Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sunday after Christmas

Sermon on Luke 2:22-40
For Our Savior Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
December 28, 2008 (The Sunday after Christmas)

We’re still celebrating Christmas. Only a few days have gone by, and the rest of the world has forgotten about Christmas entirely. And understandably so; after all, the way the world celebrates Christmas, with all the commercialism, the guilt trips about buying presents for family members, the well-meaning but still law-oriented guilt trips against commercialism about remembering the “true meaning of Christmas” (whatever in the world that is when you can’t talk about Christ), and so on, it’s probably best that the world tends to drop the whole subject immediately after December 25th. But here in the Church the season that centers around Christmas lasts all the way from the First Sunday in Advent through the Transfiguration of our Lord. And the Christmas season in the narrow sense starts in the evening on December 24th and goes through December 5th. The Sunday after Christmas commemorates the occasion when Jesus was presented in the Temple as were all Israelite boys, at the same time their mothers were ritually purified after childbirth.

Of course, in Jesus’ case, something special was going on. The temple in Jerusalem had been built as the place where the ancient people of God were to go to meet Him, to offer sacrifices according to the Law of Moses, to pray, and to worship. It was one of the major ways in which God’s people were to recognize Him as their God over against any and every lying spirit who might try to pretend to be Him, namely that they worshiped the God who had promised to be present to bless His people in this place. But the baby presented in the temple is that same God who has promised to meet His people there. And He’s not just present in a cloud of glory, the way He was in the tabernacle built by Moses or the original temple that Solomon had built, He is present clothed in human flesh, as a 40-day-old infant in His mother’s arms. Now, remember that the temple which stood in Jerusalem at the time was a replica of the original temple that Solomon had built. That temple had been destroyed, and the Ark of the Covenant, the very center of God’s promises to be present with His people, lost, when God’s people were forced into exile in Babylon for 70 long years. And yet the prophets had said that the glory of the second temple would be greater than the first. Today’s Gospel lesson is where that prophecy is fulfilled. A new Ark of the Covenant enters the temple and is recognized by several elderly representatives of God’s Old Testament people as the place of God’s presence with them. The Son of God, now clothed in infant human flesh, visits the place where He once dwelt in, with, and under a building and a gold-covered box of wood.

Okay, well, so what? I mean, it’s kind of neat to see how the events in Christ’s early life tie in to the institutions of the Old Testament religion to show that Christ is the fulfillment of that religion. It gives us an answer for those who claim to follow the Old Testament but reject the one we know to be the Messiah. But how does this strengthen our faith in the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation? How does watching the infant Jesus enter the Temple help us as we daily fight against our own sinful natures as well as the effects of sin in the world around us?

Remember, I referred to Jesus’ body and blood, His human flesh which He took from St. Mary, as the new Ark of the Covenant, the new physical location of God’s presence among His people. Actually, it’s more than that. Jesus’ body and blood are the very sacrifice by which the New Testament which God has made with us is sealed. The same body and blood which entered the old temple as an infant, were, 30-some years later, broken and shed in the once-for-all sacrifice for your sins and mine. The same temple which He first entered in today’s Gospel lesson, was fundamentally changed by the opening of the Holy of Holies on Good Friday. The curtain was ripped in two. God’s people now can rest assured that they have direct access to Him, because the wall of separation has been torn down. The sin which separated us from Him has been done away with by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and we now can call Him our Father, and the Christ who won this for us, our Brother. All of this is shown already in Christ’s infancy when several of God’s Old Testament Christians recognize Him as the Ark and the Sacrifice and the Presence of God.

Look around you. You, too, are sitting in God’s temple right now. This building is God’s house. It is the place where He is present to save you. Wherever two or three are gathered in His name, that is, for the preaching of His Word and the administration of His Sacraments, there is He among them. And not just spiritually, not just in a vision of a cloud or a bright light. He’s present here in, with, and under physical things. The water of baptism. The Word spoken by the pastor and confessed by all Christians, who are His baptized priests. And especially the bread and the wine which are the very body and blood of Him who sacrificed Himself for us. The same body and blood which were present in the second Temple in Jerusalem are present for you now, here. The Christian Church, wherever it manifests itself, including right here in Norwood Park, is nothing less than the temple where the new Ark of the Covenant, Christ’s own body and blood, are present for the forgiveness and restoration of His people. It is the place where God’s people go to meet Him and bask in His presence. It is the place where He promises you, like He promised Simeon, that He will be with you and give you eternal salvation. It is the place where He gives you the promise that even death is but the gate of everlasting life for you, and that you already partake of that life as you eat and drink the body and blood of our Lord, the sacrifice for your sins, the physical means by which He is really present to heal and forgive you. Here is the presence of God. Lord, now let your servant depart in peace. Amen.

✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

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