Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Circumcision and Naming of our Lord

Sermon on Luke 2:21
For Our Savior’s Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
December 31, 2008 (The Circumcision and Name of Jesus)

Tomorrow is known in the Church’s calendar as the “Circumcision and Naming of Jesus.” It is the day when the Church remembers the fact that Christ our Lord was circumcised according to the Law of Moses on the eighth day of His life, so that He would be subject to the Law in our behalf. But, you say, “I thought that this was New Year’s Eve and that tomorrow is New Year’s Day!” Well, you’re right. According to the world’s calendar, this is the last day of the calendar year, and at midnight tonight a new calendar year will begin. But in the Church, things are a little different. We aren’t of the world, and so we don’t always do things the way the world does them. According to the Church’s calendar the year 2008 started over a month ago, way back on the first Sunday in Advent. Tomorrow according to the Church’s calendar is the eighth day of Christmas. And since Jesus was, like all Jewish boys, circumcised on the eighth day of his life, as well as officially given His name, we celebrate this fact on the eighth day of Christmas, which happens to be January 1. We’re having the service tonight rather than tomorrow morning because that’s the custom here, and besides, it’s easier to get people into church before, rather than after, the New Years parties, myself included. We celebrate the fact that He was put into subjection under the Law of Moses so that He could redeem those who were under the Law. We celebrate the fact that by fulfilling the Law for us He is our Savior, and that is what His name means.

Of course, even though we are not of the world, we still do live in it. We still use the same banks and cars and roads and post office and water and electricity and everything else that those around us use, and we still are subject to the same government rules and regulations. And so in our day to day lives, we Christians use the same calendar that everyone else uses, especially since that calendar was originally intended to be based on the date our Savior was born. Now, it’s true that the people who came up with our current system of numbering years miscalculated, because Christ was most likely born in what according to our current calendar would work out to be 5 B.C. But it’s still supposed to be based on His birth. In any case, it’s the calendar that everybody uses, and so we use it too. We too will be celebrating the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009 tonight. And this causes us to reflect back upon the year that has gone by all too quickly and to look ahead and wonder what the future will bring us. Will the congregation call a full-time pastor, whether me or someone else? How do we move forward after Pastor Berg’s sudden resignation? Each of us may have concerns relating to our own health or finances, or both, or the health of loved ones. A man has been elected President who promises to bring change to our nation. What sort of change is he talking about? Is it ultimately going to be a change that’s healthy or unhealthy for us as individuals? What about our state government, and the Senate seat representing us which was vacated by the man who was elected President? What will happen with that particular soap opera? We’re still involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that region of the world continues to be highly unstable, not to mention that violence has once again flared up between the Israelis and Palestinians.

But the festival we celebrate in the Church tonight and tomorrow calls us away from all of this gazing into the past or the future which is so often the subject of New Year’s thoughts and conversations, and calls us to fix our eyes upon Jesus. Our Lord Jesus Christ was born into the world to take our place. We have not fulfilled, and cannot fulfill, the Law of God perfectly. If it were up to us we would only earn eternal death and damnation by our sins. But instead, Christ came to take our human nature upon Himself and live a life obedient to the Law so that His innocent death would be the price we deserved. He came to be our substitute, to fulfill the Law for us. And tonight we observe the beginnings of that process, as He is subjected to the first ritual that every Jewish boy had to endure according to the Law of Moses. For Himself, He need not have had to be circumcised, just as for His own sake He did not need John to baptize Him in the Jordan river 30 years later. But for our sake He did these things so that we might be freed from the curse and the guilty verdict that otherwise would have been handed down against us for our sins against the Law.

This was also when Jewish boys were given their names, just as often we think of a baby’s name becoming truly his name before God when that baby is baptized. But the name this child was given is Jesus. Jesus is the Greek way of pronouncing the Hebrew name Y’shua, or Joshua, which means “The Lord Saves.” The entire identity of Jesus was taken up in His purpose. Even the name that He took as a human being witnessed to His divine mission. Even His very name proclaims the blessed Gospel of the forgiveness of sins to us. You see, saving us wasn’t just something our Lord did. It is His identity. He is the Savior. That’s what being God means, that He provides for, and therefore also saves, His people.

It is precisely this, His name, and His fulfilling of the Law of God in the stead of us who have not fulfilled, and can never fulfill it, that gives us comfort, even in these troubled times. Whatever next year brings, whether peace or war, whether prosperity or poverty, whether resolution of our state’s current political drama or further infighting and embarrassment on the part of our elected officials, we are comforted by the knowledge that we have a Savior who has won the victory over all these things. He has given us the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. And because we have these things, none of the world’s continuing death throes, whatever form they may take, can truly harm us. And so let us enter the new year boldly and confidently, confessing always the name of Jesus, the Savior. Amen.

✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

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 ✠

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Day

Sermon on Luke 2:1-20
For Our Savior’s Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
December 25, 2008 (The Nativity of our Lord)

It’s not easy to stay up all night, when the rest of the world is asleep and your body’s telling you that you should be too. But somebody had to do it. Somebody had to watch the sheep. At night especially, the sheep were in danger. Wolves were out and about looking for a nice meal of mutton, and nighttime was the best time for them to sneak up and kill a sheep that had wandered off from the edge of the flock. And so it simply had to be done. But it wasn’t necessarily pleasant to be awake and to have to stay alert and watchful while the rest of the world is sleeping, and while your own body wants to be at home in bed with the rest of them. These shepherds were probably wishing that it had been someone else besides themselves that had drawn night-guard duty that night.

But these particular shepherds were the luckiest ones of all that night. Or rather, they weren’t lucky, they were blessed by God. For it is to them that God’s angels bring the message of the birth of the Messiah. It is to them, the lowly shepherds, that the good news of the coming of the Savior is proclaimed. It is they who are the first human beings besides Mary and Joseph themselves to look upon the face of the incarnate Son of God. It is they who have the blessed privilege of sharing with everyone else in David’s City the good news about the birth of the Son of David. Not king Herod; he had to find out later, secondhand from a bunch of foreigners. Not Caesar Augustus, who never did find out about Christ, even though it was Christ’s birth which in God’s plan determined even his orders to have a census. Instead, poor, lowly shepherds who would rather have been anywhere else than out in the field that night are the ones who are the first to bow down and adore the Son of God made man.

Why do you think it was that these shepherds were the ones to hear about Christ’s birth, and not the great and mighty of that day? One look at King Herod will give us an answer to that question. When Herod found out about the birth of Christ, he tried to have Him killed; in fact, he killed all the children under the age of two in and around Bethlehem just to be thorough. This is hardly the action of a person who is worthy to hear about Jesus’ birth. The majority of the rich and powerful in the world at that time were threatened by Christ Jesus; that’s why He eventually ended up dying on a cross thirty-some years later. But the poor and lowly of the world were ready to receive Him in repentance and faith and to receive His gifts of forgiveness and salvation. Those who knew they were nothing in and of themselves were able to accept everything from Jesus Christ and to welcome Him to this world with thanksgiving, praise, and confession of faith to those around them. And so it is to the shepherds on the midnight shift that the angels come. It is they who bow down before the newborn King. It is they who confess their newfound faith to everyone else they meet.

This is the way it has always been with God. Those who think they are something, are nothing before Him. But those who are nothing in themselves receive everything from Him. Which are you? Do you think you are somebody? Do you think that you have deserved for God to come to you? Do you think that you have earned something from God because you have been a good person who goes to Church and lives a basically good life? Or worse yet, do you think that maybe you don’t have to go to Church because you are a good person who has lived a basically good life? If your answer is yes to any of these questions, you are fooling yourself. None of you is a good person. God doesn’t expect us to be generally, on average, pretty good people, He expects us to be perfect. And none of us has been perfect. All of us are sinners, and poor, miserable sinners at that, because the worst sin of all is the very pride in ourselves that convinces us that we have earned something from God. If you think that you are anything else than a poor, miserable sinner, you are lying. You are lying to yourself and everyone around you. And worst of all, you are lying to God, and since God knows you better than you know yourself, He also knows the truth about you. If you think you have earned anything before God by your own actions, you are only increasing the judgement against you.

But if you said no to the questions I asked a few seconds ago, don’t pat yourself on the back; rather, praise God! This means that His Holy Spirit has worked repentance in your heart. It means that your pride and your selfishness have been crushed by the Law of God. It means that you are ready to receive the Christ who comes to you to give you forgiveness and salvation. It means that you are like those shepherds on the hillside that first Christmas morning. You are the ones who are ready to hear the glorious message from the lips of God’s messenger that today is born for you in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

This Savior didn’t stay tiny, as we know. He grew up, looking for all the world like an ordinary child, except that He was perfect and committed no sin. He became an itinerant preacher in Galilee and then Jerusalem. His message caused the same reaction in the leadership of Israel that the message of a true prophet always causes among the rich and powerful: they put Him to death. But He did not stay dead. He rose again on the third day, ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. These are the things He was born to do. He accomplished all of these things for you and for me, so that we might live forever with Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.

He still comes to us today, though unlike the shepherds we can’t see Him with our eyes. He comes to us in His body and blood. Sunday after Sunday we hear the voice of His messenger calling us away from our everyday life to worship at the throne of the Savior, Christ the Lord. We go to Bethlehem, which is Hebrew for “house of bread,” to receive the true Bread of Heaven and to adore Him by receiving His body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins. We join with the choirs of angels singing in exultation and with all the citizens of heaven above, singing “Glory to God in the Highest.” With angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven we laud and magnify Thy glorious name, evermore praising Thee and saying, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth.” The Lord of hosts is present here and now for you. Oh, come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord. Amen.

✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve

Sermon on John 1:1-18
For Our Savior’s Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
December 24, 2008 (Eve of the Nativity of our Lord)

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and He separated the light from the darkness. God called the light ‘day,’ and the darkness He called ‘night.’ And there was evening, and there was morning — the first day.” “Now, wait a minute, Pastor,” you might be saying, “this is a Christmas service. Why are you reading from Genesis?” The reason is that the creation story in Genesis forms the background to what John tells us about Jesus in our text.

You see, what John gives us is not all the details about Christ’s birth, which Luke and Matthew talk about. Instead, John tells us “the story behind the story.” John tells us Who the Baby in the manger really is: the Son of God. The Son of God existed from eternity. He is true God as well as true man. As such, He was the One through whom the Father created everything. He is the Word the Father spoke to bring everything into being, and at His birth in Bethlehem He is the Word the Father speaks to restore everything to its original perfection after mankind had disrupted it by falling into sin.

The first thing John calls Christ is the Word. When someone speaks a word, that word tells others what is in his heart. Christ is the Word of the Father. He shows us what is in the Father’s heart. When God created the Heavens and the Earth, He did so by speaking His word. John also calls Christ the Light. When God created the physical world, light was the first thing He created. We could not exist, we could not live, without light. Not only would we be stumbling around, bumping into things, but we would have no food, because plants need light to grow, we would have no fuel for heat, because fuel comes from plants, and so forth. The energy for life to exist on earth comes here by means of light from the sun. This is how God sustains our lives. Christ is called the Light because it is through Him that the Father gives us what we need to live eternally.

God created the world perfect, but it did not stay that way. Mankind fell into sin. Satan tempted Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, telling her, “You will be like God!” What does that mean, “You will be like God?” God is the one who gives us everything we need to support this body and life. This is part of what He does as Creator. If we think that we are the ones who provide for our own needs, then we are making ourselves into our own Gods. Now, of course, in the physical world God gives sunshine and rain and so forth even to those who think that they don’t need God to provide for them. But God won’t do that forever. God will eventually destroy this world, and when He does those who rely on themselves will be cut off from God’s help and will go to eternal torment.

So much for the atheists and the agnostics. But what about us? We know there is a God, and we know He gives us everything we need. Are we any better off? Well, if we rely on ourselves to please God, no we aren’t. Not only is God the one who gives us physical life, He is the only one who can save us from the sinful condition we are in. He is the One who gives us everything we need for our spiritual lives as well as our physical lives. If we rely on our own good works to try to earn His favor, we are cutting ourselves off from Christ, the Light of the World, and rejecting Him. If we think we’re pretty good people who only need to come to Church on major holidays, that shows a fundamental misunderstanding of our relationship with Him. Being a Christian isn’t a matter of living a pretty good life and only coming to Church if you need extra motivation. You can’t live a good enough life to be saved that way. Being a Christian is realizing that selfishness corrupts everything we do, even the things we do that look like good works, and that only through His promise of forgiveness, which comes to us through His Word, are we able to be reconciled to Him. God has given His Son to save us. If we think we can save ourselves, which is what we’re doing if we treat the opportunities to hear His Word carelessly and only show up every so often, we reject Him.

However, God is so gracious that He sent His Word, His Light, to save us from our sins. On the cross, Christ took upon Himself the punishment we face for our sins and for our self-righteous attitude. This was the entire purpose for God to send His Word to take on human flesh and dwell among us. He became one of us in order to be punished in our place. By doing this, he showed us the love in the Father’s heart.

When we don’t talk about what is in our heart, our family and friends have no way of knowing what we are thinking. It’s the same way with God. If He hadn’t spoken His Word to us, we would have no way of knowing what was in His heart. Sometimes Christians try to find out what God thinks about them not by looking to His Word but by looking into their own hearts and seeing how they feel about God. They figure if they have the “right” emotions about God, feelings of peace, joy, love for God or whatever, then God probably loves them. But there is no way to be sure of this. Our feelings can and do change, even though God’s love for us does not. The only way we can be sure that He loves us is that He spoke his Word to us, that is, He sent his Son to bear the punishment for us.

Because Christ has suffered in our place, He is the one we look to for the forgiveness of sins. Instead of our own good works, we rely on Christ to reconcile us with the Father. He is the only source we have of spiritual life. He is the only source we have of eternal life. That’s why He is called our Light. When we hear the Word and receive the Sacrament, we receive this Light, which gives us the ability to live. We receive the ability to do genuine, selfless good works and to thank and praise God in truth. We receive the ability to share this Light with others by speaking the Word of the forgiveness of sins. We receive nothing less than eternal life itself, where there will be no darkness nor will there be a need for the moon or the sun, because Christ Himself will be all the light we need. Amen.

✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Advent 4

Sermon on John 1:19-28
For Our Savior’s Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
December 21, 2008 (The Fourth Sunday in Advent)

“Why me?” How often do we hear that phrase? When things aren’t going so well for us, it has almost become a habit for many Americans to cry out in frustration, “Why me?” Why can’t someone else be the one who has to suffer? Why is it my car that broke down on the highway? Why did I get caught speeding and not that other guy? Why am I laid off and not someone else? Why did I get injured and not someone else? A thousand similar questions are asked every day by people who are undergoing hardships, as well as by those who are frustrated with little things that may go wrong. “Why me?”
When we ask God this question, I don’t think we always realize what a sinful attitude it shows. When we ask God in our hearts, “Why me?” we fail to rely on God’s promises. God has promised that He will never test us beyond what He enables us to bear. He has promised that no matter what happens to us we can rest content, knowing that He has in mind what is the best for us. He has promised that any difficulty or hardship we face is designed to benefit us by strengthening our faith in Him and His promises. If we truly believed these promises at all times and in all situations, we would never ask, “Why me?” You see, when we ask, “Why me?” we are really accusing God of not providing for our needs in the way we think He should, and demanding that He start doing His job better. In other words, we are acting as if we deserve everything He gives us and even more than what He gives us. This is sheer arrogance. We are sinners. God would be perfectly within His rights to cut us off completely from all of His blessings. God provides for His creatures, including you and me, in the way He thinks best. Sometimes, this means giving us hard times to help us beat down the pride of our old sinful flesh. Even if He lets us suffer a little to humble us, however, we are still suffering less than we deserve to. When we ask, “Why me?” we act as if we deserve only God’s highest favor and His richest gifts, and that God is in the wrong for not giving them to us in the exact way we want Him to. We are really telling God how to do His job.
But even though this question is totally unfair to God, He does answer it. There are several possible answers to the question, “Why me?” Sometimes God lets His people suffer in order to teach them to rely on Him in faith. It is like a gentle (or sometimes not-so-gentle) reminder of Whom it is that gives us everything. During the Advent season it is traditional for the Church to focus on how God prepares His people to receive Him when He comes. God prepares us for Christ to come by causing us to repent of our sins. After all, how can we receive our coming Savior if we don’t think we need to be saved from anything? God sometimes brings us to repentance for our selfishness by taking material blessings away from us to remind us to rely on Him. This is God’s answer to the question of “Why me?” when it is asked in this selfish and arrogant way.
But there is another way we can ask the question, “Why me?” When Mary came to visit Elizabeth in our text, Elizabeth asked, “But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Elizabeth is also asking, “Why me?” But Elizabeth is not asking why she has been treated badly by God; rather she is so overjoyed at how God has blessed her that she can hardly believe it, let alone comprehend why she should be so favored. What Elizabeth is really saying here is that she is completely unworthy to stand in the presence of the Lord God Himself, and yet He has come down from His high throne and is present in her house. What a marvelous confession on Elizabeth’s part! It is especially marvelous when we remember that this event took place only a few days after Mary herself had found out about what was going to happen. Christ, the Lord of all creation, was present in Elizabeth’s house as a human embryo inside Mary’s womb, barely visible at this time even with a microscope. Elizabeth could only make this confession of faith by the Holy Spirit’s guidance. What she is doing here is confessing that she is really unworthy for such a Person as Christ to be in her house. She recognizes that it is only by God’s grace that such a thing could happen to her, and she can barely understand how God can be so gracious to her. By asking, “Why me?” she gives all the glory to God for this great miracle.
And of course, Mary herself did the same thing when she sang the Magnificat, as we learned at last Wednesday’s Advent service. Mary emphasizes throughout her song that God shows His richest blessings to those who are despised and rejected by the world. Here we see two Jewish women in a day when Judah was only a backward province in the Roman empire. Neither one is very high on the social ladder even by Jewish standards. But God is present with them in bodily form — with them, and not with the greatest rulers of the empire. Truly His ways are not our ways. The world looks at these two women and asks in disgust, “Why them?” How interesting that we find them asking the same question, “Why me?” only not in disgust but in joyful thanksgiving.
We have looked at how gracious God was to Mary and to Elizabeth. What about us? Are we simply spectators to this whole story, admiring God’s grace to these two Jewish women and their faithful response? Or is there more to it than that? Well, the baby developing in Mary’s womb went on to be born, to live for thirty-some years on this earth and to die on the cross as a payment for our sins. He rose again so that we too might walk in newness of life. He was born into our fallen world so that He might fulfill the Law in our place. He died and rose again so that we might die to sin and be resurrected to eternal life. When we were Baptized, we died with Him and rose again with Him. He will come again, and when He does we will live eternally with Him. He did all these things for us — poor sinful beings.
When we remember how sinful we are, how unworthy we are to receive any of these blessings, we, like Elizabeth and Mary, are compelled to ask God thankfully, “Why me? Why are You so gracious to me?” God has shown more love to us than we can possibly understand. Sinners who deserve wrath and punishment instead receive forgiveness, a new heart and will, and finally, eternal life with Him. “Why would God do such a thing?” When we ask that question, it shows that we realize what a great miracle this is, and we give all the glory to God for it. But it doesn’t stop with what Jesus did for us back then. He is present with His people here and now. “Wherever two or three are gathered in My name, there am I in the midst of them.” Christ is here right now with us. Now, of course, God is everywhere. But what Christ is talking about is that He is present to save us, through the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments. He is present right now because His Gospel is being preached. When we partake of the sacrament of the Altar here in a few moments, we will receive the same body of Christ which hung for us on that cross. The same body which was hidden in the womb of a humble Jewish woman named Mary is hidden in ordinary unleavened bread and wine. When we receive that body and blood, we receive everything that Christ won for us by giving his life for us. We receive forgiveness of our sins. God creates in us a clean heart and renews a right spirit within us. We receive the assurance of eternal life with Christ when He comes again. As God gives us all this, we say with Elizabeth and Mary, “Why me, Lord? Why am I so favored?” There is no reason for God to give us this great blessing of His Son’s own Body and Blood, except that He loves us and He wants to be with us forever. Amen.
✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Advent 3

Sermon on Matthew 11:2-11
For Our Savior’s Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
December 14, 2008 (The Third Sunday in Advent)

If I hear one more television commentator, one more actor, one more cartoon character using the phrase, “the true meaning of Christmas,” I just might throw something at my television set. No, I haven’t suddenly turned into the Grinch. And, no, I’m not turning into Scrooge. It’s just that most of those who talk so glibly about the true meaning of Christmas really have no idea what the true meaning of Christmas really is. I’m sure they mean well. After all, this time of year is even more stressful than most, what with shopping for presents, the increased congestion around the stores, the worries about family members we don’t get along with but whom we’re going to have to be nice to on Christmas Day and buy presents for now even though we’d rather stay away from them, and so on. Those who urge us to remember the “true meaning of Christmas” are, in their own minds, trying to help us, I’m sure. They’re trying to help us to remember that Christmas is not about all of this crass commercialism by way of guilt trips. But once you get beyond that, there is where it breaks down. Usually the message is to remember that Christmas is about family and warm feelings in the heart and love and joy and so on. Which is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far. In fact, that sort of shallow “true meaning of Christmas” often only makes the situation worse, since the ideal Christmas that is depicted by this so-called “true meaning” is seldom matched by reality. And that only causes more guilt and depression that, even apart from crass commercialism, we can’t get Christmas right.
The message to remember the “true meaning of Christmas” is certainly a lot better when those who are urging this are doing so from some form of Christian basis. There the reminder is to remember that Christmas is the celebration of the birth of the baby Son of God at Bethlehem. In such messages, the real “true meaning of Christmas” at least has a chance of shining through. But even there, appreciation of the birth of Jesus doesn’t always extend much beyond an appreciation of the drama involved in finding a place to stay, the shepherds and the angels, the wise men, and so on. Certainly those familiar aspects of the story are, and always should be, part of the picture as we celebrate the nativity of our Lord, but they are not the main point. After all, even these aspects can lead to a guilt-increasing law-view of the ideal Christmas everyone is allegedly supposed to have, all peaceful and serene and warm and family-oriented like the idealized manger scenes we see all over the place this time of year. And that sort of idealism, even when it’s based on the Biblical story, is not really what Christmas is about, either. Instead, the true meaning of Christmas can only be appreciated when you look at it together with Good Friday and Easter Sunday. That’s why this Advent season starts out with the story of Palm Sunday. Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem was for the sake of His crucifixion and resurrection. And it is the forgiveness of sins and eternal life that comes from His death and resurrection, that gives Christmas its true meaning. He’s not just a cute baby in the manger. He’s our Savior from sin, death, and hell.
In today’s Gospel lesson, we see John the Baptizer, or at least his followers, also becoming somewhat confused about the true meaning of God coming to earth and dwelling with man. John had been put into prison for his preaching of God’s Word to proclaim the coming of the Messiah. Being put into prison does not sound like a suitable reward for serving the almighty God, the maker of heaven and earth. It sounds like a punishment for having done something wrong. And Jesus himself was not acting like most people thought he would. He was not leading a political rebellion against the Roman imperial presence in their nation the way most Jews of the time thought the Messiah should. Instead, He was an itinerant preacher, preaching a message of reconciliation with God through the forgiveness of sins. And so we can understand how John or his disciples got confused and needed to ask for clarification from Jesus himself. Jesus simply wasn’t conforming to their preconceived notions about the true meaning of Christmas, the true meaning of God becoming man and saving His people.
But when they get to Jesus, He doesn’t simply tell them flat out, “Yes, I am the Messiah.” That would be too easy, and for that reason it wouldn’t be convincing. Anybody can say the words, “Yes, I am the Messiah.” Instead Jesus points to the things that they can hear and see: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them. These are things it was predicted in the Old Testament that the Messiah would do. And Jesus is doing them, as they can see with their own eyes. He does the things that God does. It’s God’s business to heal the sick, to raise the dead, and so on. It’s God’s business to give people life in the first place, and so it is God’s business to restore that life where it has been damaged by the effects of sin in our world. Jesus is doing what His Father does. And this is what He tells John’s disciples to tell John: Jesus is doing the work that God the Father has given Him to do.
Jesus still does that work today. But just as you can’t see Him with your five senses, you can’t see His miracles with your five senses either, usually. But He is still making the blind to see, the lame to walk, the lepers to be clean, and so on even today. You see, the greatest miracle of all happens when the Holy Spirit puts to death the old Adam in a person and raises him up to eternal life through Holy Baptism. We who were spiritually blind have been made to see Christ with the eyes of faith. We who were spiritually sick and dead have been healed and made alive again by the Holy Spirit’s power. We who were deaf to God’s call have been made to hear the Word of Forgiveness. We who are poor and nothing by nature in God’s sight have had good news preached to us.
But the miracles that God works in us by Word and Sacrament aren’t just a matter of these kinds of metaphors for spiritual things. The result of these spiritual things that our God gives us is that we inherit eternal life. And in eternal life there will be no blindness, no lameness or limping. There will be no leprosy or deafness. Nobody will die. And we will lack nothing that we need for our bodies or souls, because Christ will be right there with us to give us everything we need. All of these miracles happen when a person comes to faith, and when his faith is sustained and edified by the Word and Sacraments. We won’t see their effects until the last day, but they are taking place. Just as John couldn’t see them from his prison cell, we usually can’t see them from our vantage point here in time either, and so we become confused about the true meaning of God coming to earth. But just as John’s disciples were sent back to him to tell him about them, Jesus sent His own apostles to preach and to write the Holy Scriptures, and He sends His messengers today to preach about what Jesus is doing for each of you through Word and Sacrament.
That is the true meaning of Christmas. Not just feelings of warmth and joy that we’re told we’re “supposed” to have just because it happens to be December and the stores and people’s homes happen to be decorated with lights and red and green kitsch. Not even just the birth of a baby in Bethlehem who attracted some unusual attention. Rather, who that baby in Bethlehem was, and what He came to give us. Salvation. Deliverance from eternal death and from all the afflictions which plague us in this life. He shared in our humanity, took our blindness, lameness, leprosy, deafness, and death upon Himself, so that we might have the good news preached to us that we will live forever with our God and Creator, constantly in His fellowship and presence and never experiencing any of the effects of sin or death upon the world again. That’s what He does for us, because that’s who He is. And He shows it by doing it, by healing those who are sick, raising the dead, and so on, and thereby giving a picture of what salvation will mean for us. Your sins are taken away, and in their place you receive perfection and eternal life. That’s the true meaning of Christmas. Amen.
✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Advent 2

Sermon on Luke 21:25-36
For Our Savior’s Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
December 7, 2008 (The Second Sunday in Advent)

The signs of the end times which Jesus lists in today’s Gospel are pretty serious. Some might even call them horrifying. “And there will be signs in the sun, in the moon, and in the stars; and on earth distress of nations, with perplexity, the sea and the waves roaring; men’s hearts failing them from fear and the expectation of those things which are coming on the earth, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” It doesn’t conjure up a pretty picture to my mind. In fact, Jesus describes the reaction of most of the world to these events rather vividly: “men’s hearts failing them from fear and the expectation of those things which are coming on the earth.” And, of course, the reminders that this old world is slated for destruction are not a pleasant thing to contemplate. In addition to the fact that some of them are unpleasant in themselves, such as wars and natural disasters, they are also reminders that “security,” which seems to have become the watchword these days in the name of which everything is done, is only an illusion as long as we live in a world that’s been infected by sin. And that’s not a comfortable thought. The idea that no matter what we do or what the government does, we will never be truly safe from death or disaster is not something most people like to contemplate.
And what comes after death is something that most people are even less equipped to handle. Facing the Judge who will hold them accountable for their actions is not something people appreciate having to deal with. It’s something that man by nature dreads. It’s something that our own old sinful natures dread. We haven’t been righteous. And we know it. And so the reminders that this old world is headed to destruction are not something we like to contemplate. We’d rather wrap ourselves in as much “security” as we possibly can. Because as far as the old self goes, the alternative is death and judgment, panic and chaos.
And so it sounds a little bizarre when Jesus says a couple of verses later on, “Now when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near.” In the context of all the death and destruction and chaos that results from sin and warns us of the eventual doom of this old world, the idea that such things are a hopeful sign which should cause us eager anticipation, is more than a little perverse, from a human standpoint. And of course, Jesus isn’t saying we should take a twisted delight in wars or rumors of wars; even when necessary such things are murderous, bloody events which remind us daily just how far man has strayed from his creator. And we definitely shouldn’t take a perverse delight in natural disasters or the other symptoms of the impending destruction of this old world. None of these things in themselves are causes for rejoicing. But they are reminders to us that “our redemption draws near.” And that is a cause for rejoicing for those who are in Christ, because it is a reminder that we will inherit a new heavens and a new earth that are not corrupted by this old world sins, where death is no more, and war and disease and disasters are no longer a possibility. That’s why Jesus uses the budding of trees in springtime as an illustration of what looks to the world like wintry chaos and judgment. The end of this old world signifies the beginning of eternal life.
But there still something a little strange about what Jesus says in this text. Here we are, nearly 2000 years later, and Jesus still hasn’t returned. What, then, did He mean when He said that “this generation will by no means pass away till all things take place”? Well, remember that the paradox of things that look bad being good news for us is not only true of the end times. The same paradox is true of something that did happen before the generation that was then alive passed away. Good Friday doesn’t look very good when we look at it with human eyes. There, too, something happened which shook the entire creation, which caused the sun to become dark, earthquakes, the opening of graves, and the shaking of the faith of even Jesus’ most stalwart followers. The Son of God died on a cross. God Himself suffered the punishment for the sins of the world. At first glance, that, too, sounds like an occasion for sorrow and fear. After all, it was our sins that put Him there. It was our selfishness that caused Him to be tortured and die. It was our failure to love and trust in Him that caused Him to be abandoned by everyone, even His Father. At first glance, this doesn’t seem like cause for rejoicing.
But Good Friday is still known as Good Friday. And that’s because our sins were, in fact, paid for by Jesus’ death on the cross. God no longer sees them because Christ took our place, and so now we take His place before His Father’s throne. And that means that the events of Good Friday, though horrifying in themselves, are a sign to us that sin has been done away with and our salvation has been won. Likewise with Judgment Day. The reminders to us that this old world is won’t survive forever because of the sin of its inhabitants, is also a reminder to us that what happens then is the new heavens and new earth in which we will live forever with our God. Good Friday and Judgment Day are very closely related to one another, which is why the signs of Judgment Day were seen on Good Friday, with the darkness and the earthquake and the resurrection of the Old Testament saints. In both cases, events which are in themselves horrifying and upsetting are reminders to us that something better is coming.
After all, we already know what verdict will be pronounced upon us on Judgment Day. When Christ said from the Cross, “It is finished,” He was telling us that our redemption has been accomplished. What the Judge says about us on Judgment Day, namely that we are innocent and pure and sinless, is what that same Judge said already on Good Friday with the words, “It is finished.” And it’s the same thing He says through the mouths of His messengers every Sunday with the words, “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
And the new heavens and the new earth which will replace this old world also already exist. And we are already partakers of that heavenly kingdom. Christ’s body is the first-fruits of the entire new creation. In Christ’s resurrected flesh the new creation itself is begun. And it is that new-creation body and blood of Christ which we eat and drink in the Lord’s Supper. Even while we must suffer the insecurity and the sorrow and the pain that so often accompanies life in this old world, we not only hear about but we eat and drink the new creation in which neither sin nor any of its effects exist at all. Nothing that this world can throw at us can truly harm us. We already know the verdict of Judgment Day, and we are already citizens of the kingdom of heaven. Of course we don’t see it, and so we are in danger of walking away from it by the lure of this old world’s illusions of peace, happiness, and security. Which is why God continues to come to us to refresh and renew His promises to us by His Word and His resurrected body and blood. We are worthy to stand before the Son of Man, because He has made us so. And so the sorrows and troubles of this old life, even though in themselves they are a reminder of the sin and evil that has corrupted the world, have become for us reminders of the new life which is to come. Even the worst that Satan can throw at us, death, has become the gate to eternal life. And so all the things that lead up to death are reminders to us that this world will eventually be replaced by the new heavens and new earth of which we are already citizens. Amen.
✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

Monday, December 1, 2008

Three Jobs

Regular readers of this blog (actually I suspect the only one may be my wife!) will have noticed that the last few sermons posted here were written for Our Savior Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL. Their previous pastor resigned, and they got in touch with an area pastor who knew I was looking for a Call. Which means that Tina and I have been driving down to Chicago every weekend, staying in a hotel (which the Church pays for), preaching and teaching Bible Class for this congregation. The situation might possibly lead to a full-time call for me (at which point I'll probably have to rename this blog), but that decision will have to wait a bit while the congregation recovers from the sudden loss of their former pastor.

However, before I ever knew that Our Savior was in need of a vacancy pastor, my pastor at Lamb of God, Sean Smallwood, came up with the idea of extending part-time calls as assistant pastors to both myself and Pr. Grenyo, because both of us have, in fact, been assisting with the Divine Service and filling in for Pr. Smallwood when he's gone, and since that would get both of us out from under the stigma of being on CRM status. Since Lamb of God has a 5pm service on Sundays, I can still help out with that and with catechesis (6:15pm Sundays) after returning from Chicago. Lamb of God recently voted unanimously to extend both myself and Pr. Grenyo those Calls.

The weird thing is, I pretty much have to take the Call to Lamb of God in order to continue serving as vacancy Pastor at Our Savior. Guys on candidate status are supposed to fill out a form requesting renewal of their candidate status every year, and because I've known for some time that Lamb of God was planning on Calling me I didn't fill out the form this year. Which means that to stay on the clergy roster (and thus be eligible to continue serving the vacancy at Our Savior) I have no choice at this point but to accept the Call to Lamb of God. God always knows what's best for us, but I'm also convinced that He has a bit of a weird sense of humor in how he brings things about, too.

Neither of these pastoral positions, however, is enough to put food on the table. Lamb of God will be paying $1 per month plus $100 per service that I preside at, and Our Savior's is paying $100 per service plus mileage and hotel reimbursement. And so, I still need my job at Wal-Mart in Antioch, IL, where I work in the meat department 4 days a week. Which means that I will soon have three jobs. I know God will give me the strength to do and keep track of all this, but right now it all looks just a tad busy and confusing to me. But it also looks like a possible route back into the full-time ministry, so I'm pretty optimistic about the whole thing. God is good, even if He does have a weird sense of humor.