Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Third Sunday after the Epiphany of Our Lord (Epiphany 3)

Matthew 8:1-13; Romans 12:16-21; 2 Kings 5:1-15a

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
It is a lesson about faith. It is a lesson about authority. It is a lesson about the creative power of the Word of God. It is a lesson about truehealing in the forgiveness of sins. It is a lesson about the Gospel extended to the Gentiles. It is a lesson about Jesus made manifest as the Son of God in our own human flesh. It is a lesson about humility and repentance in receiving mercy from God and in showing mercy to our neighbors. Indeed, our Gospel lesson today is about all these lessons and many, many more, all at the same time, for the Word of God is an inexhaustible fountain of life and an inviting mystery that draws the faithful ever deeper into the life of God Himself.
In the Gospel lesson we are presented first with a Jewish leper and then with a Roman centurion, a commander of a hundred men, both of whom appeal to Jesus, the leper for cleansing and the centurion for the healing of his dying servant. Clearly the leper is a man of great faith. He dared to approach His Lord in his uncleanness and appealed to the Lord’s will saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” His words are an outstanding confession of faith in the good will, nature, and essence of His Lord. His confession is like unto Job’s – the Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessed be the Name of the Lord – in that, even if it were notthe Lord’s will to cleanse, the good will, nature, and essence of the Lord would not be changed in any way. But, the centurion outdid the leper in his confession. The centurion, initially, did not confess anything about Jesus, but merely laid his concern for his dying servant before the Lord. Without hesitation, Jesus said that He would go to his servant and heal him. But, this is when the centurion makes his great confession saying, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” What made the centurion’s confession great was not so much what he said about his Lord as it was what he said about himself – I am not worthy.
I am not worthy. I do not deserve your healing and forgiveness. I a poor and miserable sinner confess…. My brothers and sisters, we come before our Lord with no expectation of entitlements and with nothing of our own to offer. Rather, we come before the Lord as idolaters, as prodigals, as murderers, adulterers, and thieves. In humility and repentance we confess our sins and our iniquities against the Lord. We confess that we are worthy only of temporal and eternal punishment. We confess that to remain an unclean leper is too good for us. And, we confess our repentance and contrition and pray for the Lord’s mercy for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Jesus Christ alone. “Lord, I am not worthy,” we confess. “I forgive you all your sins,” our Lord replies. “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.”
In a beautiful display of the unity and concord of the Holy Scriptures, the Church, in Her wisdom, has assigned as the Old Testament lesson for this day the complimentary narrative concerning Naaman of Syria. Whereas, in the Gospel we were presented with a Jewish leper and a Roman centurion, Naaman is at once a Syrian commander anda leper. Now, Naaman was a powerful man of great authority and influence, and, yet, he was also a leper. Apparently, it seems, the disease of leprosy had not the same social stigma amongst the Syrians as it did amongst the Jews. Further, this may be indicative of the corruption of the pagan Syrian culture. Thus, when Naaman was informed that there was a prophet in Israel who could heal him, despite his leprosy, he was bold to go directly to the king of Israel. But, having, himself, no power to heal, the king of Israel was distraught. Thus, Elisha the prophet counseled the king to send Naaman to him. So, Naaman then came to Elisha with his horses and chariots and stood outside his house awaiting an audience with the prophet. But, Elisha sent out a messenger instead. The messenger instructed Naaman to wash in the Jordan seven times and that his flesh would be restored and he would be clean. But, Naaman was angry that neither the king nor the prophet would come to him in person. And, he expected ceremonial invocations and showy hand-wavings to accompany such a miracle. Also, he was repulsed by the lowly waters of Israel in comparison to the rivers of Damascus. And, so we see that Naaman is the exact opposite of the Roman centurion. Naaman came to the king and then to Elisha with expectations of entitlement and with a sense of self-worth that he merited respect and honor. He was offended and scandalized that a mere messenger and not the prophet himself would speak to him. He was offended and scandalized that he was given only the command to wash. And he was offended and scandalized that he was to submit himself to washing in such lowly and common waters as the Jordan in Israel. He would not accept the word delivered through subordinates and he would not surrender his own expectations, desires, and will even for the promise of healing.
How like Naaman are you, thinking that the uncleanness of your sin is no big deal and that you are entitled to be heard and served by your Lord on your own terms, according to your own preferences and expectations? How often are you offended and scandalized by the means and the messengers through which your Lord ministers to you, thinking them old fashioned, irrelevant, outdated, and foolish? How often do you think that what is desirable, beautiful, glorious, and pleasurable in your eyes should determine how we worship before our Lord? How often do you leave in a huff and grumble in anger, inciting others to join in your malcontent? Of this you must repent daily, for you are not worthy that the Lord should enter under your roof.
Nevertheless, thanks be to God, He doesspeak His Word and you arehealed. And, it is a great Word that your God has spoken to you, the Word become flesh, dwelling amongst us, whose Name is Jesus, God’s salvation. Thou you were not worthy that He should come under your roof, He has come into your flesh and has joined you into Him. Though He had no uncleanness of His own, He submitted Himself to be baptized in the Jordan for you, to become the Lord’s anointed scapegoat, taking your leprous sin, and the sin of the whole world, upon Himself, to defeat Satan’s temptations and to destroy death by His own death upon the cross. All this He gives you freely in Holy Baptism without ceremonial hand-wavings and impressive flair, but with humble, common water and His mighty, creative, and life-giving Word delivered by humble and common messengers and servants.
The Lord does indeed have authority, as confessed by the centurion, over heaven and earth, yet it is not evidenced in the worldly ways desired by Naaman, but in and through humble means does the Lord exercise His authority to forgive sins and heal, cure, and raise up men afflicted by sin’s poison and death. Though the wages of sin is, universally, death, and though all afflictions, disease, and sufferings are but the symptoms of sin, Jesus is the victor over death. Thus He is the Great Physician of your body and soul and He is the Medicine of Immortality who brings life to all who receive Him. You are not worthy that He should enter under your roof, nevertheless, He has come amongst you and has drawn you into Himself. Even now He is present with His life-giving Word to cleanse and forgive you, to feed and sustain you, and to send you as His messengers of mercy for the life of the world.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Second Sunday after the Epiphany of Our Lord (Epiphany 2)

John 2:1-11; Romans 12:6-16; Exodus 33:12-23

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
And so we are in the midst of the season of Epiphany. Each Sunday’s lessons were selected over a millennium ago by the gathering of the faithful, the Church, because they manifest whom Jesus is and what He has come to do. Therefore, when we consider these Scriptures, we must consider not only how they would have been heard and understood at the time of their telling, but also what meaning was intended from their placement within the Gospel narrative and the Church’s historic lectionary. Thus, the Wedding at Cana tells us, not merely the story of a particular wedding, although it certainly does that, but we must consider also the Evangelist’s placement of this particular story within the Gospel he authored. Indeed, this story appears only in John’s Gospel, and it is followed immediately by Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, which the other Gospels place within the account of Jesus’ passion. What are we to make of John’s inclusion of this wedding, seemingly ignored by the Synoptics? What are we to make of John’s unusual connection of this narrative with the cleansing of the temple? These are but two questions to be considered on this Second Sunday after the Epiphany of our Lord, that Jesus may be made manifest before us as God’s Son and our salvation in human flesh.
Understood as God instituted it, there is something about marriage that is connected with death – the death of the self. For, in marriage, the husband dies to himself and pledges his life to his wife; likewise, the wife dies to herself and pledges her life to her husband. In this selfless and self-sacrificial way, the two become one flesh. They are no longer two, but they are one flesh, even one creature, united by God, which man must not separate. St. John records Jesus’ first miracle having taken place at a wedding and, to be sure, passion imagery abounds: The crisis occurred “on the third day” of a wedding feast. Jesus said that His “hour had not yet come.” In the casting out of the money-changers from the temple, which follows immediately upon the wedding narrative, Jesus makes an explicit reference to His death and resurrection saying “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The temple He was referring to was His body. For, it was through His suffering, death, and resurrection that Jesus perfectly loved His Bride, the Church, giving His life for Her. He loved Her more than He loved Himself. He laid down His life for Her in selfless, sacrificial love that She might live. This is the connection that John, and the Holy Spirit who inspired him to write, mean for you to make.
Therefore, the crisis was not merely that a wedding banquet had run out of wine, though that would surely have been a social blunder and a great embarrassment for the family, but rather the crisis was that man’s life, joy, and hope for the future had run out because of his sin – the joylessness and hopelessness of death had become his fate. This was the crisis that His faithful mother, who believed in Him, asked Him to resolve. This was the crisis that He did resolve by fulfilling God’s Law for us and by dying in our place, that we might have life and joy and hope once again. Those six stone jars held water used to purify men for participation in the feast. Jesus had those jars filled to the brim so that they were full and complete, and then He did something more: He changed the water into wine, the finest wine imaginable. Where the water only purified for a time, His blood that He shed upon the cross for us purifies forever. Indeed, He gives us His cleansing blood now in the fruit of the vine which we drink in Holy Communion for the forgiveness of our sins, the strengthening of our faith, and eternal life through faith in Him.
John’s Gospel is thought to be constructed around seven signs performed by Jesus, of which the changing of water into wine is the first. Thus, John’s Gospel is more a catechism intended to teach the faithful revealed truths about Jesus than it is a narrative telling the story of His life and works. Each and every account recorded by John was selected and recorded for a specific purpose. Ultimately, that purpose was to demonstrate that, in Jesus, God’s Messianic reign had begun through which Jesus would restore His Father’s kingdom and make all things new. This is precisely how we must understand today’s Gospel: Jesus is revealed as God’s Messiah come to restore His fallen creation by means of His selfless and sacrificial death on the cross. Where man’s sin had introduced suffering and death into the world, robbing us of peace and joy and hope, Jesus came, not merely to reverse the curse, but to fulfill perfectly and completely all that we failed to do and then, even more, to recreate, restore, and renew His Father’s kingdom.
Jesus is the perfect and sinless Bridegroom who selflessly laid down His life in death to redeem His Bride, God’s children, the Church from Her sin and death. His life was Her life. She had forfeited Her own life, not for Her Husband, but to Satan. While God was faithful and selfless, His people played the adulterer, the fornicator, the idolater, and the unfaithful Bride. Because of this, man’s wedding feast had run out of wine, and there was no human way of getting more, of restoring man’s peace, hope, and joy. Mary, the mother of our Lord, has long been a symbol of the entire Church. In this narrative, it is Mary who appeals to Jesus in faith saying, “Do something!” Mary believed that Jesus was able to do something and that He would. His odd sounding protest is actually quite revealing, “My hour has not yet come.” Jesus’ “hour” is the time of His passion, His suffering and death upon the cross. Jesus answered His mother saying, “The time for me to lay down my life in selfless sacrifice and death for the Church has not yet come. Nevertheless, I will give this foretaste and foreshadowing of who I am and what I will do now. I will change the water of purification into the wine of joy as a sign that my dear Bride may trust in me and believe that I will purify Her and restore to her hope for eternal life and joy when I shed my blood for Her upon the cross.”
When the master of the feast tasted the water that had been made to be the finest of wines, he exclaimed, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Indeed, this is how it is with men, but not with God. Whatever you have received from God that you count as good, now, is but a foretaste of the goodness He has laid up for you. This is as true for you today as it was for Adam in the beginning, for Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, for David, for the guests at the wedding in Cana, and for the saints at rest with Jesus now. We are all, still, waiting in hopeful and joyful expectation for the feast to come, the Great Marriage Feast of the Lamb in His Kingdom that has no end! Yes! That is how the Revelation describes heaven, as a wedding feast where the Bridegroom is Jesus and where you, His Church, are the Bride! It is pictured as Eden, the Garden of Paradise, on steroids – so much greater still than that which we commonly consider perfection and paradise!
This kingdom is yours even now, though you do not see it or experience in its fullness and glory. However, you do see it and experience it through God’s Word and His Blessed Sacraments, particularly and especially in the Supper of the Lamb who has died and is alive again. Here at this banquet table we receive our sustenance and life, our hope and faith is strengthened and renewed, and we are kept and preserved in eternal life through Holy Communion with our living Lord and Husband. Yet, as good and comforting and revitalizing as it is, it is but the dimmest foretaste of that Great Feast to come! It is like manna during our wilderness pilgrimage. It is like the overflowing cup as we walk though the valley of the shadow of death. But, it is enough, it is more than enough for now, for through it, in communion with Christ, we do not walk alone, but He is with us, just as He promised, unto the end of the age.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Feast of the Holy Baptism of Our Lord

Matthew 3:13-17; 1 Corinthians 1:26-31; Isaiah 42:1-7

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Children of God, let us not make light of the Baptism of our Lord, and let us not make light of our own baptism, for it is because of His baptism that our Lord’s death was efficacious, and it is because of His baptism that your baptism is efficacious. Jesus’ baptism was fitting, it was proper, it was necessary. Thus, when Jesus approached John to be baptized by him, John protested saying “I need to be baptized by you.” Jesus did not deny John’s complaint but, agreeing, He replied “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” The baptism of Jesus was fitting, it was proper, it was necessary for the fulfillment of all righteousness. Or, to state it negatively, all righteousness would not be have been fulfilled were it not for the baptism of Jesus. Thus, we dare not make light of the Baptism of our Lord, and we dare not make light of our own baptism.
But what is it about Jesus’ baptism that is so special, so necessary? Here, the placement of this Feast in the Sanctoral Calendar is informative. The Feast of the Baptism of our Lord is celebrated the Sunday after the Epiphany, immediately on the heels of the Christmas cycle celebrating the Birth of our Lord. So, as the story of the birth of Jesus is still fresh in our minds we are caused to reflect upon the second birth of our Lord – His holy baptism. Consider the language of Jesus’ baptism: And when Jesus was baptized, immediately He went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on Him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” It sounds like an infant child passing through the birth canal into the light of day being received by His loving Father crying out, “It’s a boy! And, He’s perfect!” And then, what does our Lord teach us about baptism: Unless one is born again of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
Indeed, it was fitting, it was proper, it was necessary for our holy and sinless Lord to step into the waters of the Jordan, along with sinners of all kinds, so that He could take the sins of all humanity upon Himself and, in exchange, make all men righteous through Him. In His baptism, Jesus, who was conceived and born without sin, was born again in sin, man’s sin, and was made to be sin for us that we might be made righteous in Him.
It was Creation all over again! The Father spoke. The Son was spoken. And the Spirit of God hovered over the waters. But, what was created this time was a new man, a new Adam, a new son of God with whom He could be fully pleased. The old Adam had closed heaven by his sin; the New Adam has opened it! The old Adam drowned in the waters of the Jordan; the New Adam stepped forth into life and light. The uncreated Son of God became a creature as the Son of Man – it is upon Him, Jesus, that God poured out His anointing Spirit and christened Him Son, Christ, Messiah, Savior – for you.
Jesus’ baptism was fitting, it was proper, it was necessary to fulfill all righteousness. If Jesus had not been baptized, then we would have no Christ and we would still be in our sins, our baptisms would be meaningless and useless. But Jesus has been baptized, He is the Christ, the Anointed of the Lord, and He has taken all our sins upon Himself and has given us His righteousness. He has sanctified the waters of Baptism in His blood to make them a cleansing flood of forgiveness for all men. He is God’s Son for us; with Him God is fully pleased for us. He is the Chosen One, chosen by the Father, and the Father put His Spirit upon Him and no other – for us.
His baptism marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. At once He is subject to temptation by the devil and mockery and persecution by men. And, at once He begins to proclaim the fulfillment of God’s Law and the presence of His Kingdom. He heals the sick, restores sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and speech to the dumb, He makes the paralyzed to walk and He cleanses lepers while proclaiming the forgiveness of sins. His teaching is that, in Him you are forgiven, you are free. Why, then, do you remain in the prison house of sin and death? Why do you continue to strive to earn God’s favor by works? Take up your mat and walk! Go, and sin no more! Your faith has made you well!
Of Jesus, God said through the prophet Isaiah, “I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” Children of God, it is still Christmas, and Jesus is the Gift that keeps on giving! “And because of Him,” writes the Apostle Paul, “You are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” Jesus is your Anointed One, Christ for you. Because of His baptism is your baptism a cleansing flood of forgiveness. For, you are baptized into Christ: His baptism is your baptism. His righteousness is your righteousness. His death is your death and His resurrection is your resurrection. He is God’s Son, with whom God is well pleased; through baptism into Him, you are God’s children, forgiven, freed, and possessing eternal life and salvation!
Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who alonedoes wondrous things! Your baptism, your faith, your forgiveness, your righteousness – these are the LORD’s work who alonedoes wondrous things. The LORD upheld and chose His servant Jesus. The LORD took delight in Him. The LORD placed His Spirit upon Him. The LORD called Him in righteousness. The LORD gave Him as a covenant for the people and as a light for the nations. For, God has chosen the weak and the foolish things of this world, the low and the despised, even things that are not, to shame the wise and the strong; and the LORD has chosen and called you to faith and baptism into Christ that He might say of you, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” In Christ, God became man that man might become God. Christ is baptized. Let us descend with Him that we may also ascend.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Christian Funeral for Virginia Lucille Rieken

John 5:24-30; Revelation 7:9-17; Job 19:21-27                                                                                

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Life in Post-Depression America was hard. Life on a Post-Depression American farm in Iowa was harder. That was the life young Virginia grew up in. Pre-deceased by her two older sisters, Virginia found herself the oldest child and having to work, and to work hard, to provide for her family. Splitting wood, picking corn, milking cows, cooking meals, washing, mending, and making clothes were part and parcel of young Virginia’s day to day life. Her family didn’t own a car, so walking was the order of the day whether it was to school, to church, or to Sunday School. When she was older, Virginia looked back on her childhood with some bitterness for the hardness of it, but it wasn’t all bad, and it made her the woman, wife, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother she would become. Those were formative years. When nothing comes easy, it teaches you to appreciate what you have.
I asked the family how Virginia’s childhood and upbringing shaped her as a person. The word “bitter” was spoken. Now, that might sound fairly negative, but I ask you to not be too hasty in judgment. That was Tuesday morning. Virginia had passed away less than twenty-four hours earlier. The reality was fresh, and likely hadn’t fully settled in. Emotions were raw and untempered – What you see is what you get. But, let’s be honest; Virginia undoubtedly was a little bitter about her past. Undoubtedly she felt that the best years of her life – the years of her youth, when she was full of life and hope, natural beauty and vitality – had been stolen from her. Virginia knew that life can be hard, that nothing is free, and that, just because we aren’t all dealt the same cards, we have to play what’s in our hand. Perhaps “bitter” was a word spoken with a taint of emotion – sadness, shock, grief, sorrow, and the like? Perhaps “resigned,” “resolute,” or “long-suffering” might be more rounded and encompassing descriptions of Virginia?
In this respect, Virginia shared something in common with the patriarch Job in our Old Testament reading. Job was a wealthy and righteous man, blessed by God. Inexplicably, however, the LORD handed Job over to be tested by Satan. First Satan afflicted Job’s wealth and possessions. Then he afflicted Job’s children. Lastly, Satan afflicted Job’s body and health, reducing him to a sore-encompassed pariah to sit alone in his misery wondering why the LORD had permitted this to befall him. The answer to that question is not one that sits well with those whose highest values and virtues are fairness and equity: God permitted all this to befall Job to show the devil His own righteousness, effectively that He is God and that all that Job had, including his own life, was the LORD’s to give and to take away. In fact, that was Job’s own confession after the destruction of his wealth and family: “The LORD has given, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the Name of the LORD.” Later, in the verses you heard a moment ago, after Job’s own flesh and health had been destroyed, Job confessed his hope, belief, and even knowledge that the LORD would restore Him one day saying, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!”
Job’s story ended on a happy note. After the test, the LORD restored to Job two times over what He had permitted Satan to take from him. Job’s wealth was restored. New sons and daughters were born to him. Job was restored in wealth, health, family, and vitality to an exceedingly greater state than he enjoyed before. Look, the analogy only goes so far, and I am in no way suggesting that Job’s and Virginia’s lives were parallel, but only that there were a few things they shared in common. Though her childhood and young adulthood were hard and trying, the LORD provided for Virginia and her family, and, in fact, the LORD provided through her. And, like Job, the LORD did bless Virginia later in her life. Her marriage to Albert, “Red,” in 1975 were happy years, even if they were tragically cut short when Red died in 1999. The family mentioned that Virginia would often ask rhetorically, “Why did he have to leave so soon?” Those years saw them through a move to Maryland and back to Iowa again – “Too much traffic in the D.C. area, highways six lanes across!” Virginia had what we might call a wanderlust, a desire to travel the highways and the byways of our nation – without a map, of course, and Virginia always had to be in the driver’s seat. Because of this, she came to be thought of as a “Gypsy Traveler,” not always certain where she was going, but going, and getting there, nonetheless. After Red’s passing, Virginia found happiness and joy in simple things – sewing, crocheting, cooking, crafts, and bingo – much as she likely did in her hard, humble, and simple youth. While she might have desired something more, or different, I suspect that Virginia was content with the cards that had been dealt to her. She played them, she lived them, and she played them well.
When I asked about Virginia’s faith, there was no hesitation, but the family responded that she was a believer, she was a Christian, even if church attendance was not a regular part of her life. Those walks to church and Sunday School as a child no doubt wove her faith into the fabric of Virginia’s life early on so that faith was not something she talked about much, but faith was simply a part of who Virginia was. Who was Virginia? Virginia was a baptized child of God. She was a sinner who had washed her robe and made it white in the blood of the Lamb Jesus Christ. In Holy Baptism, the LORD claimed Virginia and named her His own dear and precious daughter and gave her forgiveness, a share in His kingdom, and life that will never die. That is what this white pall covering Virginia represents – Christ’s righteousness that covers all Virginia’s sins and imperfections so that she is pure and holy before the throne of God and the Lamb. Moreover, this was not something that happened to Virginia just this past Monday when the LORD called her home in Jesus, but it is something that happened to Virginia 91 years ago when she was baptized. Jesus says in St. John’s Gospel, “Truly, truly I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” Already, in her life, Virginia had passed over from death to life through Holy Baptism and faith in Jesus and His Word. As Jesus also teaches, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die,” so Virginia lives, even though she has died, and Jesus will raise her up on the Last Day. Then, you will see her again, as Job confessed, with your own eyes, in your own flesh, face to face. You will hear her voice again. You will hold her in your arms again. And, no one will take your joy from you.
When I met with the family to plan this service, I suggested several passages of Scripture. The following from Lamentations was one that was not selected, but after contemplating Virginia’s life and faith, I am convinced that it is important and meaningful: “The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him; let him put his mouth in the dust—there may yet be hope; […] For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men.” The LORD did indeed cause grief. Virginia did indeed bear the yoke in silence and wait on the LORD. And, the LORD has indeed shown compassion and love for His servant. He died for Virginia and gave her faith to receive this precious gift. Now Virginia lacks for nothing, but knows perfect contentment, completion, and fulfillment in the Lord. And, more than this, you will see her again and your hearts will rejoice forever.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord

Matthew 2:1-12; Ephesians 3:1-12; Isaiah 60:1-6                                                                                             

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
On Christmas Eve we chanted these words from Wisdom of Solomon, “When all was still and it was midnight, Your almighty Word, O Lord, descended from the royal throne.”In the darkest hour of man’s night of sin, when there seemed to be no help on the horizon, no hope for salvation, that was when God acted. That is when God acts. Once again He spoke His creative Word into the darkness saying, “Let there be Light”,and His creative Word accomplished that purpose for which it was sent: The Word became flesh and made His dwelling amongst us.Once again there was Light, and His Life was the Light of menThe Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not, and cannot, overcome it.
Wise men from the East, Gentiles, caught a glimpse of that Light. They had only an inkling of what it might be, for they too, with all the world, dwelt in the midst of deep darkness. But they were looking for a light. They were searching the stars, reading the stories and searching the prophecies of wise men in other lands. They were searching for God in all the wrong places; they were searching for God in too many faces. Yet, still, they were searching; they were looking outside of themselves for help, for hope, and for Light. God permitted them to observe the star, yet it was not the star that lead them to Jerusalem, but it was His Word which they had heard and read and searched as they groped around in the darkness. They had heard of a prophecy of a great King, and they came to worship Him, indicating that they expected this king to be more than an earthly ruler.
The wise men were most likely astronomers, perhaps even astrologers, who searched and read the stars of the heavens looking for guidance and direction in their lives. This may not be as bad as it sounds, for the stars were put in their place by our God and Creator, and they do indeed provide guidance and direction, marking north, south, east, and west; and, the movement of the constellations across the heavens mark the changing of the seasons. However, astronomy can become astrology, and that is idolatry, in the same manner as anything else, when the creature is feared, loved, and trusted before and above the Creator. The wise men were most likely guilty of this, as are we all.
Yet, the wise men stand in unique contrast to both Herod and the chief priests and scribes of the people of Israel. Herod and the priests and the scribes did not search the heavens and look to the light of the stars for guidance and direction, but, moreover, though they were the keepers and the interpreters of God’s Word, neither did they look to it for light, guidance, and direction. Thus, when the wise men arrived in Jerusalem, at the palace of King Herod – for, where else would you find a king, but in a palace in a royal city, they thought – Herod remembered that there was a prophecy in God’s Word about such a king, and he quickly inquired with the keepers and the interpreters of the Word where this child king was to be born. And, the priests and the scribes knew right where to look, the Prophet Micah, where it says “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”They knew right where to look, and yet, they weren’t looking! And, when Herod finally took an interest and sought to find the child, it wasn’t out of fear, love, and trust in God or in His Word, but it was out of fear, and hate, and jealousy for his throne and for the one he believed was prophesied to take it from him. Herod didn’t want to come and worship the newborn King, he wanted to come and murder Him!
Here we have an example of two kinds of people, both walking in the same darkness, but for different reasons, and with different results. The wise men from the east knew they were in darkness and they were searching for light, even if they didn’t fully know or understand what that light was or would be. In contrast, Herod, the scribes, and the Pharisees were actually the keepers and interpreters of the source of all light, God’s Word, but they loved the darkness more than the light. They refused to be guided and directed by the light of God’s Word and they chose to live their lives and to conduct their deeds under the cover of darkness because their deeds were evil. When the wise men heard the Word, they made haste to Bethlehem to find the Christ child to worship Him. But, when Herod heard the Word, he was troubled and his heart was hardened. Herod burned with anger and jealousy, with fear and hate for this newborn King of prophecy, and for the Word of God which proclaimed Him.
The Light of God’s creative and life-giving Word entered into the world in the Incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus the Christ – and that has changed everything! Darkness has been penetrated and overcome by the Light of Christ, as it was first in the creation, and it shall never obscure, overcome, or prevail against the Light ever again. Wherever the Light of God’s Word, the Light of Christ, shines, there simply is no darkness. And yet, people still walk in darkness, in ignorance and unbelief. People still choose to dwell in darkness because their deeds are evil. But, not you, O Jerusalem, city on a hill. You are filled with, and you shine with, the Light of God’s Christ. You are not the Light, but His Light fills you like a lamp and shines out of you into the darkness of this world, and upon those who dwell in it, so that not only is your path illumined before you, but others may walk in safety through the valley of the shadow of death.
This is what the Prophet Isaiah declares when he says, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.”On your own, you have no light, but you dwell in deep darkness. But, when the Light of the LORD shines upon you and fills you, you shine with His Light, the Light of the world for all to see. This is what your Lord Jesus means when He says, "No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar or under a basket, but on a stand, so that those who enter may see the light.”Likewise, Jesus teaches, “Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light, but when it is bad, your body is full of darkness.”You see, the eye is a receptive organ; it receives and responds to the stimulus of light. If there is no light, the eye receives and sees nothing. But, when there is light, the eye will receive it, unless it is not clear, or unless the eye is willfully closed. “Therefore,”Jesus warns you, “be careful lest the light in you be darkness. If then your whole body is full of light, having no part dark, it will be wholly bright, as when a lamp with its rays gives you light.”
My dear Christians, whether you were once searching for light in the darkness, or you were all too comfortable dwelling in darkness and were afraid of the light, the Word of God is spoken into you, “Arise, shine, for your Light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.”“At one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord,”writes St. Paul, “Walk, therefore, as children of Light.”
The wise men followed the light of the star, and the light of God’s Word, and they were led to the Christ child. There they worshipped Him and presented their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, gifts fit for a king. For, Jesus is a King, but He is not like the kings of men. He reigns in selfless, sacrificial service, in humility and love. He rules, not with power taken from men, but with authority given by God, in righteousness, justice, and peace. The wise men had to be surprised at what they found, an infant child, helpless and humble, weak and vulnerable, and yet they believed the Word that they had heard, that this child was the King of the Jews. Even so, the light of the Word of God has guided and directed you, not to the mountains of natural glory, not to the thrones of human power, but to the altar of sacrifice where your King Jesus is present for you in the humble and lowly forms of bread and wine, that you may present yourself before Him as a living sacrifice and receive His Light and eat His flesh and drink His blood, the flesh and blood of the only Son of the Father, begotten before the foundation of the world, the Word and Light of creation, made flesh and dwelling amongst you, Jesus Christ. In Him is life, and the life is the Light of men, that you may shine with His Light, illumining the way to Truth and Life.
While our resurrected and ascended Lord Jesus Christ now fills all things in heaven and earth, even the glorious mountains and the vast and deep oceans, even the expanse of the heavens with its billions upon billions of galaxies, stars, and planets, He is not in those places and things for your life, light, and salvation, but He is where He has promised to be, in His Word made flesh which He has attached to and fills the humble, the lowly, and the ordinary things of His creation – Bread, wine, water, and the words of a book read, spoken, and proclaimed to you – to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.
Dear Christians, let us also follow the Light of God’s Word to the place where it rests upon the altar of sacrifice in the House of Lord, where His Mother, the Church, gathers with angels and archangels and with all the company of heavenaround the throne of King Jesus, the Light of the world, God in flesh made manifest. Let us worship and bow down with all the children of the Light in praise and adoration, receiving His light, His love and forgiveness, and go out illumining the world and those walking in darkness and the shadow of death that they might walk in darkness no longer, but seek, find, and receive the Light of Christ and live, and thereby glorify the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit forevermore.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.