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.

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