Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Feast of the Circumcision and Name of Jesus (Observed) (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.
Genesis chapter two begins with a quaint little scene in which Adam gives names to all the creatures of the earth. Now, one could easily read past this account without a thought as to what meaning it might hold. However, the Feast we celebrate this day is all about the giving of a Name. In the Holy Scriptures, names are given to things that are new, or to people who have experienced some sort of profound change such that they are, effectively, new people. Examples of this include Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel, Cephas, whose name was changed to Peter, and Saul, who became Paul. Each of these men underwent a spiritual transformation in which their lives were changed in such a way that they effectively became new people.
When the LORD made a covenant with Abram, He gave him a new name, and the LORD gave Abram and his descendants the sign of circumcision. Abram became Abraham, the father of nations, and the sign of the LORD’s covenant, circumcision, was given in Abraham’s flesh. Since the covenant promise was for a son from Abraham’s own flesh and for descendants as numerous as the stars in the heavens, from which ultimately would come a Savior, the Messiah, the sign of the LORD’s covenant promise was upon the male reproductive organ so that at the conception and birth of every male and female descendant of Abraham the LORD’s covenant promise would be remembered. Every man and boy of Abraham’s tribe was circumcised, and every male child born thereafter was circumcised on the eighth day after birth, in remembrance of the LORD’s covenant promise made to Abraham and his descendants.
In the New Testament, St. Luke records for us the account of the circumcision and naming of John the Baptist. As you will recall, because John’s father Zechariah did not believe the Word of the LORD spoken by His messenger Gabriel that his wife Elizabeth would conceive and bear a son, he was stricken mute as a sign until the child was born, circumcised, and was named John just as the angel had said. And so, on the eighth day after his birth, the child was circumcised and was given the name John. Immediately, Zechariah’s tongue was loosed and his mouth was opened in praise of the LORD who had kept His Word and promise. Accordingly, eight days after His birth, Jesus was circumcised and was given the Name Jesus just as Gabriel had proclaimed to Mary when she conceived the Christ child by the Word and Spirit of the LORD proclaimed by His holy messenger.
Every male child that was circumcised was given a name indicating that something new was present. In the case of men conceived and born in sin, circumcision and the new name were a sign of the LORD’s promised forgiveness in the forthcoming Messiah whom He would send when time was full. However, in the case of Jesus, who had no sin to be forgiven, He was circumcised for your sins and for my sins and for the sins of all humankind, and He was given a particular, holy, and divine Name, Jesus, which means “God saves.” Jesus was circumcised and named for all of us that He might take all of our sin, uncleanness, and guilt upon Himself and die in our place thereby destroying the power of sin and death. And, because He was sinless and righteous, and yet died in our place, God raised Him from death, and in Him raised all humankind from death to life that will never end for those who are born again through faith and trust in Jesus.
Following Jesus’ death and resurrection, His ascension, and the sending of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, there was no longer any need for the sign of circumcision, which was a sign of a promise yet to be fulfilled, for the covenant promise was fulfilled in Jesus. Now, Holy Baptism has replaced circumcision as the sign and seal of God’s covenant promise fulfilled for us in Jesus Christ. Holy Baptism is a far superior sign and Sacrament that actually incorporates the faithful into Jesus so that His death is our death, and His resurrection and ascension is our resurrection and ascension. In truth, Jesus’ eternal life and victory over sin, death, and Satan are ours too through baptism and faith in Him, even as His Sonship with the Father and Kingship over heaven and earth is ours too through baptism and faith in Him. All things are yours through baptism and faith in Christ Jesus your Lord. Your new life and name in Jesus Christ is so important that the Christian Church has symbolically incorporated the number eight into the architecture and furnishing of its sanctuaries. In our humble sanctuary the baptismal font is eight sided. In many older liturgical churches you will see eight-sided pulpits, lecterns, windows, and more. This is no coincidence, for the number eight symbolizes the eternal eighth day of Jesus’ resurrection and new life that never ends into which each of you have been baptized and become a new creation bearing God’s own holy Name.
Thus, today, on this last day of the secular calendar year, and the first day of a new year, we remember and celebrate the Circumcision and Name of Jesus, because He bore our sins in His own flesh and redeemed us from our sin and death. “And at the end of eight days, when He was circumcised, He was called Jesus, the Name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.” By the way, this is the shortest Gospel reading in the Church’s lectionary! St. Paul expounds upon the meaning of Jesus’ circumcision and name in his Epistle to the Galatians saying, “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.” And, Paul further explains that Christians receive the benefit of Jesus’ circumcision and name through Holy Baptism and faith: “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.” Through baptism and faith in Christ, you have been circumcised with a circumcision made without human hands, a circumcision of the heart by the Holy Spirit that your hearts may be made pure from all sins. Through baptism and faith, Jesus’ circumcision, name, baptism, obedience, death, resurrection, and ascension are also yours. All that the LORD gave to His people of old through covenants and signs and wonders, now He gives to you in His Son Jesus Christ.
However, one of those covenant signs prefiguring Jesus was the blessing the LORD commanded Aaron to bless His people with: “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.” Of course, you know that blessing very well since every divine service and most prayer offices of the Church send you home with this blessing still today. In this Aaronic Benediction [blessing] the LORD sends you out with the blessing of His Name upon you. This blessing bespeaks God’s Word and attitude towards you, that He cares for you and provides for you, that He favors you, and that He is at peace with you, and you with Him, in and through Christ Jesus. These are not just some words spoken for the sake of tradition, but they are the active and performative Word of God proclaimed to you by your pastor in the stead and by the command of the Lord. This blessing is God’s Name bestowed upon you in Jesus Christ. You became a new person in Holy Baptism, literally born again according to the spirit. You were given a new name, God’s Name, marking you as one redeemed in the holy shed blood of Jesus. Therefore, as we begin a new year, we remember and give thanks that our Lord Jesus is making all things new, including ourselves.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

The First Sunday after Christmas (Christmas 1)

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 image is that of a barren, lifeless stump, in the midst of a barren, lifeless wilderness. The tree was once the glorious kingdom of Israel, often symbolized by an olive tree. Because of its continual and habitual rebellion and apostasy, the LORD willed that the tree of Israel should be cut down by the Babylonians, just as Malachi had prophesied: “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.” For, that is what you do with a lifeless, fruitless tree; you cut it down, and it is fit only for the fire. And yet, the LORD had also promised that a remnant would be preserved, and that Israel would be made fruitful once again.
A shoot would come forth, not from the glorious and mighty king of Israel, David, but from David’s father, Jesse, of whom no one sang, and no one considered glorious. For, this is the LORD’s work, not man’s, and the LORD creates something out of nothing, brings greatness out of lowliness, and gives life where there is only fruitless barrenness and death. And so, two women, who were known to be barren, each conceived and bore sons: Aged Elizabeth conceived and bore John the Baptist who would prepare the way for Jesus, and a young maiden named Mary conceived and bore Jesus the Christ, the Son of God.
This was foreshadowed, not only in the barren, lifeless stump of Isaiah’s prophecy, but much earlier in the two sons conceived and born to Abraham by his wife Sarah and her handmaiden Hagar. The LORD had promised Abraham that his wife Sarah, who was aged and barren, would conceive and bear him a son, Isaac. But, when Sarah did not conceive, she and Abraham became impatient. Sarah presented her handmaiden Hagar to Abraham that she should bear him a son. And, she did, and the son’s name was Ishmael. However, Ishmael was not the son of promise, but a son conceived in doubt and fear and unbelief. Still, the LORD kept His promise – He always does! – and Sarah did conceive and bear a son for Abraham. They named him Isaac, which means laughter, because the LORD causes joy to spring forth from the wells of sorrow and sadness and death.
St. Paul, in his Epistle to the Galatians, uses the example of these two women and their sons, Hagar and Ishmael, and Sarah and Isaac, to teach about two covenants: Hagar, being a slave woman, and her son Ishmael, represent the covenant of the Law given on Mount Sinai which makes us slaves under the Law. Sarah, being a free woman, and her son Isaac represent the covenant of promise, a covenant of grace, setting us free from the enslavement of the Law. Hagar conceived Ishmael by Abraham out of doubt, fear, and unbelief when the LORD did not fulfill His promise according to a timeline satisfactory to him and Sarah. They took matters into their own hands and put their trust in themselves instead of the LORD and His Word. Hagar conceived and bore a son, but he was not the son of promise, and Ishmael and his descendants became enemies of the descendants of Isaac and Jacob, Israel, right down to this very day, causing them ongoing grief, calamity, and woe. But, in the LORD’s time, Sarah conceived Isaac by Abraham out of trust, love, and obedience to the LORD. The LORD kept His promise, and Isaac was born to Abraham and Sarah in their old age, foreshadowing the promise the LORD would keep and fulfill in the conception and birth of Jesus, the Son of God, by the Virgin Mary and the Glory of God.
“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.” This is little more than a reiteration of the first Gospel spoken to our First Parents in the Garden after their rebellion and fall into sin and death: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her Offspring; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.” The promise of Isaac was another reiteration. The promise of Isaiah was yet another, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” Likewise, the prophesied shoot from the burned-out stump of Jesse, even a fruit-bearing branch, is another. These have all been fulfilled in the conception of Jesus in Mary’s virgin womb and His birth which we continue to remember and celebrate this fifth day of Christmas.
“When all was still and it was midnight, God’s almighty Word descended from the royal throne.” We sang those words on Christmas Eve as we gathered here in thanksgiving, worship, and praise of our God and His mighty, merciful, and gracious work in the past, and in hope for the coming fullness of our deliverance when the fruitful Branch from the burned-out stump of Jesse returns in glory, and darkness, sin, and death will be no more. When all was still and it was midnight, when the world and humanity lie in a spiritual stupor, intoxicated by sin and death, that is when God acted; that is when God always acts. No matter how dark and hopeless the enemy tempts you to think it is, no matter how alone you may sometimes feel, no matter how uncertain you may be of what to do, where to go, and how to feel, the promise of Your LORD remains true – so completely and perfectly true that you can consider it already accomplished and fulfilled. When the fullness of time had come, the Shoot from the burned-out stump of Jesse sprang forth a fruitful Branch; God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, to redeem you, that you might receive adoption as sons. And, because you are sons, God has sent you the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, so you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. Even now the Shoot and fruitful Branch of Jesse is present for you in the midst of this wilderness world of spiritual darkness, sin, and death. Your Lord Jesus is in His temple that your eyes may behold your salvation, that your ears may hear His Word, and that your mouths may receive His precious body and drink His holy blood in this Holy Sacrament, that you may depart in peace according to His Word.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

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.
Finitum non capax infinitum – The finite cannot contain the infinite. With this saying, also known as the extra-calvinisticum, the French theologian John Calvin hoped to rebut Luther’s teaching concerning the Lord’s supper, insisting that God, who is infinite, filling heaven and earth, the Creator of all things material and immaterial, cannot possibly be contained within the finite and limited bread and wine in Holy Communion. Truly, one wants to sympathize with Calvin in so stridently attempting to preserve God’s sovereignty and utter transcendence, and to not attempt to limit God or to put God in a box, so to speak. However, if we are to take God at His Word, and surely we are, then has He not revealed to us that He has in fact limited Himself and placed Himself into a box, so to speak, because it was both necessary for our justification and for our reception of Him in faith and trust?
For, what does it mean that the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle, but that the infinite fullness of the Godhead took up residence within the finite four walls of the tabernacle which God Himself had commanded Moses to construct according to His precise specifications? And, what does it mean that God’s Word of creation, who was with God from the beginning, and who was Godby whom all things have been made – what does it mean that the infinite Word became flesh and dwelt among us, but that the infinite God has limited Himself and has placed Himself into a box, so to speak, that is, into finite human flesh, born of a woman in lowliness and humility?
Truly, it was not the doctrine of the real presence of our Lord’s body and blood in the Supper that was at stake so much as it was orthodox Christian doctrine and faith itself as Calvin claimed that “the Word is fully united to but never totally contained within the human nature [of Jesus] and, therefore, even in the incarnation is to be conceived of as beyond or outside of [extra] the human nature.” What then did St. Paul have in mind when he wrote of Jesus, “In Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily”? Likewise, what did the Nicene Fathers have in mind when they formulated the Creed saying that Christ is “very God of very God, … being of one substance with the Father”? Did Calvin not see that, not only did God deliberately and intentionally limit Himself in becoming a finite man, but that God’s becoming man was absolutely necessary and essential for man’s justification?
Now, perhaps I am not being charitable to Calvin who, at least, had good intentions. For, he was not the first, and he certainly wasn’t the last, to attempt to use human reason and philosophy to understand and to demystify that which is truly a divine mystery beyond human understanding and reason – The mystery of the Incarnation of our Lord. That specific mystery, the Incarnation, is truly what we are celebrating this Christmas morning, of which St. John writes so profoundly in his Gospel Prologue, “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.”
The Incarnation is the divine mystery to which God had been pointing mankind since He walked with our First Parents in the Garden. Our Creator and God deigns to dwell and commune with us, His finite creatures. Therefore, when our First Parents rebelled and fell into sin and death, God put into action the plan He had established before they sinned, before their creation, even before the foundation of the heavens and the earth themselves: He would give us a son. He would give us His Son. And, in His Son, our God and Creator would become one of us, His finite creatures, and He would do all that was necessary to restore us, not only to stand in His holy presence, but to commune with Him forevermore – flesh of His flesh and bone of His bone.
Why didn’t Calvin get it? Charitably speaking, he probably did. It’s more likely, however, that he simply wouldn’t believe it could be that easy, that God would do such a thing, condescend in such a way as to take on finite human flesh and be born in lowliness and humility, to suffer and die. But, again, Calvin’s not alone. Gnostics had denied, and still do, that the infinite Divine Logos could take on finite and corruptible flesh, or could suffer and die. And, today, it is fashionable to blend New Age mysticism with Christianity, and maybe throw in a little Asian philosophy, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Zoroastrianism to boot. Is not the cliché of our day “I’m spiritual, but not religious”? By this, people mean that they believe in some sort of infinite spiritual reality, but they won’t be pressed to define it or confess it in any particular or finite way. That is, they won’t limit their gods or goddesses, or attempt to put them in a box.
Why is this so difficult for us to apprehend? Perhaps it is simply because of the fact that men are finite, because our minds are finite and limited, we simply cannot conceive of what God in His infinite wisdom and power might do. For, in truth, in our striving to protect and to preserve God’s sovereignty, are we not limiting Him and boxing Him in saying, “No God, you can’t mean that you are really and truly present in the Supper. That’s impossible! You must mean something else.” We shouldn’t be surprised that we don’t understand. This the writers of the Lutheran Confessions confessed of the Incarnation in the Formula of Concord saying, “In this personal union the two natures [of Christ] have such a grand, intimate, indescribable communion that even the angels are astonished by it.” Even the angels of heaven are astonished and mystified by God’s Wisdom and Power and Grace. We are so bound up in this material world and materialism, that we think more of the stuff of this world than we do the Creator of stuff, world, and all things in it. Because of the finite limitations of matter, we disbelieve the Word of our divine and infinite God.
Our problem is always a First Commandment problem – idolatry: Worshipping the creation instead of the Creator. We do this in two ways: Placing our fear, love, and trust in material things above and before God, or disbelieving God’s Word that He limits Himself and places Himself, where He has promised, in the stuff of His creation.
God so loved the world that He gave His only Son. The closest experience to that kind of love that we can experience this side of heaven is the birth of a child. As a child is conceived and born of your own flesh and blood, so that his existence and life is both from you and sustained by you, so God’s creation was brought forth from Himself. And, just as loving parents would not abandon or destroy their child who disobeyed and rebelled against them, but would discipline them and sacrifice their own right for love of the child, so God would not and could not destroy His creation or consign it to damnation, but He lovingly and mercifully, selflessly and sacrificially did what His justice and righteousness required to restore man to a right relationship with Himself.
The Incarnation of Our Lord is the re-creation and rebirth of man from the inside out. God has not merely spoken His Word to us, but He has spoken His Word into us. Where, before, there was God and man, separated from one another, now, in Jesus, God and man are in communion with one another. Our divine and infinite God has condescended to dwell within finite and limited man. The Word became flesh and made His dwelling amongst us. Jesus took His sinless body and soul to the cross, where He earned in His body and soul the wage of our sin and rebellion. He died and was buried, and on the third day God raised Him from the dead. He ascended into the heavens and sits at the right hand of God the Father. Now, our divine and infinite God, not only has taken up our human flesh and blood, but in our human flesh and blood He now, mysteriously, and without limitation, fills all things. Thus, He is really and truly present in the Holy Supper, in His resurrected and glorified body and blood. And, thus, we commune with the living Christ, in whom dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily. On the Last Day, He will come again in His human flesh and blood body and He will raise our flesh and blood bodies from their sleep and glorify our bodies like His own glorified body to live with Him and the Father and the Holy Spirit in heaven forevermore.
The Incarnation of Our Lord is the true and perfect gift of Christmas. This is most certainly true.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

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’s been unseasonably warm and mild. 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.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Rorate Coeli - The Fourth Sunday in Advent (Advent 4)

John 1:19-28; Philippians 4:4-7; Deuteronomy 18:15-19

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
“Who are you?” – That was the question the priests and Levites asked John. It was a legitimate question. Moses had relayed God’s promise to the people of Israel that He would raise up another Prophet like himself. John flatly denied that he was that Prophet, the Messiah, the Christ of God. Then Malachi had prophesied in the closing words of the Old Testament that God would send Elijah the prophet before the coming of the Messiah. John denied that he was Elijah too, though Jesus would later teach His disciples that John was indeed the prophesied Elijah come to prepare the way before Him.
“Who are you?” “By what authority do you preach and baptize if you are neither the Christ nor Elijah the Prophet?” – John replied “I am a voice” and that’s all. John was a voice sent to cry out in the wilderness “Make straight the way of the Lord.” This was not John’s message, he was just the voice, but this was God’s message, the Word of the Lord, “Prepare the way for the coming of the Lord by repentance and humility. Repent, that your mountainous pride may be leveled and that the valleys of your hopeless despair might be filled, that, when the Lord comes, He might find a straight and level path.” John was a voice, a prophet, a mouthpiece for the Lord sent to prepare His way by preaching repentance and by baptizing, an outward sign of repentance. And John was sent to point the way to the Lord who was at hand saying “Among you stands one you do not know,”and then, the very next day, Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
“Among you stands one you do not know.” To think that the prophesied Messiah, the one to whom all patriarchs and prophets pointed, the Son of God become the Son of Man, born of the Virgin and dwelling in the midst of men who had searched the Scriptures and studied the prophecies, who had watched and waited for His coming – to think that the Messiah could come amongst them and not be known by them is amazing and discomforting to say the least. How could this be? How could they be so blind?
The answer is plain enough: sin. From the moment their eyes were opened to know good and evil in the Garden of Eden, through patriarchs, judges, kings, and prophets, men’s hearts became hard, their ears became stopped, and their eyes became dim as the fruits of sin so that hearing they did not hear and seeing they did not see. The prophets were silent for four hundred years before the coming of John the Baptist – four hundred years not unlike the four days Lazareth lay dead in the tomb. The people of the world were spiritually dead, they stinketh. And, the dead don’t raise themselves anymore than the earth plows itself; hard soil must be broken and worked just as hardened hearts. Only the powerful Word of God, the Word that once brought everything out of nothing could change the situation of men’s hearts.
Thus God sent forth Elijah, John the Baptist to prepare the way by preaching repentance, to break up the hardness of men’s hearts that the Word of God could penetrate and begin to grow and bear fruit. But, spiritual death and physical death are not the same thing – yet. Men were still quite alive to pursuing men’s ways, thoughts, and deeds. Men had dreamt up their own ideas for what the Messiah would be like and what He would do – men’s ideas, not God’s, men’s values and expectations, not God’s. So, when the Messiah came, men did not recognize Him, for He did not come in the ways and appearance that they expected. Unless men are turned, unless they repent, they cannot see Jesus for who He is, they cannot receive Him, for they reject Him because He doesn’t meet their expectations.
What about you today? Do you see and hear the one who is present, who stands amongst you now with His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation? Or, do you insist on having it your way, believing that Christ cannot be present unless you feel a certain way, unless we sing your favorite songs, or unless people flock to this church so that we don’t have room to seat them? Who do you think this Jesus is whose birth we are about to celebrate? Is He merely a concept, an icon of Peace and Love that we should emulate? Is He but a wise sage from ancient times who had some good ideas about being kind and charitable toward each other? Is He your spiritual friend and buddy, kind of like Santa Claus for the Church, who’s always looking out for you though you can never see Him or touch Him? Then I will be a voice crying out in your wilderness, “Among you stands one you do not know! – Repent. The Lord is at hand.”
Why did John preach? To point to the one who was present, whom men did not know, the Lord who was at hand. Why did John baptize? To point to the one who was present to baptize with the Holy Spirit and to the Lamb of God who was taking away the sins of the world. John is still preparing the way for the coming of the Lord through the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and through baptism, but these have become vehicles, means for the work of the one who is in our midst, Jesus the Christ. His Word opens the ears of the deaf and the eyes of the blind, releases those in prison in sin and death, and proclaims to the poor in spirit the Good News of redemption. And, John the Baptist still points to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world as we sing with him and kneel before our Lord who is present amongst us with His body and His blood that we may know Him as He is and live in Him and He in us to the glory of God the Father in His most Holy Spirit.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Advent Evening Prayer - Week of Gaudete (Advent 3)

Luke 1:57-80; Malachi 4:1-6

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The name John means “God is gracious.” Truly, God’s grace abounds in both the birth narratives of John the Baptist, and of our Lord Jesus Christ, whose way he was sent to prepare. As we have heard in past weeks, both conceptions and births were miraculous in several ways, not least of all in the fact that both mothers, Elizabeth and Mary respectively, were known to be unable to conceive, as Elizabeth was aged and barren, and Mary was but a young, unmarried virgin maiden. And yet, God was gracious and merciful, and, as He is want to do, He made something out of nothing, He brought life out of death, and both Elizabeth and Mary conceived and bore sons.
On the eighth day after his birth, Zechariah and Elizabeth and all their relatives gathered to circumcise the child according to the Law. They were prepared to name the boy Zechariah, after his father, but his mother Elizabeth answered, “No; he shall be called John.” They were greatly surprised because there was no one in the family named John. Thus, they sought to confirm with Zechariah concerning this name. However, because Zechariah did not believe the Word of the LORD, that his wife would conceive and bear a son, he was stricken mute as a sign that the LORD would keep His promise despite Zechariah’s unbelief. So, they gave him a writing tablet and he wrote, “His name is John.” Zechariah no longer disbelieved. He gave his son the name the angel Gabriel had proclaimed nine months earlier. He believed and he knew without a doubt that God is gracious, and that nothing will be impossible with God.
And, the sign being fulfilled, immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. What Zechariah spoke was actually a prophecy about both his son John and God’s Son Jesus. His words are cherished by the Christian Church and are still sung daily as part of the liturgy of Matins or Morning Prayer under the title “Benedictus,” which means blessed.
The Benedictus is a hymn of praise to God for His grace and mercy visited upon Israel. In the first part of the Benedictus, Zechariah prophesies of Jesus, the Son of God. Zechariah recognized that the greatest gift of God’s grace was not his own son John, but the Son of God, Jesus, whose way John was to prepare. Filled with the Holy Spirit, with not a hint of unbelief, Zechariah spoke of God’s promises as being already fulfilled even in the incarnation of His Son saying: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David, as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember His holy covenant, the oath that He swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days.”
But, then, Zechariah’s prophecy tenderly turned to his own son John, even addressing the child directly saying: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
God is gracious. That is what the name John means. In the conception and birth of John and Jesus, the grace and mercy of God has been revealed. From the barrenness of mankind’s sin and death, God brings forth new life. Once again, into virgin soil, God has planted His Word and brought forth new and everlasting life. The eyes of the blind are opened. The ears of the deaf are unstopped. The lame leap like a deer and the tongues of the mute sing for joy. Waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert. For, nothing is impossible with God.
God is gracious. Therefore, we have hope. God has visited and redeemed His people. It is finished. All we are waiting for is the revelation of His glory, the unveiling of His already present reign and glory. Though His first coming was in lowliness and humility so that many did not see because they did not hear, when He comes again in power and great might, the veil will be removed and every eye will see Him, and every tongue will confess Him to be the Lord, and God the Father will be glorified.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Gaudete - The Third Sunday in Advent (Advent 3) - Sunday School Christmas Lessons & Carols

Sunday School Lessons and 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.
Of the many good, wonderful, and miraculous things we celebrate at Christmas – the Incarnation of God and the Virgin Birth, Peace between God and man, a spirit of reconciliation, peace, joy, and good will between men and women of every creed, race, and clan – one good, wonderful, and miraculous thing that often gets overlooked is God’s Divine Providence, His guiding and directing of all things toward His own holy, good, and wise ends.
For example, consider only the events of which you have heard this morning from God’s Holy Word. First, there was Isaiah’s prophecy, spoken to the people of Judah nearly seven-hundred years before Jesus’ birth. Isaiah prophesied to a people who were continually vacillating between faithfulness and idolatry. Isaiah warned that God’s holiness could not bear with sin and that His righteousness could not permit sin to go unpunished, therefore His judgment was coming. But, Isaiah also showered Judah with the beautiful and comforting Gospel of God’s compassion, mercy, and love, foreshadowing His sending of the Messiah born of a virgin who would be a Light to those walking in the darkness of sin and death, a Great Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and the Prince of Peace.
Then you heard of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, nearly seven-hundred years later, in the Archangel Gabriel’s announcement to a young Judean virgin named Mary. Gabriel announced to Mary that she would conceive and bear the Son of God, and that He would be given the throne of David and reign over the house of Jacob forever, just as Isaiah had prophesied.
Luke’s Gospel also records for us how God utilizes even earthly governments and human laws, institutions, and machinations, both good and bad, to accomplish His good and holy will. This time, through the Prophet Micah who prophesied, “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” In fulfillment of Micah’s prophecy, Joseph and Mary, great with child, found themselves in Bethlehem for a census ordered by Caesar. The fact that the city was crowded with people from all over Judea registering for the census made it so that Mary delivered her son in lowly and humble conditions, likely in a common room in the home of Joseph and Mary’s kinfolk, laying Him in a manger, a feeding trough for animals. In God’s wisdom and providence, even these seemingly insignificant elements were in fulfillment of prophecy of the kind of King His Son would be: mild, humble, selfless, and sacrificial.
In like manner, the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecy was proclaimed first, not to the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Sanhedrin, the religious leadership of Israel, not to Herod or Pilate or Caesar, and not to those of wealth, power, or great reputation, but the proclamation of the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecy, the proclamation of the Gospel, was given first to those of low estate, to poor and humble shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night. Even still today, the chief responsibility of Christ’s undershepherds, His pastors, is to proclaim the Gospel and to guard and keep His sheep in the darkness of this world’s night of sin and death.
And then, in our final reading from the Gospel of John, you hear that this was God’s will and design before man’s fall into sin, before the creation of man, indeed, before the foundation of the world. John’s Words “In the beginning…” take you back, well, to the beginning of God’s revealed Word, to Genesis 1:1 – “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth….” John proclaims to you that the Word of God was with God in the beginning, and that, in fact, the Word of God was God, and that all things that God has made have been made by the speaking of His life-giving and creative Word. What we celebrate at Christmas, especially, is what John proclaims in the last verse of today’s reading: “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.”
At Christmas, we must remember that, though we may see darkness and sin and suffering and death all around us, though wars and rumors of wars dominate the headlines, though natural disasters destroy lives, homes, and livelihoods, though diseases take the lives of those we love, and though even children are not spared the horror of evil at the hands of broken, corrupted, and sinful men, we must remember that God is in control, before sin, before man, before the foundation of the world, and that He has worked, and He is working, and will continue to work all things, even the bad things, the horrible things, and the evil things, for the good of those who love Him, whom He has called in His Son, His Messiah, our Savior, His Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.
At Christmas, we remember that God did not turn a cold shoulder in judgment against His rebellious creation, but He did the unthinkable, the unimaginable, the impossible, and the miraculous – He penetrated His fallen and broken creation and became one of His creatures, being born of the flesh of a woman in weakness, lowliness, and poverty that He might be everything His holiness and righteousness required for you, in your place, as your substitute, that He might bear in His own flesh the necessary wage of sin, death, and shed His own holy and innocent blood to wash away your guilt, that He might be at peace with you, and you with Him, and live in His holy and righteous presence in holy communion with Him – flesh of His flesh, bone of His bone – evermore and evermore. This Peace is God’s gift to you at Christmas, and every day of the year, every day and year of your lives. Remember and treasure His Word, His Gift, and enjoy His Peace and live His Love, every day of the year.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Advent Evening Prayer - Week of Populus Zion (Advent 2)

Luke 1:26-45; 2 Samuel 7:4-17

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
You know the story of the Three Little Pigs? The first little pig built his house of straw. The second little pig built his house of sticks. The third little pig built his house of bricks. Well, as the story goes, the first two little pigs didn’t fare so well and the Big Bad Wolf blew their houses in. The third little pig fared better; the Big Bad Wolf was unable to blow down his house of bricks. Well, that’s a fairy tale. In reality we’re not dealing with little pigs and big bad wolves, but we’re dealing with the souls of men and a dragon, indeed, with Satan, the enemy of both men and God. And, as the Psalmist says, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”
David wanted to build a house for the LORD, but the LORD was having none of it. Surely David had good intentions, but it’s also likely that being king was going to his head a bit, especially after the LORD had blessed Him with victory over his enemies in battle. Relaxing in peace and rest in his palace, David began to feel sorry for the LORD saying, “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent.” The ark of God was the Ark of the Covenant, the glorious presence of the LORD amongst His people, and the tent was the Tabernacle made of animal hides and wooden poles. How thoughtful and loving of David, right?
Well, maybe not so much. The LORD sent the king a corrective through His prophet Nathan saying, “You’re going to build a house for me to dwell in? I haven’t lived in a house since the day I delivered the people of Israel out of Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling wherever My people did go. Did I ever speak a word asking, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’” Then the LORD reminded David of his humble origins and who had made Him king and blessed him with success and victory saying, “I took you from the pasture that you should be prince over my people. And I have been with you wherever you went. I have cut off all your enemies from before you. And I will make your name great and I will give you rest from your enemies. Moreover, I will make for you a house. And, when you are dead and buried, I will raise up your offspring and I will establish His kingdom. He shall build a house for My Name, and I will establish the throne of His kingdom forever.”
We are not so unlike David. When things are going well, we are tempted to take credit ourselves and to forget our God who has been with us through the good and the bad, through times of plenty and times of lean. Gradually, often imperceptibly, we slip from humility into pride, from faithfulness to self-righteousness and idolatry. Like the man the LORD blessed with a bountiful harvest, we put our trust in our labor and gain, tear down our barns and build bigger ones without thankfulness to God or mercy and compassion toward our neighbor. Moreover, we are deceived into believing that material and worldly things are what matter and truly last, while we let the spiritual and truly needful things slip through our fingers. This our enemy Satan delights in just as the big bad wolf delighted in little pig’s trust in their houses of straw and sticks.
The LORD doesn’t need a house to live in, but we do. Let us give thanks to the LORD for the roofs over our heads, for the clothing on our backs, and for the food on our tables, for life and breath and health and family and all things. The LORD doesn’t need a house to live in, but He loves to be with His people and dwell with them. Because of our sin we could not bear to be in His holy presence and to behold His glory, for it would consume us. Therefore the LORD gave His Word to Moses to construct the Tabernacle, a tent, made of animal hides, that He might dwell among them and go with them with the promise that He would one day build them a house and settle them in their own land. But, that promised house was not a palace, or even a nation, but it was a person, a descendant of David, even Jesus the Christ, our Lord and King: “I will be to Him a Father, and He shall be to Me a Son.” He will bear My people’s iniquity and I will discipline Him with the rod and stripes of men, Jesus’ scourging, crucifixion, and death, but My steadfast love will not depart from Him.
God built His house in Mary’s virgin womb: “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling amongst us.” The Greek word ἐσκήνωσεν, translated here as made His dwelling, literally means tented, or tabernacled. The incarnation of the Son of God in the Virgin’s womb is foreshadowed by the LORD’s dwelling amongst His people in the tent of the Tabernacle, only the tent is not animal hides but the flesh and blood body of Jesus. Any house of cedar, or concrete and steel for that matter, built by the hands of men will fall, but the house built by God will endure forever, an everlasting house and kingdom.
That is what we celebrate at Christmas: The LORD has built us a house that will endure forever. Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of Eden, the house of Adam and Eve in the Garden, of the Tabernacle in the wilderness and of the Temple in Jerusalem, of the Promised Land of milk and honey in Canaan, of the Holy City and Israel and her kings. The LORD has built a house for His people in which they may rest and dwell secure forever. That House is Jesus, and the Church is His body. The font is Her virgin womb from which are born children of God and at the altar do we commune with our Bridegroom and Lord Jesus as He feeds us with His body and blood. And, while in the earthly tent of our bodies we groan and struggle with sin, sorrow, disease, and death, we do not lose hope but we are encouraged and we lift up our heads, For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Populus Zion - The Second Sunday in Advent (Advent 2)

Luke 21:25-36; Romans 15:4-13; Malachi 4:1-6

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
In Advent, when we speak of the three-fold coming of Jesus – that He came as the Babe of Bethlehem; that He is coming as Lord, King, and Judge; and, that He comes to us now in Word and Sacrament – we must remember that we are dealing first and foremost with a great mystery. Thus, we understand the three-fold coming of Jesus incorrectly, or, at least, incompletely, if we understand His coming as three unique and unrelated events. For, the Son of God did not come into being only upon His incarnation in the conception and birth of Jesus, but He has always been with Godin the beginningbegotten of the Father before all worlds; and He was God before the incarnation, and He is God still after becoming a man, having died and having been raised. Likewise, His death and resurrection did not happen merely in Jerusalem nearly 2,000 years ago, but He is the Lamb of God that was slain from the very foundation of the world. Further, to say that Christ is coming again, a second time, is not to make Him to be a liar when He says, “I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.”
Thus, when we consider Jesus’ teaching concerning the end times and His parousia – a word commonly translated as second coming, but which literally means presence – we must submit our reason and our linear conception of time and events and, with ears to hear, listen to the Word of God in faith. For, what Jesus is teaching us is that His kingdom, which is coming, is in fact, already near and already present.
Jesus spoke the Words of our Gospel lesson to His disciples just two days before His crucifixion and death on Good Friday. He spoke of signs in the sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. These signs, Jesus says, indicate that the Son of Man is coming and that redemption is drawing near. Now, the common interpretation of these words of Jesus is that these signs of celestial and earthly turmoil will come at some time in the future before the second coming of the Lord in glory. And, yes, that is certainly a part of Jesus’ meaning. However, at the same time, we cannot help but observe that these signs are present in our world today: Wars and rumors of wars, the threat of global warming, tsunamis, earthquakes, terrorism, the economic crash, etc. Further, such signs have been common to every age. Are we then to conclude that our Jesus is a liar? That He has failed to come? By no means! For, listen to His Word and what He truly says: Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place.
Jesus’ Word to His disciples, that very generation, was that all these things would happen within their lifetime – and they most certainly did! Within thirty years the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem, surrounding the city and forbidding the carrying in of food and other necessities and the carrying out of refuse. Within a few weeks, hunger, disease, and death began to ravage the population so that the people resorted to the abandonment of children and even cannibalism.  Surely, for the people then, it must have seemed like the end of the world. However, such signs are common to every generation at all times and in all places.
Thus, Jesus compares these signs to that of common flora – the fig tree: Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Each year, decade after decade, century after century, millennia after millennia, the trees bud out, leaf, bear fruit, and wither, and then the cycle continues: this has happened in the past, it is happening now, and it will continue to happen until the Last Day. In a similar way comes the kingdom of God: the kingdom of God has come, it is coming now, and it will come. Therefore, we can watch the signs and be prepared, for the signs are as obvious as those of the fig tree and of all trees. The kingdom of God is alreadyeven now, present, in hidden and veiled forms to sustain and keep you in the faith. Even now, you stand in the kingdom of God as you live in this generation, thus you have nothing to fear from what is coming on the world.
Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. This is the three-fold mystery of faith. For, you too have died with Christ and have risen with Him through baptism into His death and resurrection. For you, to live is Christ and to die is gain. The life you now live you live to God, and nothing can separate you from Him but yourself. Now, the devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh will tempt you to not believe this, thus you must remain vigilant and watchful for the signs of the Lord’s parousia, His coming, His presence. Those signs are in heaven and they are in earth, for Christ fills all things. Those signs are in His death and in the death of all things, and those signs are in His resurrection and the resurrection of all things. And those signs are in His Word, preached and taught in its truth and purity. Those signs are in the water by the power of His Word and Spirit. And those signs are in the bread which is His body, and the wine which is His blood – because He has spoken so by his Word – for the forgiveness of your sins, for the strengthening of your faith, and for life everlasting – past, present, and future.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Advent Evening Prayer - Week of Ad Te Levavi (Advent 1)

Luke 1:5-25; Isaiah 40:1-5

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
It is often said that the book of the Prophet Isaiah is a mirror of the entire Bible. For example, as the Bible has 66 books, so does Isaiah have 66 chapters. And, as the Bible is divided into two testaments, so can Isaiah be divided into two distinct sections – the first 39 chapters mirroring the 39 books of the Old Testament, and the last 27 chapters mirroring the 27 books of the New Testament. Chapters 1-39 of Isaiah are known as the “Book of Judgment,” and (like the 39 books of the Old Testament) they are filled with judgment upon immoral idolatrous men. Judah has sinned; the surrounding nations have sinned; the whole earth has sinned. Judgment must come, for God cannot allow such blatant sin to go unpunished forever. The last 27 chapters of Isaiah (chapters 40-66) are known as the “Book of Comfort.” These 27 chapters (like the 27 books of the New Testament) declare a message of hope. The Messiah is coming as a Savior and a King to bear a cross and to wear a crown. So, both in its structure and thematic content, the two parts of the book of Isaiah closely match the structure and themes of the whole Bible – its Old and New Testaments.
Our First Lesson this evening includes the first words of comfort and hope that are recorded in that second part of Isaiah beginning with chapter 40: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.” Then we hear the prophecy of the one who will proclaim the Good News of the coming Savior and who will prepare His way – John the Baptist. John will simply be a voice crying in the wilderness, for the Word he will cry and proclaim will be the LORD’s: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” This is how John would prepare the way for the coming of the Savior King, he would preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Every valley of hopelessness and despair shall be filled with hope, and every mountain of pride and sin shall be brought down that our hearts might be prepared as a highway for our God to enter therein. This Word John would proclaim in the dessert wilderness of this world, just as the LORD once spoke life into the darkness and void long ago by the power of His Word and Spirit.
Even John’s conception and birth reflected this new beginning, new creation, and new hope. The angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah the priest, John’s father, and proclaimed to him that his aged and barren wife Elizabeth would conceive and bear him a son who would prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. The message was one of hope where there had been no hope, of life where there had been no life, of mercy where there had been only the fallout and bad fruit of sin. Through the angel Gabriel the LORD spoke His life-giving and creative Word and Elizabeth, who was barren, conceived, just as light shone forth in the primordial darkness at the Word of God.
From the very moment of his conception John was “filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” By the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit John would recognize and confess his Lord and Savior Jesus, even from his mother’s womb, leaping for joy at His mother’s greeting. By the same Holy Spirit John would “turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God” and “turn the hearts of the fathers” “to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Lord, was prophesied in the last Word from the LORD in the Old Testament. Malachi first prophetically proclaimed the words the Evangelists would later proclaim fulfilled in John saying: “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.” “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers.” John would prepare the Lord’s people by the preaching of repentance to receive the promised comfort the Messiah Jesus would bring.
But Zechariah did not believe the angel when he heard the news. Though he and his wife Elizabeth were known to be “righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord,” Zechariah could not see past their agedness and barrenness, he had no hope. Zechariah went through his priestly duties faithfully, but without hope. How many Christians today, both pastors and parishioners, do the same? Therefore, Zechariah was made to be mute until the promise was fulfilled, and the child was born and given the name proclaimed by the angel before he was conceived. In but a few days Elizabeth conceived, and she kept herself hidden for five months treasuring this in her heart, “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”
Comfort and hope are what we need, but comfort and hope are meaningless to those who are comfortable in their sin. Therefore, we still need the voice of John crying in the wilderness of this world, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” We still need Advent, a time of preparation, that the mountains of our pride and self-righteousness should be brought low, and that the valleys of our hopelessness and despair should be filled with comfort and hope. We need God’s Word of Law, and we need God’s Word of Gospel, always. Lord, send us Your prophets still bearing Your Word that we should repent and be saved. Send us Elijah and John still bearing Your Word of Law and Gospel that our hearts and minds and souls might be prepared to receive our King in all the ways He comes to us – in Word and Water, Body and Blood.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.