Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Feast of the Circumcision and Name of Our Lord

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.

The First Sunday after Christmas (The Feast of Purification of Mary and The Presentation of Our Lord)

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. This evening, we will celebrate the Feast of the Circumcision and Name of Jesus when He was eight days old in fulfillment of the Law. This morning, we celebrate the Feast of 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.

Monday, December 25, 2017

The Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord (Christmas Day)

John 1:1-18; Titus 3:4-7; Exodus 40:17-21, 34-38

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
There surely were few things more familiar, mundane, non-threatening, and approachable to the ancient Israelites than a tent. And yet, that is precisely how God chose to be present among His people – in a tent, the tabernacle, made by human hands. This was a radical change from God’s holy and terrifying presence on Mount Sinai in fire and smoke accompanied by thunder and lightning and quaking earth. The people, then, were forbidden to touch the mountain or even to approach it without first ceremonially cleansing and purifying themselves. Such restrictions and prohibitions were actually an act of mercy and grace on behalf of our Creator and God, for it was because of our sins and guilt that we could not abide in His presence, not because our God did not desire to be with His people. The LORD created us for communion with Him – so much more than the clich├ęd “personal relationship” many imagine today.
The LORD dwelt with His people, our First Parents Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden. They had access to God, for they were created in His image, holy and righteous, sharing His will as their own. However, when they succumbed to the devil’s temptation and acted upon their own will, which is necessarily not the will of the LORD, they immediately became other, sinful and stained by guilt. No longer could they abide in the LORD’s holy and righteous presence lest they be utterly destroyed. Thus, the LORD protected them from His presence, exiling them from the Garden and barring the way by a holy angel holding a flashing sword. However, the LORD still desired to be with them, therefore through many and various ways He provided means by which they could approach Him and not be consumed. First He covered their nakedness and guilt by shedding the innocent blood of animals and covering them with their skins. Later He established the Levitical priesthood and the sacrificial system that, by the shedding of the blood of hundreds of thousands of lambs and bulls the LORD might look away from their sin and guilt for a time. Still, none of these means ever removed or took away a single sin, but only covered them over for a time. Thus, the sacrifices had to be repeated daily, monthly, and annually until time was full for them to be fulfilled by the sacrifice they all pointed to, a sacrifice the LORD Himself would make to take away the sins of the world.
“But 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.” Blessed Christmas! There surely were few things more familiar, mundane, non-threatening, and approachable to the ancient Israelites – and to us – than a newborn child. And yet, that is precisely how God chose to be present among His people – in a flesh and blood newborn child made without human hands. Once the shekinah glorious presence of the LORD among His people dwelt in the tent of the tabernacle and behind the temple veil that no man could enter into but only the high priest, and only one day each year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and only after elaborate and particular cleansing and purifying rights and sacrifices of innocent blood. But, in the incarnation of God, the Word made flesh Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, men could now approach and handle God without fear. As we confess in the Christmas hymn Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, “Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see. Hail! The incarnate deity! Pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel.”
In the Incarnation, as a zygote, embryo, and fetus, as an infant child, the glory of the LORD shifted location and presence from the temple built by human hands to the virgin womb of Mary. The shekinah glory of the LORD that dwelt among His people on Sinai, in the tabernacle, and in the temple took up residence in the virgin womb of a lowly human maiden, the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos “Mother of God.” Jesus Himself made this point later in His ministry in response to the disciple’s marveling at the Jerusalem temple saying, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” St. John tells us that Jesus was talking about His own body. Thus, St. John proclaims in the Christmas Gospel, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory [His shekinah glory], glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Blessed Christmas!
God’s Christmas present to the world is His approachable, handleable presence in Jesus Christ. Of this marvelous, mysterious, glorious, and holy truth the preacher to the Hebrews proclaims, “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” The Incarnation of God, which we celebrate and remember and give thanks for this Christmas Day, has provided us eternal access to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. More than that, however, the Incarnation is the beginning of our redemption and restoration to God, that we may dwell and live in His holy, righteous, and glorious presence without fear. In the Incarnation, God became man that man might commune with God in a way even greater than did our First Parents in righteousness in the Garden before the Fall.
Jesus’ flesh became the new tent, tabernacle, temple, and veil within which the righteous and holy shekinah glory of the LORD dwelt among His people. God dwelt among His family, a human mother and father, having sisters and brothers. God dwelt among simple, sinful men and women whom He called to follow Him as His disciples. God dwelt among lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, Jews and Gentiles, sinners, and the unclean, and they were not consumed and destroyed, but were forgiven and healed from their sin-sickness unto death. As a man, God took all their sins and guilt and uncleanness upon Himself and left them pure and clean and forgiven. God took all their sins and guilt and uncleanness upon Himself and nailed it to the cross. God died as a man for men who deserved to die, and He left their sins and guilt and uncleanness behind in His tomb as He rose from death, its victor, never to die again. Then He ascended back into heaven, as a man forever to remain, securing our own place in the presence of the glory of the LORD forever. A man now sits at the right hand of the Father in His glorious presence, and so shall you. Blessed Christmas!
The Incarnation of God, the enfleshment of the Son of God, the Word made flesh and dwelling among us, has literally changed everything – how we live, how we die, how we relate to each other, and how we relate to God. No longer do we fear God’s wrath against our sin and being sent to hell. No longer do we fear having or not having, what our enemies might do to us, or even death. This is freedom, true freedom – Freedom from the bondage of sin and the fear of death and hell. Blessed Christmas! Even now we enter into His holy and righteous presence without fear  – though in great humility, reverence, trust, and love – and we receive Him who created the universe and all things in it, who sustains our own lives and all things still, who loves us with such a perfect and holy love that He would not see us forsaken and destroyed though we rebelled against Him and treated Him contemptuously and, sometimes, still do. We not only enter His holy and righteous presence, but we take Him into ourselves. His flesh is our flesh, His blood courses through our veins – this too is the meaning of the Incarnation – in blessed and holy communion that our First Parents would have longed for even in the Garden.
And yet still, this is but a foretaste of what is yet to come in the resurrection and eternal life in heaven. The Word made flesh is present for us to eat and drink under the lowly, humble, approachable, and handleable forms of bread and wine that we might commune with Him and receive His holy and righteous presence now to sustain us until the not yet. Blessed Christmas! “He whom the sea and wind obey doth come to serve the sinner in great meekness. Thou, God’s own Son, with us art one, dost join us and our children in our weakness.” This is God’s gift at Christmas; this is God’s Christmas presence. O, come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

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.
It is dark, and it is cold. There were many reasons for you to stay at home and to not venture out tonight, many did. It’s been a tough year. Aren’t they all? Some of you have lost loved ones, some of you have health complications, many of you are living paycheck to paycheck. You are anxious about having enough money. You are anxious about war and terror. You are anxious about your health and the health of those you love. You are anxious about your children. You are anxious about your marriage. It is dark, and it is cold. It would be easy to stay at home and be warm and safe, many did. You have a lot of expectations about this night – what you will hear, what you will see, what you will feel, what you will sing, who you will see and who you won’t see. Most of you will be disappointed. For He grew up before Him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; He had no form or majesty that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we esteemed Him not.
It wasn’t all that different, the night that Jesus was born. The earth turned round on its axis. The silent stars went by. People watched their p’s and q’s around the Roman occupiers. They made their ways to their ancestral hometowns to be registered in a census so they could pay their taxes. Shepherds went about their shepherding, the hotels were full, and a young woman, pregnant outside of wedlock, was about to give birth. How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.
But, it wasn’t Mary alone who was great with child. All of humanity, all of human history, all of God’s creation had been waiting for this moment, groaning in the pains of childbirth. For, creation and all human history were not so unlike a virgin womb or virgin soil, lifeless, with no ability to produce life on its own. When all was still, and it was midnight, Your almighty Word, O Lord, descended from the royal throne.
For, 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. What a marvelous image, time being full. It gives us the impression that time had been filling, well, for some time. Yes, that’s it precisely! Just as from the moment of conception the child begins to grow and the mother begins to grow, so too, from the moment of the conception of the universe, when God spoke His creative Word into the virgin nothingness, His plan of salvation began to grow and time began progressing towards ever greater fullness. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made.
He by whom all things were made was made one of all things. The Son of God by the Father without a mother became the Son of man by a mother without a father. The Word who is God before all time became flesh at the appointed time. The maker of the sun was made to be under the sun. He who fills the world lay in a manger, great in the form of God but tiny in the form of a servant; this was in such a way that neither was His greatness diminished by His tininess, nor was His tininess overcome by His greatness.
In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. In the hour of man’s deepest darkness, in the deadness of human hope and possibility, once again, into virgin space, virgin womb, and virgin heart, God’s Word is spoken, “Let there be light.” And there was light. Silent night, holy night! Son of God, love’s pure light radiant beams from Thy holy face with the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.
He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him. But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His Name, He gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. O God, You make this most holy night to shine with the brightness of the True Light.
In Jesus, the Lion and the Lamb lie down together, perfect God and perfect Man. And, this Lamb was slain from the foundation of the world for you. Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed, so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one of us, to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. Nails, spear shall pierce Him through, the cross be borne for me, for you. But He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His stripes we are healed.
It is dark, and it is cold. Today was difficult, tomorrow is uncertain. Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a 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. Yes, He was born unto you, He was born for you. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased! Yes, He is pleased with you. He assumed your flesh. He took your sins upon Himself. He suffered your stripes. He died your death. For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. Thus, there is joy in this world, and there is peace on this earth. God and man are reconciled.
While the nations rage and people plot in vain, while the kings of the earth set themselves and rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against His anointed, He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision saying, “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” When all was still, and it was midnight, Your almighty Word, O Lord, descended from the royal throne. Behold the Lord’s holy hill. Behold His Zion. Behold your King who is present for you in flesh and blood shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins, for life, and for eternal salvation. This is the Christ Mass. O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.