Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Eve of The Feast of the Circumcision and Name of Jesus (New Year's Eve)

Luke 2:21; Galatians 3:23-29; Numbers 6:22-27

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Tonight we ring in the New Year in the same way we ring in each new week, in the same way we should ring in each and every new day: In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. For, we believe and we confess that each new year is lived in God’s grace and mercy, that each new week is lived under His gracious providence and protection, and that each new day is a precious gift and fruit of His ongoing creative and sustaining activity.
In the Name – yes, there’s something very powerful and important about God’s Name. The first mention we have in the Scriptures concerning God’s Name is Exodus 3:14, when God spoke to Moses from the burning bush. Moses asked God for His Name so that he might tell the people of Israel who had spoken to Him. God replied saying, tell them “I AM has sent you.” Now, it is an understatement to say that there is a whole lot bound up in God’s Name. At the very least, God’s Name includes the Scriptural proclamation “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” That is to say, God is before all things, after all things, and fills and sustains all things. He is the source and sustainer of all things: “All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made.” Yes, all of that is bound up in God’s Name.
That is the Name we invoke at the beginning of the Divine Service. That is the Name that was placed upon us in Holy Baptism. That is the Name that we invoke in the morning when we awake, and again in the evening when we go to sleep. That is the Name that was cut into the flesh of Jesus when He was eight days old according to the Law of Moses. Jesus received that Name as a covenant promise in His flesh so that He could die in the flesh upon the cross and breathe God’s Name upon us by His Holy Spirit thereafter.
God commanded Aaron and his sons to bless His people with His Name saying, “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.” God promised them, “So shall they put my Name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” The Benediction was a promise, a seal, and a covenant that God would keep and never break, for it was His Word, and it was Truth, and Life. Yet, it pointed forward to its fulfillment in Jesus. Like the Law of God, the Benediction was a “guardian,” as St. Paul puts it in the Epistle to the Galatians, “until Christ came.” As with the Law, Christ is its fulfillment, so does the Benediction’s power flow from Jesus, the Word of God made flesh. Jesus is God’s blessing upon His people, even as He is the Name that seals us in Holy Baptism unto the resurrection of our bodies on the Last Day.
The apostles preached in Jesus’ Name. They proclaimed the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ Name. Pastors continue to proclaim God’s forgiveness to you today in Jesus’ Name. Truly, there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. At the Name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. For those baptized into Jesus, you wear His Name and all that belongs to it. Jesus’ Name marks you and seals you in His forgiveness, life, and salvation, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”
Eight days after His birth in Bethlehem, the infant Jesus was circumcised according to the Law. It was then that He was given the Name Jesus, God Saves, as the angel Gabriel revealed to His mother Mary before He was conceived in the womb. Jesus is God’s salvation, in the flesh. His shedding of first blood as an infant pointed to the blood He would shed in fulfillment of the Law upon the cross as a man. In this way, God saved His people. All of this is in His Name.
And so, here we stand this evening at the close of another year of God’s grace. This past year we experienced many joys and many sorrows, just like the years before. In God’s providence, perhaps, as the years pass by, we tend to remember mostly the joys, whereas the sorrows become less memorable and identifiable, but they become the fabric of our lives. But, as we look back and remember, we can begin to see how God blessed us and kept us through it all; maybe we can even begin to see how He works all things for the good of those who love Him. In faith, we must confess that it is by God’s grace that we are here, that He has graciously provided us all that we need to sustain our bodies and lives. Therefore, we give Him thanks and praise Him. And, we respond to His love and faithfulness by bearing and sharing His love and faithfulness with others.
And, as we set ourselves to embark upon a new year, we confess that it will be a new year under God’s grace. No, we cannot know what this new year will hold in store for us, and, naturally, there is a little anxiety and trepidation mixed with excitement and hope. But, we do know this: God will bless and keep us in the Name of Jesus.
What’s in a name? In the Name of Jesus? Everything! Forgiveness, life, and salvation – for the new year, and for all eternity.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Homily for The First Sunday after Christmas

Luke 2:22-40; Galatians 4:1-7; Isaiah 11:1-5

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The events following the birth of Jesus serve to demonstrate that He was born to fulfill the Law in our place. On New Years Eve we will celebrate the Circumcision and Name of Jesus when He was eight days old in fulfillment of the Law. Today, we celebrate the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of Our Lord in the temple in fulfillment of the Law. Accordingly, St. Luke makes reference to the Law of God three times in the first three verses of today’s Gospel, and two more times in the ensuing accounts of St. Simeon and St. Anna. Joseph and Mary were doing to and for Jesus what the Law required, but when they heard the words of Simeon and Anna, they marveled at the words that were spoken about their son.
Simeon is all but an antitype of Abraham. He is described as being “righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel.” Simeon’s faith is declared to him as righteousness, like Abraham’s, and, just like Abraham’s, it was Simeon’s faith that caused him to wait and to watch for God to fulfill His covenant promise. The Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would not die until he had beheld the Lord’s Christ with his own eyes. Thus, when Joseph and Mary brought their newborn son into the temple to do for Him what was required by the Law, the Spirit guided St. Simeon to the temple that day as well. Then, receiving the Word of God made flesh into his own arms, Simeon proclaimed and confessed, “Yes, Lord, Your Word is fulfilled! Here I behold Your salvation with my own eyes. Now You may let me depart this life in peace, for You have kept Your covenant promise! For, here lies in my arms the deliverance and the consolation of Israel, and light for the Gentiles!” Simeon’s confession is akin to that of Abraham’s when he answered his son’s inquiry, “Father, where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” Abraham answered, “God will provide for Himself the Lamb for a sacrifice, my son.” Yes, Simeon prophesied of the purpose and the fate of the boy-child Jesus whom he held in his arms, saying to His mother that, because of Him, “a sword will pierce through your own soul.” For, though He would bring peace with God for all men, He would be for “a sign that is opposed.”
Now, I love the fact that Joseph and Mary are said to have “marveled at what was said” about Jesus. Our Lord’s parents were faithful and pious believers in God’s most holy Word. They, like Simeon and Anna, were watching and waiting for the Lord’s promise to be fulfilled as well. While angels had visited them both, and they believed with all their heart, soul, and mind, it is, however, absurd to conclude that they understood everything that was happening. No more do any of us understand the fullness of the counsel of God’s Word, His Will, and His Ways. Both Joseph and Mary pondered and treasured God’s Word and the mysteries that were being revealed to them in their hearts. Truly, this is what God desires of His children, that they keep His Word and Commandments, more precious and dear to them than their own lives or livelihoods. Jesus’ mother, Mary, gazed upon the child of her own flesh, who was also God’s own Son by the Holy Spirit, in profound love and awe. Jesus’ father, Joseph, protected Him fiercely so that no one and no thing would harm this gift of God before His time had come. And, still today, the Holy Family, both in image and in imagination, beckon the faithful to ponder and to receive the Christ-child, the Word of God made flesh, dwelling amongst us.
And, then there was Anna, the prophetess. St. Luke tells us that Anna was “advanced in years” and that she was a widow for seventy-seven years after the death of her husband to whom she was married seven years since she was a young virgin. She did not leave the temple day or night, which may indicate that she lived there, that a room was provided for her. At the presentation of Jesus, Anna gave thanks to God and spoke to all the faithful about Jesus. Now, what are we to make of her being designated as a prophetess? Not much, I have to think. For, Anna is the only woman called a prophetess in all the New Testament, and the Holy Spirit did not see fit to provide us the words she spoke, but only that she gave thanks to God and spoke to others about Jesus. There is no indication that she held a particular office of one kind or another, though we are told that she “worshiped with fasting and prayer night and day.” There is no doubt that she was a woman of great faith, piety, and devotion. Further, it is possible that the Holy Spirit granted her a revelation of who the Christ-child was and what He would do.
As it is, both Simeon and Anna stand straddling the Old and the New Testaments. For, though they lived during the birth and infancy of our Lord, they were not alive to witness His death and resurrection or the sending of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. And so, Simeon and Anna fit best with the Old Testament saints and prophets culminating in John the Baptist. Whatever their role may have been, they served to point us to Christ, who He would be, and what He would do. Even after Jesus’ birth, it had been revealed to Simeon and Anna who Jesus was and what He would do in terms of the big picture, but not necessarily in all the fine details. By divine revelation, in their faith, Simeon and Anna could see that this child, Jesus, was the fulfillment of God’s promises to Adam and Eve, to Abraham, to Moses, and to David. He came as their brother, born of woman, born under the Law, to redeem those under the Law. The joy of Simeon and Anna was the joy of the Law being fulfilled for us all! Indeed, rightly did Joseph and Mary marvel.
St. Luke concludes today’s Gospel saying, “And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.” They had done everything that the Law required, but, though it was necessary and had to be done, it was still not enough; man was still in sin and destined for death. The rest would have to be performed by Jesus alone. Jesus must now grow and learn as all boys do. Jesus must come of age and study under the rabbis. Jesus must be baptized with John’s baptism and face the devil in the wilderness. Jesus must obey the Law and keep the LORD’s Commandments perfectly, even under temptation, duress, and suffering, unto death. Jesus must lay down His life in humiliation, suffering, and death in your place, going to the cross, drinking the cup of God’s wrath against your sin to the bitter dregs, until it was finished. And He did.
There is a good reason that we sing Simeon’s song after receiving the Lord’s body and blood in the Holy Eucharist: For, we, too, have seen the salvation of our LORD. We, too, can now depart in peace. Therefore, let us, like Simeon and Anna, watch and wait for the Lord, hearing His Word and receiving His gifts. God has wonderfully created us, and in the incarnation of His Son has yet more wondrously restored our human nature. May we ever be alive in Him who made Himself to be like us.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Homily for The Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord - Christmas Eve

Luke 2:1-20; Titus 2:11-14; Isaiah 9:2-7

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The date hasn’t changed, ever. You knew it was coming, even months ago. And yet, here it is, and you aren’t prepared. Or, at least, you’re not as prepared as you hoped to be. Maybe it’s because Thanksgiving was so late. Maybe it’s because there’s no snow and it was sixty degrees a couple days ago. There are all sorts of excuses that you can make. However, they don’t change the fact that you knew this day was coming and, now that it’s here, you’re not prepared.
But, that’s kind of the point of Christmas, isn’t it, when you really get down to it? The Christ-child came when you weren’t looking for Him. He came in a way, a time, and a place that you never expected Him to come. He came, not with a shout or a trumpet blast, but “when all was still and it was midnight,” that is, when God’s people were walking in the darkness of sin and death, the darkness of unbelief, doubt, and despair. The people of Israel and Judah had been conquered and re-conquered so many times that they no longer remembered who they were or what they believed. By the time of Isaiah’s prophecy that a virgin would conceive and bear a child, there were few left who continued to hope, only a remnant, for Israel was barren and dry from her apostasy and from the ravaging of godless kings. The tree of Jesse had been cut down, reduced to a fruitless stump. But, that was when God acted. That is when God always acts – when there is no human reason for hope, no human wisdom that could imagine even a chance. A shoot sprang forth from the burned-out stump of Jesse, even a fruit-bearing branch, and the Spirit of the Lord returned and rested upon a man, Jesus.
These past four weeks of Advent, you have been exhorted to be prepared for His coming. You have heard about John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Lord, preaching “Prepare ye the way for the Lord,” baptizing repentant sinners for the forgiveness of their sins. However, all of that was well after Jesus’ birth, when He began His ministry as a young man at approximately thirty years of age. Who was it then that prepared the way for the coming of the Lord prior to Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem? Well, the Prophets, of course – men like Isaiah, Malachi, Hosea, Micah, and Jeremiah. The prophets lived and prophesied during the times of exile and captivity, when all of Israel repented of their sins and cried out to God for mercy. The prophets delivered God’s Word of promise and comfort to them: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”
Why do you have to be prepared? Well, because you’re too much like that proverbial frog in a pot of lukewarm water. The water’s getting hotter, all the while, but you don’t acknowledge it, often you don’t want to acknowledge it, because you’re comfortable. Even when the water gets hot to the point that it’s a little uncomfortable, you’re willing to hold out a little longer in the hope that it will cool down again. But, the truth is, your goose is already cooked. For, even when the water was warm and comfortable, you were still in a pot of death with no escape. And, by the time you’re ready to confess that you’re in trouble, it’s too late. But the truth is, it was too late even at the beginning. For, darkness is darkness, and sin is sin, and death is death. And, there’s no way out unless help comes to you from outside of you. Yes, you need help. You need light. You need life. You need a Savior. And that is precisely what God has sent to you, even while you walked in darkness, even while your goose was being cooked. When you had no hope for salvation, when life was death and you had grown content with it, when all was still and it was midnight, God sent forth His Son, your Savior, Jesus Christ, the Lord, to save you from your sin and death.
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given. While you were still in darkness, God gave His Son for you. While you were still sinners, Jesus gave His life for you. John preached to you because you needed to be prepared for His coming when He would step into your pot of water, which was coming to boil, so that you could step out again and live. And I, and preachers of the Gospel all over the world, preach to you now so that you will be prepared when He comes again as King and Judge on the Last Day. Yes, you still need to be prepared for, though you walk in darkness no longer, but are children of the light by the grace of God, the prince of darkness still tempts you to forsake the light and to choose to dwell in darkness. And, truth be told, he makes it feel pretty comfortable so that you are content. But, the truth hasn’t changed. You know that He’s coming again on a day and an hour you cannot know. Therefore, you must be prepared. But don’t be afraid, for you are not like those who have no hope. And, further, being prepared is not something that you do, but it is something that is done to you, it is something that you receive and that you are.
You are prepared when you hear God’s Word and when you ponder it in your heart. You are prepared when you receive God’s gifts given to you in His Word and Sacraments. You are prepared when you are baptized and when you return to your baptismal purity in repentance, receiving God’s holy absolution for the sake of Jesus the Christ. In other words, you are prepared when God prepares you. And, He has prepared you. And, He prepares you even now. Indeed, the only way to not be prepared is to refuse His gifts and to say, “No thank you, God. I’m all right. This pot’s not so uncomfortable. I’ll get by. Surely there are other folks out there that need your gifts more than me.”
No, you see, it’s that kind of thinking that’s gotten you into this predicament in the first place. You’re not ok, at least, not on your own. You’re always a day late and a dollar short. Your best-laid plans seldom turn out right. Your best intentions don’t keep you from hurting and disappointing others. Can you go a single day without breaking God’s commandments in thought, word, and deed? Can you cease the continual decline of your body and your mind as you age a little more each day? Can you avoid or prevent your own inevitable death, or the death of those you love? No, of course you cannot. The pot is getting hotter each day. There’s no use in denying it. But, take heart. Your Savior has come. Your Savior has come to die in your place so that you may live in His.
Indeed, the circumstances of Jesus’ birth in so many ways mirror your circumstances today. People were simply doing the day-in, day-out things they had to do to get by: Shepherds were guarding their flocks by night. People were traveling to their hometowns to register for a census issued by a bureaucrat in a capital city far, far away. Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem for that same purpose. And, while they were there, Mary gave birth to a child, like so many women do. She wrapped him in swaddling cloths as was common at the time, and laid him in a manger, which likely wasn’t nearly as unusual or shocking then as it might sound to you today. Indeed, no one, save Mary and Joseph, who had both been visited by angels earlier, thought that there was anything special or unique about that night. And, even for Mary and Joseph, despite the angel’s annunciation nine months ago, surely the circumstances of Jesus’ birth were decidedly mundane.
But, the world was changed that night, permanently. And, over the years, the centuries, and the millennia, what began unnoticed by most, in lowliness and humility, has grown and has broadened. The first light that pierced the darkness of that Bethlehem night has filled the world so that no one need walk or live in the dark. Your Creator and God, who is life and light, has made His dwelling with men as a man. No, it wasn’t glorious and awe-inspiring, as men count such things, in the beginning, and the Christian faith and life still isn’t today. But, to those who believe, both then and now, it is the glory and the gracious power of God to save His people from their sins and death. No one was inclined to believe that the burned-out stump of Jesse had sprouted new life. You would’ve had to have forced someone to go out into the wilderness to even look! But, it was true: A shoot was brought forth from the stump of Jesse, a fruitful branch of new life and salvation for the entire world.
The prophets prepared God’s people to receive Him when He was born. John the Baptist prepared them to receive Him when He began His ministry and His reigning as King. Today, you are prepared to receive Him as your King through Word and Sacrament, that you will be well prepared to receive Him when He comes again on the Last Day. Though you cannot know the day or the hour, there is no need for that day to find you unprepared. Indeed, all has been prepared for you. All you need to do is receive it, as a gift. Jesus is the gift that God gave, gives, and keeps on giving. In Him, the LORD blesses you and keeps you until He comes. In Him, the LORD makes you a rich blessing to others. Yes, part of being prepared is being a gift yourself, to others, even as you have received this gift – to give to others as you have been given to. Let this be the spirit of your Christmas giving. And, let it be a gift that you continue to give when this season has passed. And, as you have known the mysteries of the LORD’s Light on earth, so will you come to know the fullness of His joys in heaven.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Very Brief Homily for Sunday School Christmas Lessons & Carols

Isaiah 9:2, 6, 7; Luke 1:26-35, 38; Luke 2:1, 3-7; Luke 2:8-16; John 1:1-14

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
“… who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man….” This truth we confess together each and every time we gather to receive Jesus’ body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. This truth we remember and celebrate each Lord’s Day in the Divine Service. This truth we remember and celebrate at Christmas. For, this truth Isaiah prophesied of over seven hundred years before Jesus’ birth. This truth St. Luke narrated so beautifully and poignantly throughout two complete chapters of his Gospel. And, this truth St. John proclaimed in a single powerful and mysterious sentence saying, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
From Adam’s sin, humanity began its gradual descent into the darkness of sin and death so that, by the time of Isaiah’s prophecy, there were few left who continued to hope, only a remnant, for the land of Israel was barren and dry from her apostasy and from the ravaging of godless kings. The tree of Jesse had been cut down, reduced to a fruitless stump. But, that was when God acted, for that is when God always acts – when there is no human reason for hope, no human wisdom that could imagine even a chance. A shoot sprang forth from the burned-out stump of Jesse, even a fruit-bearing branch, and the Spirit of the Lord returned and rested upon a man, Jesus.
Mary’s boy-child, lying in a manger, has become for us the fruitful tree of life. He is the Savior of our fallen race. He came to us as the Babe of Bethlehem. He comes to us now to forgive us anew, to strengthen our faith, and to bless us as we wait and watch for His coming in glory. This is the Advent of our Lord! Let us rejoice and be glad in Him!
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.