Friday, December 31, 2021

Feast of the Circumcision and Name of Jesus (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.

Will you be making any New Year’s resolutions this year? The reason we make resolutions is that it is helpful for us to state a goal, even to put it down in writing, in order to inspire us to work towards attaining that goal. In some respects, the Law of God is like that. St. Paul says in his Epistle to the Galatians: “Now before faith came, we were held captive under the Law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the Law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 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.” St. Paul says that the Law, like a New Year’s resolution, was a guardian serving to protect us from falling away until our goal could be reached – the coming of Christ and His fulfilling of the Law in our place, which we receive by faith.

Now, let us apply Paul’s teaching to the subject of this evening’s Gospel, the Circumcision and Name of our Lord Jesus Christ. First and foremost, circumcision was a gift of God’s grace. The LORD gave it as a sign and seal of His covenant promise to bless Abraham with an heir from his own flesh whose descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the heavens and as the grains of sand on the seashore. The LORD promised that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through Abraham’s heir. The LORD’s promise was good and true of its own, but in His grace and mercy, the LORD provided Abraham a sign of His promise in circumcision. St. Paul puts it this way in his Epistle to the Romans: “[Abraham] received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well.” Now, as circumcision gets, shall we say, right to the point of procreation, Abraham, and all of his male progeny, would be physically and visibly reminded of God’s promise each and every day of their lives. However, there was also a command of the Law attached to circumcision. Every male in Abraham’s tribe was to be circumcised, and every male child born, going forth, was to be circumcised on the eighth day after his birth as a sign of the covenant the LORD had made with Abraham. And so, even though the covenant was truly one-sided – it was God’s promise to Abraham – the LORD gave Abraham something to receive, a sign, so that men would have a reminder, a guardian, and even a goal, to help them to trust and to believe in the LORD’s promise until they attained it in full.

Thus, on the eighth day after His birth, Jesus was circumcised in accordance with the Law. Though He did not require the sign of the promise, for He was the fulfillment of the promise, He submitted to circumcision to fulfill the mandate of the Law for you. And, as was the custom, He received His Name, the name that the Archangel Gabriel had given His mother Mary at the Annunciation, Jesus, which means, “God saves.” Jesus was incarnate and was born as the fulfillment of the LORD’s covenant promise to Abraham that an heir from his own flesh would be blessed and would be a blessing to the nations. Jesus is the true and promised Son of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the Son of David, the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise and the blessing of God in whom all people of all times and all places have been blessed by God.

Since the Law has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ, Christians no longer circumcise in order to fulfill the mandate of the Law. Still, as Jesus taught, the Law has not passed away, but it has been fulfilled. As a result, the Law has been transformed. No longer is circumcision of the flesh, but circumcision is of the heart, as St. Paul testifies: “Circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.” The circumcision of the heart is affected by Holy Baptism. How is that you ask? Your baptism was not a matter of the Law, but of the Gospel. In other words, you were not baptized in order to fulfill the mandate of the Law, but you were baptized into Jesus who has fulfilled the Law for you. The sign of circumcision served as a guardian until the fulfillment of the Law came in Jesus. Jesus submitted to both circumcision and baptism, though He needed neither, for you, in fulfillment of the Law’s demands upon you. And, more than that, He fulfilled the Law that you might receive these powerful signs of God’s gracious covenant promise fulfilled as a free and perfect gift, no strings attached.

As the Law mandated that newborn males be circumcised on the eighth day after birth, so has it been the custom in the Christian Church to baptize newborn children shortly after birth. Even though the Law has been fulfilled in Jesus, Christian parents should desire for their children to receive the gracious blessing of Holy Baptism as soon as possible and should not put it off any longer than is absolutely necessary. And, for those sects who maintain that infants and young children should not be baptized until they can make a testimony or confession of their faith in their own words, they should rather hearken to the Word of God in the Holy Scriptures which proclaim that faith is simply trust, not a rational cognition or articulation of belief. Indeed, Abraham believed and trusted in the Word of the LORD and was credited with righteousness before receiving the sign of circumcision. Then circumcision was given as a sign, not of Abraham’s obedience and faith, but of God’s promise. Likewise, once the promise and Law was fulfilled in Jesus, the Word of God in and through Holy Baptism bestows the promise of God fulfilled in Jesus Christ, even as it creates faith in the hearts of infants who receive its blessing.

As Paul proclaims, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” To “put on Christ” is to put on His righteousness, like a garment, which covers your nakedness, guilt, and sin. After our First Parent’s sin in the Garden, the LORD clothed them in garments of animal skins, having shed their innocent blood to cover the iniquity of Adam and Eve. Likewise, God gave Abraham the sign of circumcision to mark His promise, in the shedding of blood, that He would keep His Word and provide an heir for Abraham who would be blessed to be a blessing to all nations. And, on the eighth day after His birth, Jesus’ innocent blood was shed as He received in His flesh the sign of circumcision, fulfilling it for all people of all times and all places. And, the Name was given to Him, Jesus, which means, “God saves.” For, this initial shedding of His innocent blood was but a necessary precursor to the blood He would shed and the life He would lay down willingly for you on the cross. So it is that we are baptized into Jesus and His fulfillment of circumcision, baptism, and, indeed, all of the Law of God for us by dying our death upon the cross, so that we may receive God’s salvation in and through Him. Truly, in and through our baptism into Jesus, we “are all sons of God, through faith.” Likewise, we “are Abraham’s offspring [and] heirs according to promise.”

And so, as we begin this New Year, another year of God’s abundant grace and mercy, whether you make resolutions or not, let us remember daily the precious gift we have received from God in Christ Jesus, and let us return to our baptisms daily in humble repentance and faith and trust. And, from the abundance of His grace which we have received in Jesus, let us live in our liberty and freely give as we have freely received, proclaiming to all, in word and in deed, that the Law is fulfilled in Jesus and glorifying His Name.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, December 25, 2021

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 events following the birth of Jesus serve to demonstrate that He was born to fulfill the Law in our place. On New Year’s Eve, we will celebrate the Feast of the Circumcision and Name of Jesus when He was eight days old in fulfillment of the Law. This morning, we celebrate the Feast of the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of Our Lord in the temple in fulfillment of the Law. Accordingly, St. Luke makes reference to the Law of God three times in the first three verses of today’s Gospel, and two more times in the ensuing accounts of St. Simeon and St. Anna. Joseph and Mary were doing to and for Jesus what the Law required, but when they heard the words of Simeon and Anna, they marveled at the words that were spoken about their son.

Simeon is all but an antitype of Abraham. He is described as being “righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel.” Simeon’s faith is declared to him as righteousness, like Abraham’s, and, just like Abraham’s, it was Simeon’s faith that caused him to wait and to watch for God to fulfill His covenant promise. The Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would not die until he had beheld the Lord’s Christ with his own eyes. Thus, when Joseph and Mary brought their newborn son into the temple to do for Him what was required by the Law, the Spirit guided St. Simeon to the temple that day as well. Then, receiving the Word of God made flesh into his own arms, Simeon proclaimed and confessed, “Yes, Lord, Your Word is fulfilled! Here I behold Your salvation with my own eyes. Now You may let me depart this life in peace, for You have kept Your covenant promise! For, here lies in my arms the deliverance and the consolation of Israel, and light for the Gentiles!” Simeon’s confession is akin to that of Abraham’s when he answered his son’s inquiry, “Father, where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” Abraham answered, “God will provide for Himself the Lamb for a sacrifice, my son.” Yes, Simeon prophesied of the purpose and the fate of the boy-child Jesus whom he held in his arms, saying to His mother that, because of Him, “a sword will pierce through your own soul.” For, though He would bring peace with God for all men, He would be for “a sign that is opposed.”

Now, I love the fact that Joseph and Mary are said to have “marveled at what was said” about Jesus. Our Lord’s parents were faithful and pious believers in God’s most holy Word. They, like Simeon and Anna, were watching and waiting for the Lord’s promise to be fulfilled as well. While angels had visited them both, and they believed with all their heart, soul, and mind, it is, however, absurd to conclude that they understood everything that was happening. No more do any of us understand the fullness of the counsel of God’s Word, His Will, and His Ways. Both Joseph and Mary pondered and treasured God’s Word and the mysteries that were being revealed to them in their hearts. Truly, this is what God desires of His children, that they keep His Word and Commandments, more precious and dear to them than their own lives or livelihoods. Jesus’ mother, Mary, gazed upon the child of her own flesh, who was also God’s own Son by the Holy Spirit, in profound love and awe. Jesus’ father, Joseph, protected Him fiercely so that no one and no thing would harm this gift of God before His time had come. And, still today, the Holy Family, both in image and in imagination, beckon the faithful to ponder and to receive the Christ-child, the Word of God made flesh, dwelling amongst us.

And, then there was Anna, the prophetess. St. Luke tells us that Anna was “advanced in years” and that she was a widow for seventy-seven years after the death of her husband to whom she was married seven years since she was a young virgin. She did not leave the temple day or night, which may indicate that she lived there, that a room was provided for her. At the presentation of Jesus, Anna gave thanks to God and spoke to all the faithful about Jesus. Now, what are we to make of her being designated as a prophetess? Not much, I have to think. For, Anna is the only woman called a prophetess in all the New Testament, and the Holy Spirit did not see fit to provide us the words she spoke, but only that she gave thanks to God and spoke to others about Jesus. There is no indication that she held a particular office of one kind or another, though we are told that she “worshiped with fasting and prayer night and day.” There is no doubt that she was a woman of great faith, piety, and devotion. Further, it is possible that the Holy Spirit granted her a revelation of who the Christ-child was and what He would do.

As it is, both Simeon and Anna stand straddling the Old and the New Testaments. For, though they lived during the birth and infancy of our Lord, they were not alive to witness His death and resurrection or the sending of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. And so, Simeon and Anna fit best with the Old Testament saints and prophets culminating in John the Baptist. Whatever their role may have been, they served to point us to Christ, who He would be, and what He would do. Even after Jesus’ birth, it had been revealed to Simeon and Anna who Jesus was and what He would do in terms of the big picture, but not necessarily in all the fine details. By divine revelation, in their faith, Simeon and Anna could see that this child, Jesus, was the fulfillment of God’s promises to Adam and Eve, to Abraham, to Moses, and to David. He came as their brother, born of woman, born under the Law, to redeem those under the Law. The joy of Simeon and Anna was the joy of the Law being fulfilled for us all! Indeed, rightly did Joseph and Mary marvel.

St. Luke concludes today’s Gospel saying, “And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.” They had done everything that the Law required, but, though it was necessary and had to be done, it was still not enough; man was still in sin and destined for death. The rest would have to be performed by Jesus alone. Jesus must now grow and learn as all boys do. Jesus must come of age and study under the rabbis. Jesus must be baptized with John’s baptism and face the devil in the wilderness. Jesus must obey the Law and keep the LORD’s Commandments perfectly, even under temptation, duress, and suffering, unto death. Jesus must lay down His life in humiliation, suffering, and death in your place, going to the cross, drinking the cup of God’s wrath against your sin to the bitter dregs, until it was finished. And He did.

There is a good reason that we sing Simeon’s song after receiving the Lord’s body and blood in the Holy Eucharist: For, we, too, have seen the salvation of our LORD. We, too, can now depart in peace. Therefore, let us, like Simeon and Anna, watch and wait for the Lord, hearing His Word and receiving His gifts. God has wonderfully created us, and in the incarnation of His Son has yet more wondrously restored our human nature. May we ever be alive in Him who made Himself to be like us.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

The Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord - Christmas Day


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


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

There is a great difference between creating and making. Indeed, for you to have created something implies that you are the source and origin of, not only the thing created, but of its constituent materials and parts, the stuff of which it is created. Thus, human beings cannot truly be understood to be creators in any sense faithful to the fullness of what it means to be a creator. Rather, we are makers. That is to say that we make new things out of pre-existent things, materials, and parts. For example, we take clay, and we form it into a pot. We take chemical elements, and we combine them in such a way to make plastics and metal alloys and all sorts of things. Truly, even in conception and childbirth, where it may appear that human beings are creators, sources, and origins of life, still we are dealing with pre-existent created materials – namely, we are the materials, created by God, through which He makes new life. Thus, we even call conception and childbirth by a different term, procreation. Procreation means a moving forward of creation. For, what is truly going on in procreation is that God alone is the creator and giver of life, but He works with us and through us in such a way that He permits us to participate with Him in moving His ongoing creative work forward. 

Our God is both a creator and a maker. He creates ex nihilo, that is, out of nothing, because He is the source and the origin of all things, even the materials and the parts of which other things are made. He creates by speaking His creative and performative Word, a Word that brings into being what it says. Thus, when God speaks “Let there be light,” there is light. And when he speaks your sins forgiven in Jesus, they are forgiven. Yes, our God is both a creator and a maker, and, in many ways, He is also a builder. One of the things God builds is human beings, men and women. Whereas God created heaven and earth, the sun, moon, and stars, oceans and continents, plants and animals, and all things by His creative and performative Word, ex nihilo, out of nothing, God created humankind in a very different way. He did not speak man into existence, but He made Adam out of the earth He had already created, and He breathed his own life into Him. And then, in an even more unique creative act, He made the woman, Eve, out of the material of Adam: “The LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man He made into a woman and brought her to the man.” However, the original Hebrew word translated as made here, literally means built. God built Eve, the way a builder builds a house.

Such building language can be found in other places in Holy Scripture. For instance, in Psalm 139, David praises God for His handicraft in forming his inward parts and knitting him together in his mother’s womb. Likewise, in the same Psalm David speaks of his frame, that is, his body, or more specifically, his bones and sinews, being intricately woven in the depths of the earth. David confesses that the LORD has “fearfully and wonderfully made” him, and that He knows and sees everything about him. The precise word for build is used again in Psalm 127: “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” Likewise, the language of building and houses is used in connection with the tabernacle, the temple, Jerusalem, and Zion. That the LORD builds proclaims His intimate involvement in the lives of His people. That He builds a house proclaims that He intends to dwell amongst His people as one of them.

And that is precisely what we hear in the Old Testament lesson appointed for Christmas Day. Moses erected the tabernacle, and the Most Holy Place within it in which the glory of the LORD would dwell amongst His people. The tabernacle was a tent made of animal skins, wooden poles, and twine. It was meant to be portable so that the LORD’s presence could go with His people as they traveled. And the materials of its construction reminded the people of its purpose. The animal skins were taken from animals sacrificed to cover the sins of the people, just as the LORD had sacrificed animals to cover the nakedness of our First Parents. Additionally, their blood would be sprinkled upon the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant in atonement for the people’s sins. Still, it was necessary for the sacrifices to be repeated again and again, for they never took away sin, but only covered over sin for a time. The sacrifices were types, pointing to a fulfillment that would come later, when the LORD would tabernacle amongst His people in a tent of human flesh in the incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” That’s how St. John describes the Incarnation of Jesus. The word dwelt in the Greek is the same word as tabernacle, meaning, “pitched a tent.” Literally, the Word of God became flesh and tabernacled, or pitched His tent, amongst us. And, as the tent of the tabernacle consisted of the skins of sacrificed animals, so the tent the Word of God assumed was human flesh, so that He might become the sacrifice of God’s self-offering, the sacrificial Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Jesus is the tabernacle and the temple built without human hands. When His disciples remarked in awe about the majesty of the temple in Jerusalem, Jesus proclaimed that His body was the true temple saying, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Jesus is the tabernacle and the temple in which the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily. This means that, when the Holy Spirit came upon her and the power of the Most High overshadowed her, Mary conceived in her womb the fullness of the Godhead. Thus, we call Mary the Mother of God and Theotokos, bearer of God. Mary’s womb became the new Ark of the Covenant and the Most Holy Place in which the glory of the LORD was present amongst His people. And, so it was, that when Jesus died upon the cross, the veil covering the Holy of Holies within the temple tore from top to bottom and the priests wept bitterly because they knew that the glory of the LORD was no longer with them there. Indeed, the glory of the LORD had not been in the temple for over thirty-three years, for it was located within Jesus, the Word of God made flesh and dwelling amongst us, the tabernacle and temple built by God without human hands. Therefore, Jesus proclaimed, “The kingdom of heaven is near you,” for where He is, the kingdom of heaven is present.

The Word of God made flesh is God’s gift of His own grace and mercy to the men and world He had made that had rebelled against Him and plunged themselves into the captivity of sin and death. “He saved us not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy.” As in the beginning, when He fashioned man out of the earth He had created by the power of His Word, so in the new creation, He has re-created us out of, and in, His Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. In the Incarnation and birth of His only begotten Son, God has set us free from the bondage of sin. This is His creative work alone, apart from any work, merit, or worth in us. We are as passive and helpless in our second birth as we were in our first. However, God’s gift of grace and mercy in Jesus Christ has changed us. Now He invites us, commands us, and empowers us to procreate with Him and move forward His creation, not only in producing new life in the conception and birth of children, but by moving forward God’s creative work of love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness, which also bring life to those walking in darkness and the shadow of death.

We are the recipients of the greatest gift imaginable, the gift of life, true life from and with God, life that never ends. But, more than that, we are invited to participate with God in moving forward His gift of life for all people. We have been gifted to be a gift. We have been blessed to be a blessing. This is the meaning of Christmas. May the God of all grace fill you to overflowing that you may abound in His grace and be a blessing to many.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Friday, December 24, 2021

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.

Have you ever noticed how fear pervades the story of Jesus’ birth? St. Luke tells us three times in the first two chapters of his Gospel that someone was afraid. First there was Zechariah the priest and father of John the Baptist. Then there was Mary the Mother of our Lord. And last there were the Bethlehem shepherds watching over their flocks by night. Of course, those three were each afraid for the same reason – they had each been visited by one of God’s holy angels and were told some truly amazing news.

Still, there are several other indications in the Christmas story that people were afraid, even if the scriptural text does not explicitly say so. Let’s begin with Mary and Joseph. Due to Caesar Augustus’ decree that all the world be counted in a census, the newly betrothed couple was forced to make the arduous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the City of David, because they were of the house and lineage of David. The distance between the two villages was ninety miles, south along the flatlands by the Jordan River and then west over the hills of Judea. It was a grueling trip under the best of conditions. Most would travel no more than twenty miles per day, but Joseph and Mary, nine months pregnant, likely traveled no more than ten miles a day due to Mary’s impending delivery. It was also winter. The average daytime temperature would have been in the 30s, and it rained daily and was freezing at night. There were also bandits and wild animals to contend with. Truly, there was much for Joseph and Mary to be fearful of. It seems the only thing more frightening, however were the ramifications of disobeying Caesar’s edict.

And let’s not forget the scandal of Mary’s pregnancy. Mary was a young unmarried woman, a girl, when the angel Gabriel appeared to her and proclaimed that she would conceive and bear the Son of God. Mary was afraid, and for many reasons: She was afraid of the angel, and of her sin in the presence of the glory of God. She was afraid of the scandal and the shame of being pregnant outside the bonds of marriage. She was afraid of how Joseph, her family, and their community would take the news. But Gabriel said, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” When Mary told her husband the news, Joseph also was afraid of the scandal and the shame that would be brought upon them, and he sought to end their relationship quietly. However, an angel of the Lord also appeared to Joseph in a dream and said to him, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

This still, however, is not the totality of the fearful things that make up the Christmas story. When Joseph and Mary finally arrived at their destination in Bethlehem, “there was no place for them in the inn.” Here an unfortunate misunderstanding has entered our tradition the result of a mistranslation of the original Greek of St. Luke’s Gospel. The Greek word καταλματι, translated as inn, is not a motel or a traveler’s inn, as in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which is a different word altogether, but rather it is a guest room. Thus, Joseph and his imminently expecting wife Mary did not arrive in Bethlehem after a week and a half arduous travel only to be turned away from the local Motel 6, but when they arrived at the home, most likely that of a relative, they found that the guest room was already full, undoubtedly due to the influx of travelers from the region in Bethlehem for the census just like Joseph and Mary. We must understand that the culture simply would not permit the turning away of an imminently due pregnant woman, and we must not forget that both Joseph and Mary were of the house and lineage of David. Undoubtedly, they had numerous relatives in or near Bethlehem, including Mary’s cousin Elizabeth and her husband the priest Zechariah whom Mary had visited six months earlier. Nevertheless, there was no place for Mary in the guest room. Was there no one who would give up their space for this woman about to deliver a child? Perhaps this was their reaction to Mary’s scandalous pregnancy? We remember Jesus’ words, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Likewise, St. John wrote of Jesus, “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.” It is possible that Mary was ushered into the main living quarters of the family home. It was not uncommon to have mangers in the main living space, as the stable was attached to the home on the other side of the wall. It is also possible that Mary and Joseph had to spend their stay in Bethlehem in the household stable with the donkeys and the sheep. Either way, it was a fearful situation for a young mother to be in as she was about to give birth. “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him swaddling cloths and laid him a manger.”

“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.” Now, shepherds were a suspect lot. They were ceremonially unclean because they spent their days and nights in the wild with their sheep, they regularly had to fight off wild animals and bandits, and they were generally filthy with dirt, and blood, and feces, and they stank from not being able to wash and bathe regularly. Shepherds were not highly regarded by the rich and powerful and by people of influence. Indeed, when the prophet Samuel was sent to Bethlehem to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as king over Israel, Jesse didn’t even bother to mention his son David who was a shepherd out in the field keeping watch over his father’s flocks. Perhaps that is precisely the reason, however, that the Bethlehem shepherds were the first to receive the good news of Jesus’ birth? Nevertheless, like Zechariah, and Mary, and Joseph, indeed, like every man or woman who has ever been greeted by an angel, the shepherds were sore afraid. In the Greek, the shepherds literally feared with fear.

Yes, the story of Jesus’ birth, the Christmas story we know and cherish so well, is literally permeated with fear. And that is a good thing. It is good that the Christmas story is permeated with fear because our story, our world, and our lives are also permeated with fear. This is now our second Christmas together under the fear of a global pandemic, and there appears to be no end in sight. Instead of the promise of eradication and a return to normalcy, we are faced with more and more easily spread variants that resist and circumvent the vaccines altogether. The economy is in fear-inspiring chaos as the price of literally everything continues to rise weekly with no indication of leveling off or declining. Many families are beginning to wonder how long they will be able to make ends meet. And the political climate today is at a fever pitch that it is difficult to imagine we will be able to simmer down. It’s gotten to the point that families and friends and congregations are divided so that they do not merely agree to disagree, but they actually believe that those holding different views and beliefs are evil and must be silenced, if not destroyed.

Fear is a constant human emotion. Every generation has had its causes and reasons to be afraid. Many of you experienced the fear of 9/11 and the Holocaust and Pearl Harbor before that. Likely your parents or grandparents lived through the darkness and fear of the Great Depression. Earlier still there were plagues and wars and tyrannies as far back as there is history. The world has never been without fear from the moment our first parents hid in fear from the presence of God in the garden after they succumbed to Satan’s temptation to be gods unto themselves.

Yet, it was into such a world as this, as our world, that Jesus was born. God came to us in human flesh, just like yours. He was conceived in the womb of a human mother and was born naked, helpless, and defenseless in blood and gore as we all are. He was wrapped in swaddling cloths, straps of linen, the common wrappings for a common child that resemble all too closely the burial cloths his lifeless body would be wrapped in roughly thirty-three years later. Fearless, willingly, Jesus was born into this fearful world so that we need not be afraid anymore. The constant refrain of God’s holy angels, his messengers, even his pastors is this: DO NOT BE AFRAID! You have found favor with God, regardless of what you have done or haven’t done, regardless of your political persuasion, your gender, the color of your skin, or any other thing that you can imagine. You did not deserve this gift, and you don’t deserve it now, but it has been given to you as a free and perfect gift; it is yours, and no one can take it away from you. Merry Christmas! Your God is not distant, far off, and out of touch, but he is very near you, even in you, for God became man that man should become God. That is what it means that the word became flesh and made his dwelling amongst us. God became everything that you are, experienced everything that you experience, and fulfilled the Law for you, and he suffered the punishment you deserve in your place. Death was defeated in the resurrection of Jesus, but that all began in the incarnation of Jesus we celebrate this evening. We were a people walking in the darkness of sin, fear, and death, but upon us has shown a great light

“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.” “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Advent Evening Prayer in the Week of Rorate Coeli - The Fourth Week of Advent


Philippians 2:5-11; Micah 5:2-5a


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

Though Advent and Lent are both penitential seasons, they are significantly different in terms of their spirit and mood. Throughout Lent the faithful prepare for the annual commemoration of Jesus’ sacrificial death upon the cross for the sins of the world. Such preparation includes intensive reflection upon our sins in the light of God’s righteousness, and repentance in faith and hope in God’s mercy and forgiveness poured out in Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection. In contrast, while we also reflect upon our sins and repent throughout Advent, our preparation for the annual celebration of Jesus’ birth is marked rather by a spirit of humility and lowliness inspired by the gentleness and unexpected nature of Jesus’ first coming, instilling in the faithful hope for peace with God.

For, the King of Nations was not born in a palace in Jerusalem, but he was laid in a manger in lowly Bethlehem. “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.” In the first century, Bethlehem was a small village approximately six miles southwest of Jerusalem in the hill country of Judea. Bethlehem, which means house of bread, was originally called Ephrathah, which means fruitful, and has a long and varied significance throughout the Scriptures and the history of Israel. Bethlehem was the burial place of Rachel, the favorite of Jacob’s two wives and the mother of Joseph and Benjamin. Bethlehem was also the home of Naomi and Ruth and her kinsman-redeemer and husband Boaz. Ruth and Boaz became the parents of Obed, the father of Jesse, and the grandfather of King David, all of whom lived in Bethlehem. Thus, Bethlehem became known as The City of David and David’s Royal City. It was because both Joseph and Mary were descended from David that they traveled to Bethlehem to register for a census ordered by Caesar Augustus, and there Mary gave birth to her firstborn son Jesus.

To think that such an unassuming, lowly, and humble village as Bethlehem should factor so prominently in the history of Israel and in salvation history is, well, simply the way the LORD often works. What men would scarcely consider, but rather ignore and despise, God has utilized to accomplish His glorious work. “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”

When God sent Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint the king of Israel, Jesse paraded seven of his strong, tall, and mighty sons before the prophet, but the LORD had chosen none of them. Jesse hadn’t even bothered to call in David, the shepherd boy. Samuel insisted that they would not proceed until the boy had been presented. When David appeared, the Holy Spirit rushed upon him and the LORD told Samuel, “Arise, anoint him, for this is he.” Perhaps, because David was a shepherd who was overlooked by his father and brothers because of the lowliness of his estate, the angels proclaimed Jesus’ birth first to shepherds in Bethlehem watching over their flocks by night. “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, …. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”

After Jesus’ birth, wise men from the east traveled to Jerusalem to worship the newborn King of the Jews. Though they followed a star to Judea, at first, they seem to have believed that the King of the Jews would be born in a palace, in the capital city Jerusalem. There they found King Herod who was troubled at their report of a newborn king. After having ascertained from his scribes as to where this prophesied king was to be born Herod sent the wise men off to Bethlehem on the promise that they would return to him when they had located the child so that he too could come and worship him. Though the Word of the LORD had prophetically proclaimed the location of Messiah’s birth, men having not ears to hear the Word of the LORD nor eyes to see its fulfillment looked in places that appeared more glorious in their own sight. However, when the wise men left Herod, they saw the star once again and they followed it to where the child was. There they found Joseph and Mary and the infant Jesus lying in a lowly manger in lowly Bethlehem Ephrathah, David’s Royal City. The Bread of Life born in the house of bread, the Tree of Life bearing life-giving fruit for all who will receive him.

The child born in Bethlehem was no mere mortal man, but he was God himself, “whose coming is from of old, from ancient days.” The promise of his reign extends past King David, Moses, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, all the way back to and before our first parents Adam and Eve in the garden. The two genealogies of Jesus presented in Matthew and Luke establish Jesus’ lineage all the way back to Abraham and to Adam and Eve respectively.

God always keeps his promises, but often in remarkable and unexpected ways. Bethlehem was a small village and the clans of Judah who dwelt in the region of Ephrathah were of little significance. Yet God chose this insignificant place and people to bring forth his greatest act of redemption, the birth of his Son. However, not only was Jesus born in humble and unexpected ways, but he also lived and died and accomplished our redemption in humble and unexpected ways. As St. Paul confessed, though he was in the form of God, he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so 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.

And you his people are called to live in the same manner as your Lord and Savior, in humility and lowliness in selfless and sacrificial love and mercy towards others as we continually and abundantly receive these from our God and LORD in Jesus Christ. Jesus shepherds his flock in the strength of the LORD. We dwell secure, in the midst of our enemies, and at peace. The LORD builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel. He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. The LORD lifts up the humble; he casts the wicked to the ground. The LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Rorate Coeli - The Fourth Sunday in Advent


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.

When the LORD gave His commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai there was thunder and lighting, the sound of a trumpet, and the mountain was covered by thick smoke and darkness. The people were terrified. They plead with Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die!” What Israel experienced was the terror of sinners exposed before the presence of their perfect, righteous, holy God and His perfect, righteous, and holy demands. They were exposed and they were terrified. There was nothing they could do and there was nowhere they could hide. Therefore, they pleaded with Moses that he should be the one to meet with God on their behalf and to speak His Word to them. In this, the precedent for prophecy as the primary means for God’s communication with Israel was established. Israel would have a succession of prophets who resembled Moses in function, declaring the Word of the Lord. Near the end of his life, with the tribes of Israel camped by the shores of the Jordan, Moses gave his last sermons to the people before his death. Before Joshua would lead the tribes of Israel across the Jordan into Canaan, Moses prophesied to them, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers – it is to Him you shall listen – just as you desired of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God or see this great fire anymore, lest I die’.”

The LORD agreed with their assessment saying, “They are right in what they have spoken. I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put My Words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him. And whoever will not listen to my Words that He shall speak in My Name, I Myself with require it of him.” All the prophets of Israel that would speak for the LORD would, ultimately, find fulfillment in that one final prophet, raised up from amongst the people, who would intercede for the people before the LORD. That Prophet was, and is, Jesus the Christ.

Thus, when John the Baptist came preaching and baptizing, the priests and the Levites, sent by the Pharisees, rightly inquired of him, “Who are you?” John immediately denied being the Christ, so they asked him “What then? Are you Elijah? Are you the Prophet?” to which John answered, “No.” Of course they were waiting and looking for the Christ, so John was certain to eliminate that possibility first. However, prophecy had also foretold that Elijah would return before the coming of the Messiah, so John denied being Elijah as well. But John truly was the foretold Elijah of prophecy, the forerunner of the Christ sent to prepare His way before Him. And, neither was John the Prophet. The Prophet they were asking about was the one prophesied of by Moses to the tribes of Israel, the one like him, raised up from among His brothers. John denied being that Prophet, for the Prophet like Moses was Jesus, the Messiah, and the Christ.

Still they pressed him saying, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” John, then, answered them with prophecy, the prophecy of Isaiah, saying, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’.” Again, there was no doubt in John’s mind about who he was and who he was not, and there was no doubt in John’s mind about who Jesus was. Then they asked him for the source of his authority, as he was not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet saying, “Then why are you baptizing?”

That’s a good question, actually. Why was John baptizing? What did John’s baptism do, if anything? What is the difference between John’s baptism and Christian baptism today? Well, St. Paul explains in the Acts of the Apostles, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” Similarly, St. Mark the Evangelist tells us that “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” This is to say that John’s baptism was a real and true baptism, bestowing the forgiveness of sins just as John said. It’s authority and efficacy came the very same way as Christian baptism today, by the Word and promise of God attached to it. As we confess in the Catechism in answer to the question, “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.” Thus, the repentant sinners whom John baptized truly received the forgiveness of their sins through faith in the Word of God and His promise of the Messiah He would soon send. The difference is that the forgiveness given in John’s baptism came through faith in Jesus yet to come, while Christian baptism gives forgiveness through faith in Jesus who has come. However, only in Christian baptism, following Jesus’ death, resurrection, ascension, and the sending of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, is the Holy Spirit given. That is why those baptized by John were later baptized in the Name of the Lord Jesus – in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

John was sent to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord by preaching repentance unto the forgiveness of sins, marked by the sign of baptism. John did this quite effectively, but the fulfillment of his work had not yet come. Therefore, John answered his inquirers saying, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even He who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” Just as the LORD had promised to Moses and the tribes of Israel, God would raise up a great Prophet like Moses from amongst His brothers. That great Prophet was Jesus, born of Mary of the house of David in David’s royal city of Bethlehem. Jesus was the one who came after John, whom John prepared the people in repentance and faith to receive. Jesus was the one who, through faith in Him, made John’s baptism a real and efficacious baptism. Jesus was the one who, once He had been baptized Himself, was crucified, died, rose again, and ascended to His Father in heaven that He might send forth the Holy Spirit, fulfilling John’s baptism and replacing it with Holy Baptism in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. While John the Baptist was a “voice crying out in the wilderness,” Jesus Christ is the Word of God made flesh that the voice of John spoke and pointed to. “The transition from John to Jesus is the transition from the old to the new, from the promise to the fulfillment, from the shadow to the Light, from the type to the reality, from the earthly to that which from all eternity was in the beginning.”

Rejoice! “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!” Truly, there is reason for rejoicing. Truly, there is a reason that we rejoice in the remembrance and celebration of Jesus’ birth each year at Christmas. The fulfillment of the LORD’s promises made to Adam and Eve, and to our enemy Satan, has come in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the seed of the woman who has crushed the ancient serpent’s head. Through Jesus, the Prophet the LORD has raised up from among you, you have Peace with God. God’s Peace to you is a gift – a perfect, holy, and salvific gift. There is no reason for anxiety or fear, but let the Peace God has given you in Jesus Christ guard your hearts and your minds. No longer need you fear the thunder and lightning, smoke and terror of the LORD in His holiness and might, for you have an intercessor, one who speaks a good word of you before the Father, one who has done all things well, with whom the Father is well pleased. It is to Him that John’s preaching and baptism pointed, and it is in Him that they are fulfilled. You have been baptized into Him, and His righteousness is now yours. Even now the LORD showers down upon you His righteousness. Come, eat, and be forgiven anew. Come, drink, and be refreshed. Let your hearts be open that the LORD’s salvation and righteousness may bear fruit.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Advent Evening Prayer in the Week of Gaudete - The Third Week of Advent


Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 40:1-8


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

The Third Sunday in Advent is titled Gaudete, which means “Rejoice!” At first appearance, however, the Gospel reading appointed for Gaudete may not sound all that joyful, for it is the account of John the Baptist in prison awaiting his inevitable execution having sent his disciples to Jesus asking, “Are you the coming one, or do we wait for another.” Truly, when we are in the midst of trials and tribulations, crises of health, unemployment, marital strife, persecution, and suffering, we too may be troubled by the voices of our fallen human reason and worldly wisdom and the temptations of our Satanic foe to succumb to doubt, hopelessness, and despair. While these things are most certainly not joyful, our Lord calls us to rejoice nonetheless for they will pass and we will persevere, and more than that, victory is already ours, if unseen and unexperienced in full at the present time.

It was to Judah and Israel in such a time that the prophet Zephaniah was sent. Judah was already being threatened by the Assyrians, and now Zephaniah and Jeremiah were promising that it was going to get a whole lot worse before it got any better, warning of the coming of the Babylonians who would destroy Jerusalem and the temple and take into captivity the best and the brightest of Israel. These nations were being raised up by the LORD in judgment upon Israel and Judah for their sinful idolatry and apostasy. Yes, it was the LORD God who raised them up and permitted Assyria and Babylon to conquer his people; it was his judgment upon them. However, the LORD did not hate his people, but he loved them. That is why he would not leave them in their apostasy, but he would use their sorrow and suffering to crush their pride and to break their hardened hearts that they should return to him in repentance. Then he would restore them and turn his wrath against their enemies.

What does this mean? The LORD uses your trials and tribulations, your suffering, sorrow, and persecution for good, to discipline and chasten you and to call you back to him in repentance that he might restore and bless you. I am not saying that these things are good in themselves, but that the LORD uses them for good. The Scriptures are replete with examples of such. Most notably, perhaps, is Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers and left for dead. At the end of his lengthy and eventful story, after revealing himself to his brothers who were terrified that he would avenge himself against them, Joseph said to them, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” As St. Paul has written, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” Then, he lists all sorts of trials, tribulations, sufferings, and persecutions we experience and he concludes, “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

God loves his people. God loved Israel and Judah, even when they broke his commandments and worshipped other gods. Though he punished them, though he disciplined them, he promised that he would restore them and bless them and defeat their enemies. God loved Joseph and his brothers and, though he permitted them to suffer the result of their sin, the LORD saw them through their suffering and he delivered them. More than that, the LORD was with them in and through their suffering, just as Jesus was with his disciples in the boat as the wind and the waves roared and crashed around them. They had nothing to fear. Joseph and his brothers had nothing to fear. Israel and Judah had nothing to fear. You and I have nothing to fear.

That is why we are called to rejoice always, even in the midst of suffering. Our Lord is with us. He has defeated all our enemies – sin, death, and Satan – and now he uses the tribulations he brings against us for his own good purposes and ends. “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline,” says the LORD, “so be zealous and repent.” Even though the exile was decades away, and the coming of Christ several centuries away, the promises of the LORD prophesied by Zephaniah stand as completed in the eyes of the LORD: “The LORD has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil.”

We rejoice that Christ has come and taken God’s judgment from us, and that he continues to come into our midst, granting us the remission of our sins. We are also called to cast away our fear, because Christ is in our midst and has driven away our enemies by His death and resurrection. Moreover, not only are we called to rejoice, but God himself rejoices and exults over us as we receive the salvation of Christ. In the midst of our enemies, as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, our Good Shepherd feeds us and cares for us and protects us. First, we are invited to the Supper, which is a “foretaste of the feast to come.” Second is the actual “marriage supper of the Lamb” where all the redeemed will dwell with Christ forever.

Still, we are in exile in this world. We are but strangers here, heaven is our home. The believer is hated and despised by the world in the life. Yet, on the Last Day believers will be exalted before the eyes of the unbelieving world when God restores our fortunes and grants us the crown of eternal life. This week we beholdespecially that Christ will come again and bring full restoration to believers, while at the same time bringing judgment on those who reject him and his church. “Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Gaudete - The Third Sunday in Advent


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.

“What did you go out into the wilderness to see?” asks Jesus. What were you looking for? What did you expect to find? What did you hope to hear? Were you looking for some malleable teacher who would minister to your felt needs, leaving you secure in your sins, telling you that you’re a good person, better than most, keep up the good work? Or, did you expect to see an icon of self-help and prosperity, a guru of good and practical advice that would tell you how to get out of debt, raise your children, save your marriage, and be happy? Or, did you hope to hear that it doesn’t really matter what you believe, so long as you believe something, that all that really matters is that you remain devout in your belief and are good person, more or less.

If that’s what you went out into the wilderness this morning to see and hear, then you surely could have found it somewhere, for this wilderness world is filled with smooth-talking and forked-tongued false teachers who are all too eager to tickle your ears and to take your money and tell you to believe in yourself and to think positively and all will be well with you. This wilderness world is full of venomous serpents spitting poisonous doctrines, often in the name of Jesus, teaching that what God has called sin – murder, adultery and fornication, covetousness, jealousy, lying, slander, and theft – are virtues when done in the service of the common good, personal freedom, or just about any other justification men may conceive. You can hear anything you want in the wilderness. There’s at least fourteen public options available right here in little ol’ Waverly, Iowa! That is, if you even bother to venture out at all, for there is countless variety on the television and the internet to suit every felt need, taste, and itching ear.

But then, perhaps you came out into the wilderness this morning for a different reason. Perhaps you came out to hear the Word of the Lord, a Word of condemning Law and a Word of consoling Gospel. What have you come out to see? A prophet, a mouthpiece for the Lord? Yes, they are in the wilderness too, thanks be to God! However, they can take a little more effort to find, and they don’t always look and sound like what you might think. But, you will know them by the Word that they proclaim, teach, and confess, for it will not be the opinions and platitudes of men, but it will be the Word of the Lord. Quite often it may seem harsh, for the Word of a prophet will not leave you comfortable in your sin. But, if you are willing to receive the Word of the prophet and to confess your sin, then he will have even greater Words of comfort and hope for you. And, he may not be the most charismatic of men, arrayed with the symbols of worldly success, preaching to packed houses, standing room only, but he will be an instrument of God’s grace to bring you forgiveness, life and salvation through the Words and Wounds of Jesus.

Who are these prophets of the Lord today? They are the pastors, ministers, and servants of the Lord placed under Holy Orders to tend His flock until He comes. They continue in the ways of John the Baptist, preparing the way for the Lord by preaching repentance and by baptizing for the forgiveness of sins. But they also point to Christ and His suffering, death, and resurrection as the source and reason of your forgiveness and they deliver to you the gifts He died to give you: His Gospel Word, Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and His Holy Supper. These treasures do not belong to them, but only their faults are their own, and for these they are responsible to Christ alone. For, what matter is the condemnation of men if Christ approves, and what matter is the approval of men if Christ condemns? You should receive them as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. And, as stewards, faithfulness and trustworthiness is their only duty and their Master alone is judge.

Like John the Baptist, God’s stewards prepare the way for Christ’s Second Advent in this wilderness world of sin and death. Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, they proclaim God’s Word of comfort that Jerusalem’s warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. The Church of Christ is this New Jerusalem, redeemed in Jesus’ blood. Now is the time in which She waits and watches in hopeful expectation for the return of Her Bridegroom, Her Husband, Lord, and Savior Jesus Christ. And, during Her time of waiting, God has sent His stewards, His pastors and servants of Christ, to guard and protect and to prepare the Church for the Advent of Her Lord. The Words they speak are His Words. The Gifts they distribute are His Gifts. Repent, believe, and receive; they are for you, and they were bought with a price.

“What did you go out into the wilderness to see?” asks Jesus. What were you looking for? What did you expect to find? What did you hope to hear? Not everyone was attracted to John the Baptist. He used harsh words. He was unrelenting in His conviction and message. He did not look like the well-dressed and groomed rabbis and Pharisees. Because of his preaching and teaching, John found himself in Herod’s prison awaiting execution. John knew that people, even his own disciples, would be scandalized by his imprisonment and that they would interpret it as either John’s failing or God’s failing. Indeed, today men routinely reject preachers who faithfully and truthfully proclaim and teach God’s Word and who remain unflinching even when that Word stands in opposition to popular worldly views. Additionally, they judge the effectiveness and the veracity of a preacher’s ministry by worldly standards of quantitative and monetary success. Thus, John sent his own disciples to Jesus that they might hear from His own lips that everything was proceeding just as God’s Word by the prophets had foretold, indeed, what they have both heard and seen for themselves: 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. John’s disciples had witnessed these very things which were in direct fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy concerning the Messiah. Though we often have expectations concerning how God should act and what God should do, Jesus teaches us to look rather to what He has said and done. Our false expectations set up stumbling blocks for us and for others which put them and us at risk of tripping and falling into sin and unbelief. Thus Jesus concluded His Words to John’s disciples saying, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

But, too often we are offended and scandalized by Him. We are offended and scandalized by disease, suffering, and death. We are offended and scandalized by the wickedness and evil of men in this world. We are offended and scandalized by the lies, deceptions, and treacheries that men utilize in their dealings with one another. However, do not be offended and scandalized, for such have men and the world always been and even your Jesus has suffered in this way and He has told you that you, His disciples, will be treated just as He was treated.

That is why Jesus then turned to the crowd who was gathered around Him and asked them, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?” What were your expectations? Were they in accord with the Word of the Lord? If you came out into the wilderness expecting to see a man having no convictions, easily swayed by the ways and wiles of this world, then your expectations were wrong. If you came out into the wilderness expecting to see a man dressed in soft clothing, taking delight in material comfort and excess and encouraging you to do the same, then your expectations were wrong. If you came out into the wilderness to hear a word of platitudes and cheap grace, leaving you complacent in your sinful thoughts, words, and deeds, then your expectations were wrong. Or, did you actually come out into the wilderness to hear a prophet, a man of God who will tell you, not what you want to hear, but what God wants you to hear and what you need to hear, that you might repent of your sins and receive forgiveness and comfort, life, and salvation in and through Jesus Christ? If so, then I tell you, you have found a prophet, indeed, 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.’ Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.”

And yet, “the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” For, John was the forerunner; he was sent to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. John was the last of the Old Testament prophets, supplanted by those who witnessed the words and teachings, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, the Apostles of our Lord, even the pastors of the Church of Christ, and you, dear children of God in Christ Jesus. For, you are ones who live on the other side of Christ’s victory over death and the grave. You live in the eternal eighth day, a day on which the sun will never set, a day into which little Joseph was baptized moments ago, so that even though you die, you will live eternally in Jesus Christ our Lord. Jesus’ victory is your victory, now, even in the face of lies and corruption, poverty and war, disease, suffering, and death. Blessed is the one who is not offended by Him.

Therefore, “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind,” that your expectations may be shaped and normed by God’s Word kept and fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Give no regard, then, to worldly and fleshly judgments and evaluations when it comes to the mysteries of Christ and His stewards. “Do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.” For, He has come and all things have been fulfilled just as has been written by the prophets. And, He is coming, and all that dwell in darkness will be exposed in His glorious light. And, He comes to you, now, and “His reward is with him, and His recompense before Him. He will tend His flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs in His arms; He will carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.” Blessed is the one who is not offended by Him. “Behold your God!”

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Advent Evening Prayer in the Second Week of Advent - Populus Zion


Malachi 3:1-7b; Malachi 4:1-6


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

The name Malachi is derived from the Hebrew word mal’âḵ, which means herald, messenger, or angel. Following their return from exile in Babylon, the rebuilding of Jerusalem and her walls and the temple of the LORD, still there remained sinful corruption among the children of the LORD, particularly among the priesthood who had become lax in their service and sacrifices and degenerate in their lifestyle, divorcing their first partners and marrying pagan wives. Additionally, the people failed to pay their sacred tithes to the LORD causing the Levites to suffer for want and need. Because of this, the LORD sent Malachi to herald a message of both Law and Gospel. The Law proclaimed that Israel and Judah would face sorrow and suffering the result of their sinful rebellion, idolatry, and apostasy. The Gospel, however, proclaimed that the LORD still loved His children and that He would use their sorrow and suffering to discipline them and to make them pure and holy before Him, and that He would send them a Savior, the Messiah, who would accomplish this for them.

“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.” While the Hebrew word for messenger is the same as for the name Malachi, the prophet is not the referent here. The messenger Malachi was sent to proclaim was not himself, but one who would prepare the way for the coming of the LORD. For the LORD God of Israel and Judah and of the Gentiles was coming in the flesh to visit His people, and as servants would prepare the road the king would travel upon, filling in the potholes and leveling the rough and high places before him so that his chariot could ride free and smooth, so would this messenger prepare the hearts of the people to receive their LORD. The messenger would do this by preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins, a turning away from sin and a return to the LORD, His Word, and Commandments. The preaching of the Law must crush and level our mountains of pride and self-righteousness, while the preaching of the Gospel must fill in the valleys and pits of hopelessness and despair that sin and guilt has driven us into.

That messenger would be John the Baptist. The LORD compared John the Baptist to the great prophet Elijah: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.” Indeed, there were many similarities between John and Elijah: Both men preached a message of repentance and warned of coming destruction. Both men dressed in camel’s hair and lived in the wilderness. Both men spoke powerfully against kings and had powerful enemies. They were both the LORD’s messengers preparing the way for His coming. They were tasked with the vocation of preaching the Law so that men should repent before the LORD’s coming and so meet Him in faith to their great blessing rather than meet Him in sin and unbelief to their destruction. Repentance is marked by a changing of the heart towards God and towards our fellow men: “And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”

The prophecy of the messenger, of Elijah, is a Messianic prophecy accepted and believed by Christians and Jews alike. Indeed, to this very day observant Jews leave an empty chair at their seder tables for Elijah, hoping for the coming of the Messiah “next year in Jerusalem.” The faithful remnant in John’s and Jesus’ day were still watching and waiting for the coming of Elijah. They even asked John himself, “Are you Elijah?” John denied it saying, “I am not.” Nonetheless, Jesus said of John, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” “For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

John’s message was clear and simple, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” After John’s death, Jesus took up that exact same message. John was not the Messiah, but he was the messenger sent to prepare His way. John was not Elijah the prophet, for Elijah had been taken up to heaven in a whirlwind and later appeared with Jesus and Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration before Jesus’ Passion. John was not literally Elijah, but he came in the spirit and the power of Elijah and he proclaimed the same message, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near.”

Whether the Scripture calls it the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven, they both refer to the same thing, to the same person, to Jesus the Christ who is God as a man come to visit His people. Jesus is the promised Messiah whose way John the Baptist prepared. John and Jesus together are the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy. Jesus is the LORD who was sought by the faithful who came suddenly to His temple. That is precisely what Simeon and Anna confessed when Mary and Joseph presented the infant Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem. Simeon confessed, “my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” Likewise, Anna “began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.” Those who receive Him in faith will be filled with joy; they will go out leaping like calves from the stall. But those who remain arrogant and evil will be set ablaze and become like stubble and ashes under their feet.

Law and Gospel: O Lord, how shall I meet you? The LORD has sent His messengers to prepare your hearts to receive Him in faith. Whether it is Elijah, or John, or Paul, or your pastor, the message remains the same: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” The kingdom of God is at hand in the person of Jesus, the Word of God made flesh and dwelling among us. We meet Him in faith when we hearken to His Word and live our lives according to it. We meet Him in faith when we repent of our sins and receive His absolution. We meet Him in faith when we eat and drink His body and blood in His Supper and commune with Him, a foretaste of the communion we will enjoy with Him forever in heaven.

“But, who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” The answer to that question is that no one can endure that day, “For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap.” When the Messiah comes He will purify His people of their sins and make them holy before the LORD, imputing to them His own righteousness. He will make the offering of His people pleasing to the LORD once again. This is what the LORD has done for His people in Jesus Christ. The day of His coming was first most His incarnation, when Gabriel announced to Mary that she would conceive and bear a son who would be the Son of God. Then the Word of God became flesh and made His dwelling amongst us. However, the day of His coming was also the day that Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan. Then heaven was opened to Him as the Father proclaimed Jesus to be His only-begotten Son with whom He is fully pleased, and the Holy Spirit fell upon Him and remained with Him. And the day of His coming was also the day of Jesus’ death upon the cross. There the Son of God bore the full weight of His Father’s wrath against our sin so that it was no more for those who believe and are baptized into Jesus Christ.

Still, Christ is coming again, and still we must be prepared for His coming. Even as we remember His first advent as the Babe of Bethlehem, which we celebrate at Christmas, we are preparing for his second advent when He will come as King and Judge on the Last Day. We prepare for that day still by hearing and remaining in His Word, by receiving His gifts, and by loving and serving all with the gifts He has given us. This preparation happens daily, weekly, and annually until He comes that we might be prepared for our redemption and go out to meet Him when He comes in glory like calves leaping from their stalls. Behold!

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.