Sunday, December 31, 2017

GUEST POST: Sermon for 12/31/17--The Sunday After Christmas

Our guest preacher at St. Peter and Bethel this morning is none other than Stefan Gramenz, member of St. Peter and seminary student in the final year of his Master of Divinity Studies. What a pleasure and blessing to have him around for the holidays! 

This Sunday, like the Sunday just after Easter, is usually a little anticlimactic - it doesn’t seem to measure up to the happiness and the excitement of Christmas a few days ago. Then, we sang all of the hymns that everyone waits for all year, we heard the story of Jesus’ birth from Luke’s Gospel, and many of our families got together and observed our usual Christmas traditions: eating, and opening gifts, and everything else we love about Christmas.

But what about now? The angels are nowhere in sight, the shepherds have gone back to their sheep, and that manger that Jesus was laying in is being used as a feeding trough again. And for us, it’s back to ordinary, everyday life. Back to school, back to work, back from vacation. And so it is for the holy family in the Gospel lesson today. They’re back to everyday life, back to the ordinary way of doing things. They’ve left Bethlehem, and they’ve gone up to Jerusalem and into the temple, so that they can fulfill the Law of God that said that every firstborn male must be presented in the temple to the Lord God.

And so we come to Simeon. Like the holy family, Simeon was not any ordinary man. St. Luke tells us that Simeon was unique: the Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would not see death until he had seen the Lord’s Christ.

Can you imagine what life must have been like for Simeon? He lived every day knowing that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Christ. He went to sleep every night and opened his eyes every morning with the hope and expectation that today could be the day! Today could be the day that he would finally see the Christ. In a way, Simeon stands in for all the faithful people of God over the centuries. From Adam and Eve to Abraham and David and Isaiah, God promised that he would send the Christ to save his people. So Simeon stands there, himself representing all the Old Testament people of God who waited and watched, morning and night, for the coming of the Christ. All the people who lived under the Law of God, to whom God had promised the Messiah, and who had died trusting in that promise.

And so Simeon stands there in the temple, waiting; the last in a long line of the faithful who have waited for the Christ. But this Christ isn’t like anything that anyone ever expected. This Christ didn’t return to his temple in a blaze of glory and triumph, so that everyone would know that he had arrived. No, he returns as an infant, just like any other boy. Simeon only knows who he is because the Holy Spirit told him. So Simeon comes to meet the Holy Family, and the three of them - Simeon, Mary, and Joseph - stand together, holding Jesus, in the middle of the ordinary crowds of people coming and going and praying and making sacrifices and offering incense. Nobody  else knows. Nobody else realizes what is happening.

We’re not all that different. Here we are, gathered in the presence of Christ: a few people who have stopped what they are doing, who have put our lives on hold, and have come here, because Jesus holds our attention. While others have moved on from Christmas, while others go on with their ordinary lives and jobs, we realize that Jesus is still here, and that we aren’t done with Christmas yet. We’re only on the seventh day of Christmas, after all.

And the Holy Spirit isn’t quite done with Simeon yet. He’s told Simeon that this child is the one, and now Simeon turns to Mary, and speaks again, saying, “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel.” Because Christmas isn’t all about stars and angels and shepherds. Christmas is about Jesus, about the God who is incarnate, who takes on human flesh and becomes a Child. And this child, this Jesus, will be the cause of people falling and rising, dying and being resurrected. The coming of Christ means death for the old ways of life - no more animal sacrifices, no more presentation of firstborn boys in the temple, no more burnt offerings. The coming of Christ means that the kingdom of God is expanding beyond the borders of Israel. It means new life and new hope for the whole world.

And now one more person in the temple notices. An eighty-four-year-old woman named Anna, who stays in the temple night and day, fasting and praying. She, too, sees Jesus. And she, like the shepherds before her, cannot contain her joy, but goes out and tells the whole city about the Christ, and about the coming redemption of God.
And now you find yourself in the place of Anna and Simeon. You find yourself in the house of God, ready to approach the presence of Jesus in his holy sacrament. You see the incarnation again, as Jesus descends from heaven and takes his place beneath the forms of bread and wine. But you, unlike Simeon, don’t gather up an infant in your arms. You receive Jesus in your mouth.

So do as Simeon did, and receive him here in faith and in joy. Then live as Simeon lived. Wake up every morning with the joy that today could be the day your Savior returns. Live as Anna lived, waiting out your life in prayer and fasting and telling others about Jesus. And when you die, die as Simeon died. Depart in peace, knowing that the same Lord that you have seen here beneath a veil, you will see one day face to face with your own eyes.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Sermon for 12/25/17: The Nativity of Our Lord

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Union with God

Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen. 

The evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke describe the birth of our Lord as though they were walking with the Lord on the earth. John, however, seems as if he is flying in heaven with the Lord. He says very little about our Lord's deeds, focusing instead on the eternal power of Christ's divinity. While everyone else is rejoicing that a baby has been born, John reminds you that this little Child in Bethlehem is God in the flesh. While others capture your emotions with the gruesomeness of Christ's suffering and death, John will not let you forget that they are killing God: that your God bleeds, suffers, dies, descends to hell, and rises from the dead.
Why? Precisely for this reason: your salvation is no salvation if your Savior is nothing more than a super hero—a man who outdoes all men in words and deeds, in life and death. But if He is also completely God—your God living in flesh like yours—then, and only then, can He truly do all these things for your benefit, and for your salvation. Yes, an ordinary man might die in your place. But only God in the flesh can bear your infirmities, fight your demons, suffer your sufferings, endure your hell, and die your death. And when this God in the flesh rises from the dead, then you also arise; when He ascends into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father, then you also ascend and sit with your Maker and Redeemer.
It is no exaggeration to say that this is what matters most is your relationship with God. The money you accumulate and spend, the things you desire, the food you crave, even the people you love or abuse—all of that will do you no good as you head to the grave. But where you are with the God who made you—that matters most. And what is most important is not that you've learned facts about God. What's most important is a right relationship, an intimacy, a bond, not just of the heart or mind but of your whole being—and God being reconciled with you.
That intimacy and bond is called communion—a holy union between God and you, one that is foreign now but was designed by the Lord to be common when He first made man and woman. We were created to grow and mature forever in our love for God, our life in Him. And for this reason, Christ Jesus would have been born even if there had been no sin and death. His birth in our flesh would have cemented our communion in God. But sin and death simply added to the reason for our Lord's birth. Now, God from the beginning had to become man so that He could free you from your death sentence and rescue you from your false belief in devilish lies, and deliver you from your sinful desires. And then, by accomplishing all that in His suffering and death, God in the flesh would also be able to restore the original intimacy and reinstate you into communion in God.
The other evangelists point to this purpose for Our Lord's birth and life and death. But St John makes it clearest of all when he says that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. For the Lord's time here on earth was not sticking a toe in to test the waters. He put in His time here so that everything that was made through Him might also be re-created by Him, and returned to Him. And John reminds us that this happens to as many as receive Him by faith and, consequently, in the Sacraments. Those who do are the children of God. They believe in His name. And they are given a second and higher birth—not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. This is the glory and the miracle of our Lord's birth from the blessed Virgin Mary. It is not just the arrival of the world's best man. This is the Son of God. In the name of the Father and of the Son (†) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always.  Amen.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Sermon for 12/24/17: Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord

This is the conclusion of my "Fear Not" sermon series.

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“Fear Not!”

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

            The command, “Fear not!” appears 170 times in the King James Version of the Bible. It seems as if man needs constant reassurance from the Lord. But that makes sense. Man was not created to be fearful. After all, Adam and Eve were the crown of God’s creation. Into their hands God gave mastery over every plant and animal, so Adam and Eve had nothing to fear from creatures that would send us fleeing in terror. They knew nothing of serial killers or terrorists. They had no need to worry about the forces of nature. And they knew nothing of sin. It wasn’t until they disobeyed the Word of God—until they were goaded by the satanic serpent to doubt the Law of God and partake of the forbidden fruit—that they knew what fear was. They hid themselves in the Garden, sewing garments to cover the shame they had never felt before. They finally knew fear—and it was not the beasts nor the plants that caused this fear. In their sin, they feared God. Adam said, I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself. In disobeying the Word of God, in partaking of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, humanity learned how to be afraid, and we’ve been afraid ever since. We’re afraid of snakes and mice and spiders and lions and tigers and bears. We’re afraid of ice storms, hurricanes, blizzards, tornadoes, too much rain and not enough rain. We’re afraid of the pains in our bodies and the ailments that afflict our minds. And, most of all, like Adam and Eve, we are terrified of the righteous wrath and justice of a holy and omnipotent God.
            It is to His fearful children that God sends His messengers. Angels appear to Mary and Joseph, to Zechariah, to shepherds, and to countless others in the Bible. But these are holy messengers of God who manifest His power and holiness, and sinners cringe and fall on their faces before the holiness of God. So before they can share God’s Gospel message with them, the angels must tell their hearers, “Fear not!” Do not be afraid. I’m here with good news for you from God! To Mary and Joseph, the angels gave the message that they would be the earthly parents of the promised Savior. And then, finally, the angels told the shepherds of the birth of the promised Savior, the one who would bring peace on earth and God’s good will to the fear-filled hearts of sinners by bearing the price of their sin on the terrible, terrifying cross.
            Sending angels is no longer God’s preferred method of delivering good news to His people. But He hasn’t stopped sending messengers. Instead of sending angels who instill fear just by their appearance, He now sends humble, sinful men. But still, their message is, “Do not be afraid!” You no longer have any reason to fear the righteous wrath of God, for your Savior Jesus—Immanuel, God in flesh—has come, and He has suffered and died bearing that wrath in your place. He rose up in triumph, leaving your fear behind in the tomb, so you would be free to serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of [your] life.”
            My brothers and sisters in Christ, beloved children of God, it is my privilege and pleasure as a humble messenger of God to bring you good tidings of great joy, which is for you, for your neighbor, for all people. Born to you is your King, your Temple, your Refuge and Strength. Born to you is your Savior. He is Christ the Lord. “Do not be afraid!” In the name of the Father and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

            The peace of God which passes all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.

Sermon for 12/24/17: Fourth Sunday in Advent

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All About Jesus

Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen. 

We live in a country where individualism is prized. The more unique you are, or the more willing you are to make your own way in the world, the better you’ll do. That’s good for a lot of things, but it’s not very good for Christians in our walk of faith. Our faith is at its strongest when we partake of communion with Christ and His Church. But it’s all too tempting to believe that we can survive the temptations of the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh by our own strength.
John the Baptist knows a thing or two about the temptations we feel: the temptation of pride; the temptation to believe that isolation is good. Didn’t he survive very well on his own in the wilderness? He made his own clothing of skins and lived on a diet of locusts and honey. He didn’t need disciples; they sought him out. And then there were the other people who sought him out. The Jews sent Levites to John, and they treated him like he was someone special. They played to his pride with the questions they asked. They thought he was the Christ or the resurrected Elijah or the great Prophet. That kind of attention would go a long way in polite society.
But John does not want to take the focus off Christ. He doesn’t want people talking about John or his preaching or his baptism. He doesn’t want his message lost in all the noise about himself. But most of all, John doesn’t want to miss out on being a member of Christ and his holy Body. So he will sacrifice everything about himself so that he doesn’t lose his portion of the kingdom of heaven.
John models true humility for us as we approach the celebration of our Lord’s holy birth. How can we celebrate the advent of our Savior if we think we don’t need him? How can we receive this Christ and Messiah in our vulnerable flesh if we will not deny ourselves? How can we worship Christ as King if we still cling to the notion that we can live on our own? How can we glorify God for His goodwill toward us and His merciful peace in the Sacrament if we think we can live apart from His holy Body?
St. John is telling those Levites that it’s all about Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. It’s all about this Jesus who both existed before I did, and who now comes after me. It’s all about this Jesus whose sandal straps I’m not worthy to untie. He must increase, and I must decrease. He must be the One you talk about and talk to, not me. For your hopes are false if you pin them to anyone or anything other than Him and His holy Body which is His holy Church. That is why John baptized and preached: not to make a name for himself, but to point to the Coming One, so that others might be washed in His saving Blood, and cling to Christ, and commune in Him, and live in His holy Body as He safely takes us through this life into the kingdom of heaven.
God grant unto us the Holy Spirit, that we may receive true humbleness of heart. And in our prayer, let us strive together to shed our lone-wolf status, our pride of distinction and individuality, and instead endeavor to come into closer communion with Christ’s holy Body. For that is how Our Lord’s salvation is bestowed—not through our own merit or worthiness, but by the mercy of God in His Holy Spirit. You have nothing of your own that makes you worthy. But thanks be to God, for Jesus is everything for you: your truth, your life, and your eternal salvation. In the name of the Father and of the Son (†) and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always.  Amen.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Sermon for 12/20/17: Midweek Advent III

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Fear Not: Shepherds

Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

            The shepherds knew a thing or two about fear, and they certainly had reason to know about fear. After all, tending the flock involved many dangers. The sheep themselves are stupid animals, just as likely to walk in the opposite direction as to go where the shepherd leads. And, of course, there are the wolves who are looking for dinner; they want the sheep, but they’ll settle for the shepherd. The nights were long and cold and dark, conditions with dangers all their own. So if they allowed themselves to think about it, they had plenty of reasons to be afraid. And that’s all before the angels show up—you remember: those angels that bear no resemblance to the Hallmark figurines; those angels who reflect the glory of the righteous God; those angels who bear the Word of God like a two-edged sword.

            And these shepherds were, at best, ordinary men. Being a shepherd did not require an advanced degree in theology, or even a degree in shepherding. It didn’t require fancy clothing, though warm clothing would certainly help some nights. It didn’t require a way with words. It required physical fitness to keep up with the sheep, sometimes to carry a sheep, and to be able to fight off wolves and thieves. Ordinary men—sometimes just boys—these shepherds would have no reason to expect that God would have a special message for them. They already knew the Ten Commandments, and they heard the rabbi teaching God’s Word. The shepherds were ordinary people just like us—maybe even more ordinary.

            So why does this message come to these humble shepherds? Why should the shepherds cast off their fear at the appearance of this divine messenger? The angel gives us the answer. The message that the angel delivers is “good news which shall be to all people.” Mary and Joseph may have seemed ordinary, but they were descended from King David himself. But these shepherds were the lowest of the low. We know King Herod was afraid; he thought Jesus was coming to steal his earthly throne. The angel doesn’t come to reassure Herod. The high priests and Pharisees and other religious leaders would be afraid; Jesus was coming to do away with the false piety of these imposters and lead the people to the true Temple, which is the body and blood of Jesus. But the angel didn’t come to them, either. He came to these shepherds. The message isn’t only for the ruling class. The message isn’t only for the religious leaders. It’s for all people, even the humblest shepherd. This is truly good tidings of great joy, for Jesus is a Savior for all people.

            This joyful message, first given to humble shepherds, is for all humble sinners. It is for us: we who kneel before our Lord and admit that we have sinned, we who admit that we fall short of God’s glory, we who admit that we deserve only present and eternal punishment. This joyful message is for shepherds, for doctors and nurses, for prison workers, for teachers, for students, for farmers, for mayors and judges, even for pastors! “Unto you”—unto Jim and Laurie and Jayden and Betty and Shirley and WC and Deb and Dave and Carolyn and Alan—“Unto you is born…a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” He is coming to bring “peace, goodwill toward men.” How will He do that? He has come to die, and in that death He gives us that peace which the world cannot give.

            The true joy and peace of this has everything to do with God’s unconditional gift to us; the giving of Jesus as a full and complete sacrifice to a world that has nothing to offer in return.  Our joy and our peace are not located in check books or credit cards or gifts that are bought and paid for with our silver or gold. Our true Christian joy and peace are found only in the gift of life that is ours in Christ Jesus alone, which He bought and paid for “with His holy and precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.” He has come to die for our salvation, and He is coming again to bring us to be with Him forever. That is our joy and peace. “Do not be afraid!” In the name of the Father and of the Son (†) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Sermon for 12/17/17: Third Sunday in Advent

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Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen. 

Did John send his disciples to Jesus to ease their doubts and fears? Or did he send them so that his own doubts and fears would be eased? It’s a question whose answer divides even the greatest of theologians and preachers. I can honestly say that I have preached from both sides of the fence. On the one hand, Jesus Himself says that there has not been a man born who is greater than John. John preached fire and brimstone in his task, preparing the way of the Lord by preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Surely it took great faith to join the Nazarenes and then to sojourn on his own into the wilderness. And yet, as great as he is, John is a sinner, an heir of the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” as Paul writes to the Romans. Not even John, great as he is, has escaped that verdict.
Whether it’s John or his disciples who need comfort, the disciples come to Jesus with the question: Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?” Are You the Savior who was promised to Adam and Eve? Are You the One whose coming John has preached all this time? If You really are the One, why is John rotting away in prison, awaiting the whim of an adulterous king and his cunning mistress? It seems like a rather poor reward for such faithful service. Shouldn’t the Messiah take better care of His messenger? So tell us, Jesus: Are You the real deal?
These disciples might as well be reading our minds, for we have our own doubts and fears about this Jesus character. “Jesus, I’m a baptized child of God. Why do you allow me to go through these difficulties? Why do You allow cancer to afflict the people I love? Why do You allow people to make my job so frustrating? Why do You allow the weather to create such havoc? Why do You allow terrorists to blow up buildings and kill innocent people? Aren’t You the Messiah? Aren’t You supposed to be taking care of us?” And don’t you know it? Jesus doesn’t jump up and spring John from prison. He doesn’t overthrow the Roman governor. He doesn’t make all the cancer in the world disappear. Murderous disciples of a murderous false prophet of a make-believe god still strap bombs to their chests to kill people. Children still get sick. Employment woes cause all sorts of trouble. Divorce is rampant. And just as John was imprisoned and eventually beheaded for speaking the truth of Herod’s sinfulness, God’s children are persecuted and even killed for confessing the name of Jesus.
No, He doesn’t wave His hand and make evil and suffering disappear. And yet, He does not leave John’s disciples or us without comfort. He speaks of healing the blind, the lame, the leper, the deaf—and then of raising the dead and comforting the poor. And that is what we are: blind to our Lord’s relentless mercy, deaf to His consoling Word, lame in our walk of faith, and diseased with the leprosy of sin. We were dead in our sins.
But in His great mercy, our Lord has ministered to us. He has washed away the leprosy of our sin in the waters of Holy Baptism, where He raised us from our death of sin to new life in righteousness. He has given us the medicine of His holy body and blood. He has opened our ears to hear His Word of forgiveness. He has calmed the storms of our fears with faithful preaching. Our Lord covers sin and eases doubt and delivers from fear.
Our Lord’s answer to John’s question stills the hearts of all the faithful. John’s disciples rejoiced to bring that word to him, and the Baptist clings to that good news even as the executioner swings his axe. And we rejoice to hear that Word as well, for that Word is our shelter in the storm, our light in the darkness, our life as death draws near. In the name of the Father and of the Son (†) and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always.  Amen.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Sermon for 12/13/17: Midweek Advent II

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Fear Not: Joseph

Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Joseph was a good man. He was righteous before God and his community. He was wise, caring, compassionate. If there had been romance novels 2000 years ago, Joseph was the kind of man after whom the novelists would model their male protagonists. He was honorable, just, and considerate, even to someone he thought had wronged him. After all, in our time, it would be a very rare man who would respect his ex and care enough about her to protect her reputation even after she supposedly cheated on him. There are videos all over the Internet with men who shame the women they previously claimed to love. Yeah, the man has been hurt, but that’s no reason for him to scream her infidelities to everyone with an Internet connection. Had he lived today, Joseph would have turned off his computer, put away his phone, and gone to his lawyer with as little fuss as possible. And once the deed was done, once Mary had been set aside with as little fanfare as he could manage, once the pain of betrayal had left his heart, maybe Joseph could have made a wonderful spouse for some other lucky woman.

But yes, he still would have gone ahead with the divorce. He was righteous, after all. Though he would grieve to set Mary aside, Joseph had a reputation to maintain, and Mary’s alleged infidelity would have shamed him and destroyed his reputation. The philosophers, not to mention the Scribes and Pharisees, would have approved of this worldly wise decision. This action balanced justice with fairness, righteousness with mercy. And yes, First Century romance novelists would have swooned in their writing workshops to encounter such a man. To do what is right in the eyes of the world seems wise. Look at how hard it is to live as a Christian today. The wise thing is to deny your faith—to bake the cake, to perform the wedding, to live together before marriage, to laugh at the crude joke—rather than risk the scorn of friends and neighbors. That’s the struggle Joseph faced.
And then the angel appeared to him in a dream to intervene. “Do not be afraid, Joseph, son of David.” What the world counted as righteousness, the Lord called fear. The Lord sent His messenger to calm Joseph’s fear, for things were not what they had seemed. The Child was not the product of infidelity on Mary’s part; this Child was from the Holy Spirit. Mary’s virginity and her vow to Joseph remained intact. This Child, thought to be a sign of Mary’s unfaithfulness, was the promised Messiah. Joseph had wisely, in they eyes of the world, decided to set Mary aside; but the angel gave to Joseph God’s foolish option—foolish in the eyes of the world. The Lord sent His angel to give Joseph a better option than he could work out on his own. The circumstances did not change, but this message allowed Joseph to keep his honor before God and still keep his oath to Mary.
When the angel said, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as wife,” Joseph was freed. Mary had not been unfaithful. She carried in her womb the One who had been promised to their first ancestors, who would crush the head of the satanic serpent. Mary’s pregnancy, which Joseph thought would bring him shame, would instead bring about the end of all the world’s shame and save all people from the wages of sin, for Mary bore in her womb the Child who came to bear all that shame, who came to die to pay the price of all the world’s sin.
In the end, Joseph remained the kind of man romance novelists would drool over. And what’s more, Joseph remained the man he strove to be: righteous before God, honorable among men, and faithful husband to faithful Mary. He was given the responsibility of being the step-father to the Son of God. Joseph lost nothing…nothing except his fear. God released him from his fear, and in doing so provided an earthly father for the Christ Child, the Child who frees us all from our fear, from our sin, from our captivity to death and the power of the devil. So as the angel said to Joseph, our Lord says to you also: “Do not be afraid!” In the name of the Father and of the Son (†) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Sermon for 12/10/17: Second Sunday in Advent

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Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen. 

The signs are all around us. The total solar eclipse back in August? That was a sign. The supermoon this past weekend? That was a sign. The war in Afghanistan? That’s a sign. The Black Lives Matter movement and the Blue Lives Matter movement? Signs. They tell us that Son of Man is coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. No one except God the Father can say exactly when that day will be, but the day is coming, and so is our Lord Jesus Christ. These signs we see constantly, all around us—they are fulfilled on every television, in every newspaper, in every hospital room, in every heart. Yet they’re so constant that we have become numb to them. And they’re so common that we’ve forgotten that these signs point, not to the end of the world, but to the Kingdom of God. And the Kingdom of God is near.
Don’t think that these signs just happen. When you hear of these things, and when your heart is filled with dread because you feel inside yourself what is happening all around you, remember that the Lord is allowing these things to happen. He is using the dread you feel in your heart. And He does this, not to scare you or threaten you or harass you, but to keep you focused on your goal, which is the Kingdom of God. He lets these things happen to you to draw you to Himself and to His Kingdom. After all, the Kingdom of God is not merely an “end of the world” thing. If our goal is to attain the Kingdom of God, then we must now be present, standing in the Kingdom of God on earth.
And where is this Kingdom of God on earth? It is here, present in the Holy Supper. Here we have a foretaste of the Kingdom which we will receive fully on the Last Day. While we long for and anxiously await our Lord’s second coming, we are not left comfortless and empty. Instead, we receive at the Supper an appetizer that wets our appetites for the eternal wedding feast.
How can this be? In the Kingdom of God, here at the Sacrament of the Altar, we receive the Spirit of God. He comes and lives in us. And by these holy mysteries of Word and Sacraments, the Spirit gives us the strength to strive and struggle, to push through and sacrifice, to have patience and trust so that we can endure and finally attain the fullness of the Lord’s kingdom. We do not achieve our goal by our own strength, but in the Holy Spirit.
We were made to live in this Kingdom. Our Lord tells us as much with these words: “Now when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near.” How can we look up? How can we lift up our heads and hearts to the Lord our God? Only because the Father, through His Son, gives us His Holy Spirit in and with the sacramental mysteries that we receive at the Supper.
Let nothing keep you from standing before God at the Holy Supper. Receive here the strength and comfort, the consolation and hope, the joy and gladness that He offers here in His Spirit. When you stand in God’s kingdom at this Feast, then you will have no fear of what is happening all around you. Instead, you will see these horrific signs for what they really are: signals of our Lord’s imminent return, and the realization of your true goal. For Christ is coming soon. Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly! In the name of the Father and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always.  Amen.  

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Sermon for 12/6/17: Midweek Advent I

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Fear Not: Mary

Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

An angel appeared to Mary. It sounds so commonplace to us. “Oh, an angel. How nice. Ho hum.” When we think of angels, we probably think of those adorable little angel figurines with fat cheeks; maybe, if we’re old enough, we think of Michael Landon or Roma Downey and Della Reese. But this was no cutesy, chubby little cherub standing in front of Mary, no mild mannered, soft-spoken guardian in a sweater vest. This is a divine messenger from God, a being who reflects the holiness and righteousness of God. Some accounts count Gabriel among the archangels. A mere human standing before such a being would certainly have reason to be afraid—much like when a police officer, or maybe even a pastor, shows up at your door unannounced, only more terrifying, because at least the police officer and the pastor are common occurrences.
But that’s not what Mary finds so troubling, which is exceptional enough. But what about that news? “Mary, I know you’re a virgin, but you’re gonna have a baby. Oh, and it’s by the Holy Spirit.” How overwhelming is it to hear that you’ll be part of the fulfillment of the most important prophecies ever? You may recall that Isaiah said to King Ahaz, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.” You may even recall what God said to Adam and Eve: I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.” This Son, this Seed of a woman, this Child—promised to Adam and Eve, to Abraham the Patriarch, to King David, to King Ahaz, and to all those who clung by faith to that promise—this Child shall be the One to crush the head of the serpent. And Mary—sweet, virginal, innocent Mary—was chosen by God to be the Mother of God.
And that’s what so troubling to Mary. Gabriel wasn’t kidding when He said, “The Lord is with you.” The Lord through whom all things were made would reside in her womb. The Word made flesh to dwell among us would grow inside her until He would be born in Bethlehem. It would not be easy for Mary. She would be the object of scorn. Joseph, her betrothed, would seek to divorce her. And that’s just before the Child was born. Later, she would run through the streets of Jerusalem, looking for the Child who had wandered away from her to be in “His Father’s house.” Finally, she would stand at the foot of the cross upon which her Son would hang, weeping as she watched Him die. She may not have known all the details at first, but she knew this would be a rough life. Nevertheless she answered Gabriel, Let it be to me according to your word.” And Mary would be okay. After all, the Lord is with her.
And the same is true for you: The Lord is with you. You may not have the same struggles as Mary—certainly none of you are pregnant with the Messiah—but everyone has difficulties. No matter your vocation—father or mother, son or daughter, boss or worker, teacher or student, pastor or layperson, and all the rest—the Lord has given you tasks, and each one carries its own troubles, especially when you try to live according to your faith. Very little is sure.
But the one thing you can be sure of is this: the Lord is with you. And this is not some wishful thinking presence. He is with you physically, in the flesh, just as present with you now as He was in Mary’s womb. The Word became flesh. He has never stopped being flesh, and He has never stopped being present with you. He placed His name upon you in the waters of Holy Baptism. He speaks His Word into your ear—the same Word by which all things were created. He feeds you with His own flesh and blood, hidden in and under the bread and wine. He is present with you. Find Him in the font. Find him on the altar. Find Him where His Word is preached in truth and purity. Don’t worry that you can’t see Him; you have His promise, and His Word does not fail. So whatever it is that you face in your life, whatever the challenge, know this: the Lord is with you. “Do not be afraid!” In the name of the Father and of the Son (†) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Sermon for 12/3/17: First Sunday in Advent

Sorry it's been a while. I've been trying to get things back on track after a family adventure, and the blog has been a low priority. Thank you for your patience. 

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Greeting the Coming King

Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Jesus Christ—the Lord, the Savior, the King—He’s coming! The crowd was electric. Here comes Jesus, the descendant of King David, riding a donkey into the holy city, just like his famous ancestor did. Surely He is coming to save us from these evil Romans and from King Herod. The disciples had already put their cloaks on the donkey to make it fit for the King; the crowd followed suit, people laying their cloaks on the road and waving palm branches as if Jesus was on His way to be crowned.
He did not come to be that kind of king. Anyone who had paid attention to Him during His earthly ministry would know that. When Jesus was born, the Magi came to Herod, seeking the One who would be King of the Jews; old King Herod thought there was a usurper. But He did not come to be that kind of king. When He fed the 5,000, they wanted to crown Him king for the sake of His miraculous food. But He did not come to be that kind of king. The only two thrones Jesus would know would be the manger where He lay at His birth and the cross where He was raised up before those He came to save. He did not come to be an earthly king. He came to die.
Still, He was always greeted as King. When Jesus was born, the angels sang songs to the glory of God concerning the newborn Savior King. The magi greeted Him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. When Jesus entered into Jerusalem, riding a donkey, He was greeted with palm branches and shouts: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” Even the Roman soldiers and Pilate the Governor hailed Jesus as King, even though it was in mockery. They adorned Him with a crown of thorns, wrapping Him in purple robes, placing a stick as a scepter in His hand; they knelt before Him; Pilate hung a sign over Christ’s head in which he called Jesus “King of the Jews.” Everyone knows: when Jesus comes, He comes as King.
This is the season of Advent. It’s as true today as it was two-thousand years ago: Jesus Christ, the Lord, the Savior, the King, is coming! So how do we greet Him appropriately? After all, “He comes to judge the nations, a terror to His foes, a light of consolation and blessed hope to those who love the lord’s appearing.” How does one greet a King? One honors him. Whether He’s the most wonderful king ever or the stingiest miser ever to sit on a throne, one does not dare to turn one’s back on the king. And so we kneel before Him. And then we beg for His indulgence. This morning it sounded like this: “Stir up, we implore you, your power, O Lord, and come that by your protection we may be rescued from the threatening perils of our sins and be saved by your mighty deliverance; for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.”
And as the best of kings will do, He will answer graciously. He will, indeed, save us from our sins. He came into Jerusalem, heading for the cross. He came to die, and in doing so, to save us from our sins and from the death our sins earned us. After three days He rose again so that we would never die. He delivers that salvation to us this day in His body and blood, given for us to eat and drink for the remission of our sins.
This Advent season, as we kneel before our King, the only hope that we sinners have to rescue us from the “threatening perils” of our sins is the coming of our Lord—Jesus coming to us with His Cross-won gifts in the Sacrament of the Altar. What a wonderful gift from our most gracious King! “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” In the name of the Father and of the Son (†) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.