or Orville on how to complete the project for no extra charge.

I also appreciated the fact that whenever I came into the store they would immediately greet me by my name. But they knew more than my name. They had an idea of my skill level, my knowledge of tools and products, my family, and our values, so they tailored their questions and advice to my needs.

And because I was a loyal customer, they treated me well. They knew we could have gone into Sioux Falls to buy our Christmas gifts and make our big purchases, but chose to keep our business close to home. When our young children would go Christmas shopping, we could let them wander the store without having to remain in our immediate sight, knowing they would be watched and given help to purchase gifts for others. I can’t tell you how many times that the storekeepers in Freeman told me how much they enjoyed watching our children shop.     

As I think about it, many of the benefits of patronizing small businesses have their corollary in the benefits of membership in a small church. For purposes of discussion, I’m thinking of small churches as those with under 500 members, which includes about 73% of LCMS congregations. Like small businesses, small churches face many challenges. I don’t have to tell you this. Many of you have been in the leadership of small churches for decades and have experienced the struggle firsthand. But for today, I’d like to focus on the benefits of a small church.

On a practical basis, in the small church you have a better opportunity to get to know your pastor and for him to get to know you and your family. Knowing each other’s struggles and joys, you can both offer specific support and prayers for one another. As you get to know your pastor, you will be more comfortable sharing even more sensitive areas of your life with him, so that we might give you tailor-made guidance from Scripture. As your pastor gets to know you better, he will also be able to help you discern your special talents and interests and help you learn how to use those gifts for the good of Christ’s Church and your own family, friends, and community. He’ll teach you how to use the spiritual tools already at your disposal and perhaps add a few new ones to your tool kit to help you in your Christian life and service.

Sometimes parents with children with gravitate toward larger congregations that seem to offer more programs and activities for their children. But children growing up in a small church can be mentored among people of a wide range of ages, outside interests, vocations, and levels of spiritual maturity that it difficult to happen in congregations that must split into groups based upon age or interest for sake of management. Older adults have the chance to share in the joy and wonder in the Gospel of Jesus Christ that the little ones offer and that we so often lose over the years.

More important than anything else is that in the small church (as in every church), Christ Himself, through His blessed Word and Sacrament, dwells to give life and salvation. That is a point that C.F.W. Walther like to drive home when he sensed any devaluation of smaller parishes by anyone in the Synod.

Matthew Harrison writes: “Small churches so well approximate the ideal that Luther held up for the Church, as we are all members of the same body, caring for one another. Christ cares for us, gives Himself for us. We, in turn, give ourselves for the neighbor. This happens nowhere as well, as naturally, and as consistently as in the small parish. Where mistakes are made, we flee to the forgiving waters of baptism, confess our sins, and resolve in faith to begin anew in love, both “laying down our burdens in the midst of the congregation” (Luther), and finding the burdens of others there to take up. God knows that as we often know well the sins of our neighbors (and they know ours!) in smaller congregations, the need for forgiveness and grace as we work together is all the greater!”

So, given all the benefits of the small church, and in the spirit of the holiday marketing campaigns, I propose we start observing “Small Church Sunday,” this Sunday, and next Sunday, and every following Sunday, always remembering, celebrating, and sharing the blessings of membership in a small church.

Into the Wilderness

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