Thursday, December 31, 2020

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

(Audio)


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.


Today we ring in the New Year in the same way we ring in each new week, in the same way we should ring in each and every new day: In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. For, we believe, and we confess, that each new year is lived in God’s grace and mercy, that each new week is lived under His gracious providence and protection, and that each new day is a precious gift and fruit of His ongoing creative and sustaining activity.

In the Name – yes, there’s something very powerful and important about God’s Name. The first mention we have in the Scriptures concerning God’s Name is Exodus 3:14, when God spoke to Moses from the burning bush. Moses asked God for His Name so that he might tell the people of Israel who had spoken to Him. God replied saying, tell them “I AM has sent you.” Now, it is an understatement to say that there is a whole lot bound up in God’s Name. At the very least, God’s Name includes the Scriptural proclamation “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” That is to say, God is before all things, after all things, and fills and sustains all things. He is the source and the sustainer of all things: “All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made.” Yes, all of that is bound up in God’s Name.

That is the Name we invoke at the beginning of the Divine Service. That is the Name that was placed upon us in Holy Baptism. That is the Name that we invoke in the morning when we awake, and again in the evening when we go to sleep. That is the Name that was cut into the flesh of Jesus when He was eight days old according to the Law of Moses. Jesus received that Name as a covenant promise in His flesh so that He could die in the flesh upon the cross and breathe God’s Name upon us by His Holy Spirit thereafter.

God commanded Aaron and his sons to bless His people with His Name saying, “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.” God promised them, “So shall they put my Name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” The Benediction was a promise, a seal, and a covenant that God would keep and never break, for it was His Word, and it was Truth, and Life. Yet, it pointed forward to its fulfillment in Jesus. Like the Law of God, the Benediction was a “guardian,” as St. Paul puts it in the Epistle to the Galatians, “until Christ came.” As with the Law, Christ is its fulfillment, so does the Benediction’s power flow from Jesus, the Word of God made flesh. Jesus is God’s blessing upon His people, even as He is the Name that seals us in Holy Baptism unto the resurrection of our bodies on the Last Day.

The apostles preached in Jesus’ Name. They proclaimed the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ Name. Pastors continue to proclaim God’s forgiveness to you today in Jesus’ Name. Truly, there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. At the Name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. For those baptized into Jesus, you wear His Name and all that belongs to it. Jesus’ Name marks you and seals you in His forgiveness, life, and salvation, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”

Eight days after His birth in Bethlehem, the infant Jesus was circumcised according to the Law. It was then that He was given the Name Jesus, God Saves, as the angel Gabriel revealed to His mother Mary before He was conceived in the womb. Jesus is God’s salvation, in the flesh. His shedding of first blood as an infant pointed to the blood He would shed in fulfillment of the Law upon the cross as a man. In this way, God saved His people. All of this is in His Name.

And so, here we stand this evening at the close of another year of God’s grace. This past year we experienced many joys and many sorrows, just like the years before. In God’s providence, perhaps, as the years pass by, we tend to remember mostly the joys, whereas the sorrows become less memorable and identifiable, but they become the fabric of our lives. But, as we look back and remember, we can begin to see how God blessed us and kept us through it all; maybe we can even begin to see how He works all things for the good of those who love Him. In faith, we must confess that it is by God’s grace that we are here, that He has graciously provided us all that we need to sustain our bodies and lives. Therefore, we give Him thanks and praise Him. And we respond to His love and faithfulness by bearing and sharing His love and faithfulness with others.

And, as we set ourselves to embark upon a new year, we confess that it will be a new year under God’s grace. No, we cannot know what this new year will hold in store for us, and, naturally, there is a little anxiety and trepidation mixed with excitement and hope. But we do know this: God will bless and keep us in the Name of Jesus.

What’s in a name? In the Name of Jesus? Everything! Forgiveness, life, and salvation – for the new year, and for all eternity.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.


Sunday, December 27, 2020

The Feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist

 (Audio)

John 21:20-25; 1 John 1:1 – 2:2; Revelation 1:1-6

 

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

As special as the celebration of Jesus’ birth at Christmas is to contemporary Christians, its celebration on December 25 is relatively novel in the history of the Christian Church. In fact, the Feast of the Epiphany, all but ignored today, was traditionally a much more significant feast and has much greater historical standing in Church history than does Christmas. This is not because the birth of Jesus is unimportant, however, but because the Early church traditionally honored and celebrated a Christian’s death as his or her birth date into eternity and the ongoing presence of Jesus.

Still, there is another reason that Christmas has historically taken a back seat to the Feast of the Epiphany and other Feasts of Christ, and that is because the important thing about Jesus’ birth is not so much His birth but rather His conception nine months earlier, and the Church already has a celebration for that, The Feast of the Annunciation on March 25. On the Annunciation the Church remembers and celebrates the Angel’s message, Mary’s faith, and the Holy Spirit’s work as the Christ was conceived in her virgin womb. This is the mystery of the Incarnation, when the Son and Word of God became incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man. The Incarnation of Jesus, more than His birth, is the true meaning of Christmas, thus the appointed Gospel reading for Christmas Day is not the story of the birth of Jesus from St. Luke’s or even St. Matthew’s Gospels, but rather the Prologue from St. John’s Gospel, “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.”

The Church remembers and gives thanks for St. John, Apostle and Evangelist on this third day of Christmas. St. John was brother of the Apostle James the Elder and son of Zebedee and Salome. Like his brother and father, he was a fisherman by trade. John and James were among the first whom Christ called to be apostles. In his Gospel, John often refers to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” indicating a particularly close friendship between himself and His Master, a relationship evidenced by John reclining on Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper. John is also the only one of the Twelve not to abandon Jesus during the time of His Passion. Together with the Mother of God, he stood vigil at the foot of the cross. It was there that Christ gave His mother into John’s keeping and gave John to her as her own son. According to Church tradition, Mary lived with St. John until her death. Later, John settled in Ephesus where he wrote his three Epistles, the Revelation, and the Gospel that bears his name. According to Early Church tradition, John was the only one of the Twelve who did not die a martyr’s death. Hence, he is the only apostle observed with white upon the altar instead of the usual red recalling the blood of witnesses of Christ. John did suffer a time of exile upon the island of Patmos for his confession of Christ. It was on Patmos in exile that John received the Revelation. John died an old man, the last of the Twelve Apostles and an authoritative imprimatur of the true doctrine of the Christian faith. John’s symbol is the eagle because his Gospel, Epistles, and the Revelation have a unique high and lofty perspective on the life and ministry of Jesus Christ and provide an important and powerful witness to the eternal Word, who was before time began and who was made flesh for us, full of grace and truth, and whose hour of exaltation upon the cross draws all people to Himself.

As alluded to earlier, John uniquely emphasizes the incarnation of the Son and Word of God Jesus Christ, most notably in the Prologue of his Gospel, but throughout his Epistles and the Revelation as well. In his first Epistle, which we heard from this morning, for example, John speaks of “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us – that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you.” Notice the strong incarnational language: We have heard it, seen it, looked upon it, touched it, and now we proclaim it. Similarly does St. John close his Gospel with the claim of his eyewitness account saying, “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that this testimony is true.”

Jesus called John, and the Holy Spirit worked through him, to witness to the universal transformative power of the Word of God made flesh. It is from John principally that we hear Jesus described as Light, Life, Bread, Water, and Truth. These earthly staples for human life find their spiritual antecedent and fulfillment in Jesus. Jesus is all these things for all who will receive Him and not reject Him. To this end John provides the reason for his writing: “These [things] are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

John is often referred to as the Apostle of Love because he testifies so beautifully of Jesus as the love of God incarnate. It was because John knew the love of God personally in Jesus that he referred to himself as the disciple whom Jesus loved. This was not arrogance on the part of John, but rather humility, for John considered that his personal name was of no value at all, but what gave his life value and meaning was that he was a recipient of God’s perfect love in Jesus Christ.

In sublime language, John proclaims the union of the divine and human natures in the one man Jesus and also Jesus’ unity with the Father and the Holy Spirit in the Godhead of the Holy Trinity. In the Prologue of his Gospel he proclaims, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” John also proclaims that the man Jesus is the visible and approachable presence of the invisible and holy God saying, “No one has ever seen God; the only [Son], who is at the Father's side, he has made him known,” and “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” and “I and the Father are one.” St. John more than the other Evangelists, proclaims the divinity of Jesus Christ by virtue of the Incarnation.

Which brings us back to the beginning. The Early Church placed more emphasis on the Incarnation of Jesus than on His birth. Indeed, the Early Church nearly placed more emphasis on the Incarnation of Jesus than His crucifixion and death on Good Friday. Why? Because it took God to become a man, for God to be born and suffer temptation while remaining obedient, sinless, and holy, for God to suffer and die for our sins, and for God to be raised from death to life that cannot die – that’s what it took to redeem and rescue mankind from its fall into sin and death. St. John, Apostle and Evangelist, proclaims the truth of the Incarnation of the Word and Son of God in a beautiful, sublime, and powerful way. He has written these things down for us that we may believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God, and that by believing we may have life in His Name.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Friday, December 25, 2020

The Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord - Christmas Day

(Audio)

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.

Our God is a Father and a Creator. He brings forth and He creates out of Fatherly divine love and goodness. That’s who He is and that’s what He does. There is a natural and an essential relationship between God and His creation, a relationship like a father and a child, but greater, and a relationship that was broken and corrupted by that which God did not create, sin. Still, God is a Father and a Creator, and God is love, and still God desires to have a relationship with His creation. That’s who He is. The rest of the Holy Scripture are essentially the record of God’s work of recreation and restoration of His fallen creation and the reconciliation of its broken relationship with Him, a work that finds its fulfilment in the incarnation of the Son and Word of God Jesus Christ. And so there is Christmas:

The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. Like the tabernacle before, the glorious presence of the LORD took up residence within a tent of flesh, human flesh, in the womb of the Virgin Mary. The Creator became a part of His Creation to recreate, redeem, and restore it. As St. Athanasius put it, “God became man so that man might become God.” That is what we remember, celebrate, and give thanks for this day.

God prepared His people for the Incarnation, for the enfleshment of His spiritual Word, in many ways, but principally through the tabernacle and, later, through the temple, where His shekinah glory was present, though veiled, in the midst of His people in the Holy of Holies. But, when the time was right, God’s glorious presence transferred to the womb of the Virgin Mary when the Holy Spirit of God came upon her and she conceived through the very Word the Archangel Gabriel spoke. Thus, our hymn today has it correct: Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate Deity! Pleased as Man with man to dwell, Jesus, our Immanuel!

So it is that Christmas is what follows the Fall in Genesis chapter three. Man’s sin and rebellion, the uncleanness and corruption of his flesh, does not prompt the Creator to destroy His creation, but instead He is moved by His own mercy and love to restore His fallen creation. That’s who He is and that’s what He does. God restores His creation, not by leveling it to the ground and rebuilding it, not by wadding it all up into an unformed ball of clay to begin anew, but He, Himself, in His holiness and spiritual purity, stepped right into the muck and mire, the blood and the filth, the uncleanness, pain, suffering, and death of humanity to redeem it and to make it holy. That’s who He is and that’s what He does. Moreover, God is not corrupted by taking on human flesh, but rather, human flesh is made to be holy by its union with the incorruptible God. This truth we confess in the Athanasian Creed saying: Although He is God and man, He is not two, but one Christ – one, however, not by the conversion of the divinity into flesh, but by the assumption of the humanity into God.

Further, the union of divinity and flesh was not just for a time that has now passed and the two are now separate, but Christ remains the God-Man for all eternity, seated now at the right hand of the Father that He might fill all things, but coming again soon in glory to raise our perishable bodies to be like His imperishable body. Thus, though our flesh is still corrupted, though we still sin and though we still die, we are not unclean, for our flesh has been sanctified in the flesh and blood of Christ. We have been given a second birth, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. In believing this you are God’s children.

The Incarnation of the Word of God, the Son of God made man, has changed everything. He was like a seed planted in dry ground, unlikely to flourish, but whose shoots have branched out in every direction far and wide bringing the earth into fruitfulness. The Incarnation means that God has assumed all of human existence into Himself in the very condition of its rebellion and opposition to Him. God loves sinful man in his sinfulness! That’s who He is and that’s what He does.  Thus, the saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.

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. Reflect then, dearly beloved, and in the light of the Holy Spirit carefully turn your mind to perceive, Who it is that has received us into Himself, and Whom have we received within us; for since the Lord Jesus Christ by being born has become our flesh, we also, by being reborn, have become His Body.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

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

(Audio) 

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.

I’ve heard the sentiment these past few weeks that, “It just doesn’t feel like Christmas.” Perhaps you have thought or said the very same. Sadly, I’m afraid that I have to agree as well. As I consider that it just doesn’t feel like Christmas, however, it begs the question, “Just how should Christmas feel?” I suppose that a proper Christmas feeling would include the joyful expectation of being with our extended families, eating a grand meal together, and opening presents piled up high around the tree. I suppose that a proper Christmas feeling might include celebrating together as a community in events like Christmas on Main Street or Christmas with Wartburg, parades and parties and the like. I also expect that a proper Christmas feeling would include gathering in worship in a packed to overflowing church on Christmas Eve as we celebrate and give thanks for God’s gift of love and forgiveness in Jesus Christ. Add a little snow and Christmas lights, cookies, carols, and candy, and maybe, just maybe it’s beginning to feel a bit more like Christmas.

Well, you don’t need me to tell you that many of those things simply didn’t, aren’t, and won’t happen this year, and perhaps that is a lot of the reason it just doesn’t feel much like Christmas. Of course, there’s more to it than that. The year began with bushfires in Australia that burned over 46 million acres. Then there was the assassination of an Iranian general that raised the specter of World War III. This was followed by presidential impeachment hearings, a worldwide pandemic, lockdowns, worldwide recession, race riots, looting, and not-so-peaceful protests. And don’t forget the murder hornets. There was a tremendous explosion in Beirut, more pandemic, more riots, capped off with a tumultuous and seemingly interminable presidential election while the pandemic rages on as the New Year approaches. The world, our nation, our communities, our families, our lives seem to be suspended over a vat of chaos, and uncertainty about tomorrow threatens our comfort, peace, and joy today. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t feel much like Christmas?

But it is Christmas Eve, and we are gathered here in warmth and light when it’s bitter cold and dark outside these walls. We are gathered here because it is Christmas, regardless of how it may feel. We are gathered here by, around, and because of something and someone that is True, no matter how we feel, no matter what we’ve experienced, no matter how disappointed we might be, how lonely, how afraid.

Surely that’s how the people of Israel felt when Isaiah prophesied to them, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. […] For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.” The halcyon days of the Davidic empire were long past, Samaria had fallen, and Judah had become a colony of the Assyrian colossus. The people were divided politically, culturally, and religiously – sound familiar? – and they had lost their identity as the chosen people of God who were blessed to be a blessing. Sure, Isaiah’s promise sounded great, but who could believe it? The truth is, not many, but only a remnant.

Fast forward 700+ years. Israel was ruled by the Romans. Herod the Great was the puppet king of Judea. Herod himself reflected the flux and diversity of his time being ethnically Arab, culturally Greek, politically Roman, and religiously a Jew. For 700 years Israel had been divided and ruled by other nations and cultures having other religions and customs, and no prophet of the LORD had spoken in Israel for 400 years. The burned-out stump of Jesse was lifeless and dead, and the vast majority of Jews had given up hope and stopped looking for the Messiah altogether. It was into such a time and world as this that the Christ child was born – into a land of deep darkness, when all was still and it was midnight, when all but a fool’s hope was extinguished and gone. That is when God acted. That is when God always acts.

A decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. It was a census, just like we had this year. The government wanted the citizens to be counted so that they could be taxed accordingly. That is why a nine-month pregnant young woman traveled the long, arduous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem with her betrothed husband, to be counted and, unbeknownst to them or to anyone at the time, to fulfill the prophecies, “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel,” “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given […] Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom,” “‘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.’”

So mundane. So common. Men and women simply going about their business, doing what needed to be done, with no real hope or expectation of anything wonderful, marvelous, lifechanging, or salvific. While they were in Bethlehem, the little town crowded with visitors registering for the census, the time came for Mary to give birth. “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” The first people to learn of these wondrous happenings were lowly shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night. To them an angel of the LORD appeared saying, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” The shepherds went in haste to see this thing that the LORD had made known to them. Upon entering Bethlehem, they found Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in a manger, just as the angel had told them.

“It just doesn’t feel like Christmas?” Just what is Christmas supposed to feel like anyway? I’m guessing the first Christmas didn’t feel much like Christmas either. In all likelihood, it felt pretty much like any other day. But look at what was going on in secret, quiet, and hidden ways through things as mundane and ordinary as government and a census, a small town full of travelers, a mother giving birth, shepherds watching their sheep at night. When all was still and it was midnight. When no one was expecting anything, and few were hoping or looking. That is when God acted. That is when God always acts.

Approximately 2022 years ago Joy entered this world of darkness, sin, and death, and that has changed everything! A Light, the True Light of Creation shines forth in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. Whatever this year has thrown at you – separation and loneliness, illness and death, financial uncertainty, discontent, frustration, and anger, – whatever it is that threatens to rob you of your joy, that threatens to rob you of that Christmas feeling, take heart, it will pass. Christ is born, and that is the Truth, no matter what. You have Peace with God through His Christ, therefore you can have peace with your brother, your sister, and your neighbor, no matter what. While the nations rage and people plot in vain, while kings set themselves and rulers take counsel together against the LORD and His Anointed, He who sits in the heavens laughs. He holds them in derision. The LORD is in control. The LORD has always been in control. He who raises up enemies and permits affliction to befall His elect has also saved them and will deliver them in His time. Therefore, we are not afraid. What can man or nature, disease or devil do to us for whom Christ was born, for whom Christ died, for whom Christ has risen, and for whom Christ will come again? “Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!” That is the Truth, then, now, and always. Do not be afraid.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Advent Evening Prayer in the Week of Rorate Coeli (Advent 4)

(Audio)


Romans 6:1-11; 1 Corinthians 10:1-14


In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

A trap that sacramental Christians are at risk of falling into is that we tend to think of the Sacraments as an end in themselves. We are commanded to receive them, and we believe that they do what the Lord says they do, and so we receive them and we do them obediently. We bring our babies to be baptized. We commit ourselves to seeing them confirmed and to receiving their first communion. And then…, well? Let’s admit it, too often that’s where it simply ends. Each and every year we hear the sermon that “Confirmation is not graduation,” but then it too often becomes effectively that. And, too many babies that are baptized won’t be seen in church again until the next obligatory milestone comes around. Our Lutheran forefathers were aware of this trap as well. They even had a name for it - ex opera operato: The belief that the Sacraments are a work unto themselves, and that simply by doing them or receiving them they are efficacious.

In our consideration of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism these Wednesdays in Advent we have been reminded as we confessed the Small Catechism that, without faith, Holy Baptism, and the other Sacraments, avail us nothing: How can water do such great things? Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water. Plainly, there are three absolutely necessary factors in the Sacrament: The Word of God, the water, and faith which trusts the Word of God in the water. If any one or more of these factors is missing, it is not a Sacrament. Thus, it is impossible for Sacraments to benefit anyone ex opera operato, in and of themselves, for the benefit of a Sacrament is received by faith.

An ex opera operato understanding of Holy Baptism bears disastrous fruit, fruit condemned in our Scripture readings this evening from Romans and First Corinthians which warn us to consider ourselves dead to sin and flee from idolatry. St. Paul connects baptism to the Exodus and the Red Sea Crossing and to the presence of Christ in the cloud, the sea, the rock, and the manna. He considers them all to be sacraments of a type having this in common: They each have a particular promise from God’s Word, a visible, physical element, and they mark a turning point and a change in one’s life – repentance described as death and rebirth, new life, and freedom from slavery. St. Paul’s exhortation and warning in both Epistles is that the baptized must not turn back to their former life and way of living.

Shortly after the LORD’s mighty deliverance of them in the Exodus, the people turned back and grumbled about food and water, they longed for the food of slavery in Egypt, and they even blasphemed that the LORD delivered them out of Egypt to murder them in the wilderness. Because of their sinful rebellion the LORD sent poisonous serpents to bite them, and many of them died. The same poison that was injected into creation in the beginning threatened them then and threatens us still – the poison of sinful idolatry and the temptation to sin. St. Paul treats the story of the Exodus not as a mere history lesson but as an example of the very real consequences of sinful idolatry: Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were.

St. Paul’s point is that Holy Baptism begins a new life and a new way of living. The old man has drowned and died in the sea, was crucified with Christ and was buried. The new man has been born and raised up having left the old man of sin dead, buried, and behind. There is no going back: How can we who died to sin still live in it? So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. St. Paul understands well that the faithful will face temptations from the evil one, temptations to turn back to sinful idolatry and death, therefore he comforts you saying, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” Notice that God doesn’t promise to take away the temptation, but to give you a way of escape that you may be able to endure it. There is no way around the cross, but Jesus’ disciples must take up their cross daily and follow Him.

St. Paul asks rhetorically, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” to which he replies, “By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” Nevertheless, it will be a battle. You will be tempted by Satan, the world, and your own flesh and reason. Therefore, you must daily repent and be forgiven, returning to your baptismal grace, washing your robes white again in the blood of the Lamb. This we confess in the Small Catechism: “[Baptism] indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”

No, Holy Baptism does not work ex opera operato; it is not a work in itself, but it requires faith to benefit from it and it effects a change in the baptized so that they are born again and resurrected to a new life and obedience. Yes, you will still sin, for as long as we have the corrupted flesh we will have sin, but we must not let sin reign and have dominion over us. When we sin, we return to our baptismal grace in contrition and repentance and in faith and trust that our gracious and merciful God will forgive us anew on account of Christ’s righteousness and atoning death in our place. This is the gift of God’s love we celebrate with thanksgiving at Christmas: God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.


Saturday, December 19, 2020

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

(Audio)

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.

“Are you the Christ?” “Are you Elijah?” “Are you the Prophet?” They asked. John answered them, “No.” Their suppositions were good ones, scriptural ones even, however, those titles had come to be loaded with false expectations founded, not in God’s Word, but in man’s fallen reason and wisdom. For, “Christ,” “Elijah,” “the Prophet,” these could mean any number of things to any number of persons or groups. And, to the priests and the Pharisees, they meant a threat to their control of the people. Therefore, they were watching and they were waiting for the Messiah to arrive, not in hopeful expectation, but with wary concern. And, when He came, they would watch him closely and they would test him. They would judge whether he fit the bill or not – the bill that they had contrived according to their fallen reason and wisdom, not according to the holy scriptures of God.

Thus, John answered them, “No.” “No, I am not the Christ.” “No, I am not Elijah.” “And, neither am I the Prophet.” And, when they asked him, “Then, who are you?” He proclaimed to them the Word of God saying, “I am the voice prophesied of by Isaiah.” John proclaimed to them, “No, I am not any of those falsely contrived titles that you name, but I am the fulfillment of God’s Word even as I speak to you right now.” I am not who you say that I am, but I am who God says that I am. My purpose is to prepare sinners to receive the true Messiah when He soon comes. I will prepare them by baptizing the repentant that they may be forgiven their sins when He comes. For, when He comes, He will baptize, not with water alone, but with the Holy Spirit of God. I am not worthy to untie the strap of His sandals.”

“By what authority, then, do you baptize,” they questioned John, “if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” This is the same question they would later ask of Jesus Himself, for preserving their own authority, power, and control was foremost on their minds and hearts. John answered them plainly, telling them to simply observe what he was doing: “I baptize with water.” “I am not the Christ, Elijah, or the Prophet, but I am a man pouring water over the heads of repentant sinners. The One you look for is coming after me, indeed, He is amongst you right now! But you don’t recognize Him because you are looking for the wrong things. Though He, too, is a man like me, I assure you that I am not worthy to untie the straps of His sandals. I baptize with water those who repent, and they are forgiven. But, they are forgiven, not because of me, but because of the One who comes after me. I am here before you today that you may receive Him when He comes. However, you do not receive me, therefore, you will not receive Him.” Christ’s redemption was the basis of the means of grace that John delivered in his baptism. Without this redemption, no means of grace could exist. Thus, John’s work consisted in applying a means of grace that rested upon a far mightier act.

John was the forerunner prophesied of in the Scriptures. He is not the forerunner contrived of man’s fallen reason and wisdom. And, neither will the Messiah, the Christ, be the Christ contrived of by man’s fallen reason and wisdom. Therefore, in true forerunner zeal, John prepared the way for the coming of the Christ. This preparation consisted not only of repentance for sins, though that was surely the greater part, but it consisted of changing fallen man’s expectations about the forerunner and about the Christ. John was calling all of Israel to turn back, to return to God, to return to His Word. That is why he lived in the wilderness; that is why he was preaching and baptizing at the Jordan. He was calling Israel to repentance in the wilderness, where God had called His people to repentance so many centuries earlier. He was calling them out into the wilderness that they might repent and be baptized, crossing over the Jordan once again into the Promised Land of God’s grace and forgiveness.

In this way, John the forerunner is akin to Moses: He lived in the wilderness near the Jordan, he called God’s people to repentance, and he made his stand before a king. Additionally, while Moses was supposed to lead God’s people through the Jordan into the Promised Land, because of his sin, that charge was given to his successor Joshua (Yeshua), whose name in Greek is Jesus (I─ôsous); thus, Moses served as the forerunner for Joshua, even as John was the forerunner for Jesus, who would lead God’s people out of captivity and bondage to sin by means of baptism into His death and resurrection into the Promised Land of heaven. Therefore, while Moses’ prophecy in Deuteronomy eighteen surely refers to Jesus – “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers” – it surely refers to the forerunner of Jesus, John the Baptist, as well.

The Christ comes, in precisely the way the Scriptures have said He would come. But, we have become blinded by our reason and confounded in our wisdom. The Baptist calls us to repentance still that we might not reject the LORD’s Messiah, but receive Him with faith in our hearts. Still the Baptist prepares the way for the Lord by preaching repentance that the hills of our pride might be leveled and the valleys of our despair might be filled in. He is Emmanuel, God with us, God as one of us, born of woman, flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone. Do not look for another. He comes in humility, and lowliness, bringing the mercy, grace, forgiveness, and love of God, His kingdom.

Yet, this is precisely why men reject Him. Though He terrifies us and makes us run in fear for our lives, we think we want the God of Sinai with His fire, thunderings, earthquakes, and lightnings. But, in His mercy, He gives a Savior, meek and mild, a God we may approach and touch and not die, a God who is our advocate, defender, and friend, who intercedes for us with pleas, obedience, and self-sacrifice unto death in our place. No, we were not prepared to receive our God, His Messiah, His Christ. Thanks be to God that He sent us John. Thanks be to God that He still sends to us His undershepherds to call us to repentance and to speak to us His forgiveness and peace. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” The Lord has come as the Babe of Bethlehem. He has fulfilled God’s holy Law for you and He has suffered the death you deserved as due penalty for your sin, removing its sting forever. He is God’s peace with mankind of which the angels sang. He is the peace of God that surpasses all understanding. May your hearts and minds be guarded in Jesus Christ.

In the +Name of Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Advent Evening Prayer in the Week of Gaudete (Advent 3)

(Audio)

Titus 3:1-8; Galatians 3:23-29

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

God is holy. He is perfectly righteous, sinless, and good. In fact, God is the measure and definition of holiness, righteousness, sinlessness, and goodness such that we are all found in comparison to be wanting. Those who are not holy, those who are sinners, cannot see God or stand in His presence. To do so would mean destruction as Isaiah, Zechariah, John the Evangelist, numerous others, and even Mary, feared when greeted by the LORD’s holy angels so that the angelic messengers had to proclaim the absolution of the LORD saying, “Do not fear.”

Because God is holy, and we are not, we cannot enter His direct presence or behold His glorious face. Still, God’s proper will is to dwell amongst His people as He did with our First Parents in the Garden. Therefore, the LORD comes to us who cannot approach Him through means, veiled in non-threatening forms: The Word proclaimed by a man, holy water, bread, and wine. Through these Means of Grace our LORD comes to us who cannot come to Him to forgive us our sins, create and strengthen our faith, equip and send us bearing His gifts in our lives, words, and deeds in service of others to the glory of His Name.

In Holy Baptism, our LORD works through the means of common water to save us. It is not the water that saves us, however, but it is the Word of God in and with the water, received by faith, which itself is a gift and work of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul refers to Baptism as “the washing of rebirth,” linking it to Jesus’ teaching that one must be “born again” “of water and the spirit.” Still, baptism is not merely a washing away of sins, but it is truly a rebirth into a new life, even incorporation into Christ Himself. Thus St. Paul teaches in Romans 6, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

The lives of the baptized are truly new, truly born again. They look different, talk different, act different, and are different. St. Paul instructs the baptized “to be submissive to rulers and authorities,” “to avoid quarreling,” “to be gentle” and courteous toward all people, for in baptism you have “put on Christ” like a garment that clothes your body. Indeed, in baptism you have been grafted into Jesus, His death and resurrection, and have been clothed with His righteousness that covers all your sins. “In baptism we now put on Christ – our shame is fully covered with all that He once sacrificed and freely for us suffered. For here the flood of His own blood now makes us holy, right, and good, before our heav’nly Father.”

Our reading from Titus is also assigned as the Epistle reading for Christmas Day, for it speaks of Jesus saying, “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” In His advent the Lord came to deliver us from our foolish, disobedient, straying lives and to heal, cure, and save them. It is the powerful Word of God that breaks through sin and death to pour out His grace and awaken new life in us by the Holy Spirit.

“…when he appeared,” writes St. Paul. Jesus appeared quietly and unexpectedly, in lowliness and humility, “when all was still and it was midnight,” as we confess in our Christmas Eve liturgy. No prophet has spoken for four hundred years before John the Baptist came as the new Elijah to prepare His way. And, when He came, He did not come as a mighty king or emperor, leading a legion of troops, having great wealth or worldly might, but He came as a helpless infant born in less than ideal circumstances to a humble maiden and a virtuous man who was not His father. The Magi were given an star to lead them, not to Herod’s palace, but to a family home in Nazareth, and the shepherds were greeted by a multitude of the heavenly host proclaiming, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” And, they were given a sign, “You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” The shepherds went to see and found it just as they had been told.

As the Christ came to us peaceably, gentle, with lowliness and humility, so are those to be who are baptized into Him and born again to a new and holy life. When He appeared, He saved us, not by works done under the Law, but by His goodness, loving kindness, and mercy. He saved us, not by good works, but for good works. St. Paul writes that “the Law was our guardian until Christ came,” “but now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. […] And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”

God is holy. He is perfectly righteous, sinless, and good. Because God is holy, and we are not, we cannot enter His direct presence or behold His glorious face. Thanks be to God that in Christ’s appearing He has saved us by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit in Holy Baptism that we being justified by His grace might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Gaudete - The Third Sunday in Advent (Advent 3)

(Audio) 

Matthew 11:2-11; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Isaiah 40:1-11

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Each Gaudete Sunday I feel compelled to restate this truth: John the Baptist did not doubt that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. I know, I’ve heard many arguments maintaining that John did indeed doubt, after all, he was in prison, he knew that he would soon be executed, and, well, he was only human, right? John heard about all the wonderful things Jesus was doing for others, healing the blind, the lame, the leprous, and the deaf, but what about setting the captives in prison free? Isaiah prophesied about that too, right? I know, sounds convincing, doesn’t it? Surely it seems that John had good reason to doubt. However, consider this: John was filled with the Holy Spirit while in his mother’s womb and leapt for joy at Mary’s greeting in the presence of his Lord and Savior. And, John heard the Father’s voice at Jesus’ baptism proclaiming Him His Son with whom He is well pleased, and he saw the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus and remain with Him. John understood Himself to be, not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet, but a voice crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare ye the way of the LORD.” John confessed of Himself that he was not worthy to loosen the straps of Jesus’ sandals. John knew that he must decrease and that Jesus must increase, and he was just fine with that. Truly, the evidence from Scripture supports the conclusion that John most certainly did not doubt whom Jesus was and what He came to do. Quite the opposite, from the plain reading of Scripture, it seems that John believed more than any other man or woman at his time.

So, then, why did John send his disciples to question Jesus if He was the coming one, if John did not have doubt himself? Well, presumably it was for the sake of his disciples, and it was for your sake also, that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His Name. Thus, John’s question to Jesus was designed to provide an opportunity for Jesus to demonstrate to his disciples how He and His works were the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy. John did not need to hear this, but his disciples did, and you do too. Jesus replied, “Go and tell John what you hear and see.” The proof was right there before their very own ears and eyes. “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”

Here, someone may object that not all the blind have their sight restored, not all the deaf are made to hear, not all the lame are given to walk, etc. Moreover, not all the dead are raised up. And, what good is preaching as a remedy for poverty? However, this is fully consistent with Jesus’ teaching throughout the Gospels. Physical healing and restoration is but an outward sign of the true spiritual healing that Jesus brings through the forgiveness of sins. Thus, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees who were offended that Jesus forgave a paralyzed man his sins. They claimed that only God can forgive sins. They were right, of course, but they did not recognize or confess that Jesus was God in the flesh. Therefore Jesus answered them saying, “Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?” The point is this: Whether or not the physical sign of forgiveness, healing and restoration, are given now, you and all who trust in Jesus will be healed, restored, and made whole once again in the resurrection of your body on the Last Day. Yes, the Lord does, at times, grant signs and miracles, however, you must believe and trust in Him and in His Word with or without signs and miracles, because Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, and His Words bring into being what they say.

Further, there are spiritual forms of blindness and deafness, of lameness, leprosy, death, and poverty. Jesus’ closing words key us into that fact: “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” These words should bring to your mind the Beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. That there is blessedness in physical and material meekness, mourning, hunger, thirst, and poverty is the result of a lessening of things that might tempt you to sin and, in turn, an openness to the Lord’s filling you with His grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness. Nonetheless, the fullest meaning of the Beatitudes is found in spiritual need being filled to overflowing with Jesus’ spiritual gifts. And so, the spiritually blind may have their eyes opened to see the Lord and His grace with or without the physical restoration of sight. The same goes with the deaf, the lame, and the leprous. Also, those in whom the Holy Spirit has created the gift of faith that clings to Jesus Christ for forgiveness, life, and salvation may rightly be said to have been raised from death to life. And, likewise, in Jesus, the spiritually poor are amongst the richest in the world.

John sent his disciples to Jesus so that they might see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears that He was the fulfillment of the Messianic promises and prophecies. However, once Jesus had demonstrated that to them, He then began to extol John the Baptist to the crowds as an icon of the humble means through which God carries out His divine and glorious works of salvation. “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?” Jesus asked. If they thought that John was like the false prophets and teachers of their day, changing their position according to the popular thinking of the people, they were in for a surprise. John was no hollow reed, easily blown to and fro by the wind of popular opinion, but he was unwavering in his message, calling all to repent if they hoped to be saved from the coming judgment. “What then did you go out to see?” Jesus continued, “A man dressed in soft clothing?” John the Baptist was free of desires for worldly and material wealth, pleasure, comfort, and power. Because he was not beholden to such things, he was free to proclaim the truth without concern for loss should his message be received in an ill manner. “What then did you go out to see? Jesus concluded, “A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you’.” John the Baptist was the greatest and the last of all the prophets, for He was the promised Elijah who would come immediately before the Messiah, preparing His way before Him by preaching repentance unto the forgiveness of sins. Jesus praised John before the crowd saying, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

That one is Jesus Himself. Though He was without sin, God made Him to be sin for you that you might become the righteousness of God. Though He was with God, and was God, from the beginning, He humbled Himself to become a man, to be made a little lower than the angels, and to become obedient unto death, even death upon the cross, for which God raised Him up and exalted Him to His right hand in glory, giving Him the Name that is above all names that, “at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

It was John’s purpose and vocation to make disciples for Jesus by preaching repentance unto the forgiveness sins, which was marked by the sign of baptism. Therefore, John sent his own disciples to Jesus that they might sit at His feet and listen to His teaching, becoming Jesus’ disciples. Everything about John, from his infant confession of faith in his mother’s womb, to his humility and selflessness in service and life, to his bold and unflinching preaching of repentance unto the forgiveness of sins, to his baptizing repentant sinners in the Jordan, to his bold confession and preaching before Herod, to his humble confession in prison, sending his own disciples to Jesus, that, as was necessary and foretold, he might decrease and Jesus might increase – Everything about John was service to Jesus and to the LORD. So, also, must you be a servant, even a slave, of Christ, even as pastors are servants and stewards of the mysteries of God in service of you and of the LORD to His glory in all things.

John came to bring comfort to God’s people, comfort, not in terms of soft clothing and worldly riches, but the true comfort and peace that come from a right relationship with the LORD. This comfort comes only through faith in the one who baptizes, not with water, like John, but with the Holy Spirit and with fire, Jesus Christ. “Comfort, comfort ye, my people.” Come ye repentant souls and find comfort and peace in Jesus’ Words and Wounds. The ministry of John the Baptist continues in the Office of the Holy Ministry as pastors prepare the way for the Lord Jesus to come to you His people in His holy body and His precious blood for the forgiveness of your sins. Thus, there is great reason for you to Gaudete, to rejoice this day. The LORD is at hand.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.


Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Advent Evening Prayer in the Week of Populus Zion (Advent 2)

(Audio)

Acts 2:36-39; Isaiah 1:10-20

 

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

“Brothers, what shall we do?” That was the question of some who thought they had it all figured out, and then it all came crashing down. Kind of like most of us right now, still reeling from the pandemic, and from the election, and from the murder hornets, and from, well, life in general. We bemused ourselves, thinking we were in control, and then WHAM, KAFLOOEY, the bottom fell out. The men who said those words in our reading from Acts had just heard St. Peter’s Pentecost sermon in which he smacked them with the Law exposing how they rejected and crucified the Lord’s Christ, their Redeemer. The Holy Spirit worked through that preaching of the Law to break their hardened hearts and to crush their proud spirits so that WHAM, KAFLOOEY, the bottom fell out of their reasoned plans and their self-assurance and they were left reeling in hopelessness and despair saying, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the Name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins,” answered Peter. To repent means to change your mind or to think differently; it means to confess that you are wrong and see things in a new light. Let’s face it, most often we don’t like to admit that we’re wrong. Maybe with other people we can spin things in such a way that we don’t come off looking so bad, getting someone else to share the blame, etc. However, before the light of God’s holy Word and Law, there’s no dodging, shifting the blame, or compromise. Those who heard Peter’s fiery sermon were “cut to the heart,” “for the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” No one has an encounter with the Word of God and walks away unscathed. And that’s a good thing when the result is repentance.

You see, there’s a good kind of cutting, and there’s a bad kind of cutting. Cutting off a gangrenous limb might well save the body, but a sword through the heart will most certainly end your life. The Law is preached to you that you might see your sin and turn from it, that you might receive the Gospel as the free gift of God’s grace that it is: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the Name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” Holy Baptism is God’s gift to you, the forgiveness of your sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Lord has taken the death of Christ His Son, a death you delivered Him over to, a death your sins merited and deserved, and He has worked Christ’s death for good, for your good, for the good of you and your children. “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to Himself.” Do you hear the Gospel in this statement? It’s a promise. It’s for everyone. Just as all had a hand in betraying the Christ and delivering Him over to death, so was Jesus’ death for all who will believe and trust in Him.

Jesus is how God forgives and saves you, and Baptism delivers to you all of Jesus’ saving work as we confess in the Small Catechism: “It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare” – “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” Who is this promise for? It is for you, your children, for those who are far off, and for everyone whom the Lord our God calls to Himself.

We are not saved by our good works. We are not saved by our sacrifices and prayers. We are not even saved by our faith alone, but we are saved by Jesus in whom we believe and trust. Our faith in Jesus is sealed in Holy Baptism as we receive His promised Holy Spirit marking us, naming us, and claiming us as His own. Though your sins were like scarlet, they have become white as snow; though they were red like crimson, they have become like wool. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.

“Brothers, what shall we do?” “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the Name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” This was the content of St. Peter’s and the Apostle’s preaching. This was the content of Jesus’ preaching. And this was the content of John the Baptist’s preaching as well. Whereas John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and it gave precisely that, the baptism Jesus commanded His disciples to go and make disciples of all nations with gave the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. That is the baptism you and I have been baptized with. That is the baptism John’s baptism pointed to, that Peter proclaimed, and that makes and keeps you a Christian still. Still the cry goes out “Repent,” think differently, turn around, return to your baptism in repentance and wash your robes and make them clean once again in the blood of the Lamb.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.