Sunday, January 29, 2012

Epiphany 4, Series B

Sermon on Mark 1:21-28
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
January 29, 2012 (The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Series B)

Jesus taught as one who had authority.  Well, I should hope so, considering that He is God, the fount and source of all authority.  When God speaks, reality itself listens.  And not only listens, but His speaking, His Word itself causes what He says to come to pass.  Jesus is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Word that is such a perfect expression of what is inside God that it is itself God.  Of course He speaks with authority.

However, this is God become man, walking around in human flesh.  That fact by itself might not change things, but from His birth at Bethlehem until His death at Calvary, he’s also in what the theologians call the “state of humiliation,” which means that He did not always or everywhere use His divine power.  And so, even though He is preaching and teaching with authority, in the first part of today’s text we can’t really prove that it’s the divine authority that comes from being the divine Author, or if Jesus’ authority is simply a psychological trick that comes from having a greater-than-average amount of confidence and self-esteem.  After all, there are many false preachers out there who sound like they’re preaching with authority, and many people follow them, too.  It could all be a function of human psychology, or worse yet, a demonic trick.

We do know, from reading the other Gospels, that His teaching included some fairly audacious claims.  Luke tells us that He was kicked out of the synagogue in His hometown of Nazareth for saying that He is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah which tells us that Messiah will have the Spirit of the Lord upon Him to release the prisoners of sin, death, and the devil, to open the eyes of the blind, and so on.  That was the sort of authority that Jesus spoke with.  But is it all true?  Or is Jesus simply a madman who is so deluded that He can make these sorts of wild claims with a straight face?  Or, worse, is He a demon who is misleading this synagogue to its own destruction?

Well, as it happens, a demon gives Him a chance to demonstrate His authority.  There was a man in this synagogue who was demon-possessed.  Mark doesn’t tell us for sure whether he was there the whole time or whether he just wandered in off the street at this moment, but the way it is phrased it sounds like he was there the whole time.  It may even be that this man had been there every Sabbath for years, living and working among the people of Capernaum with nobody knowing any different.  You see, just because many of the demons who possessed people in the Gospels acted in some strange, outlandish ways which caused their victims to be shunned by the rest of society, does not mean that they had to do that.  I think it’s entirely possible for a demon-possessed man to act perfectly normally under many circumstances, so as to spread his lies and doubt more effectively.  Satan isn’t nearly as gross and clumsy as we sometimes think he is.  I suspect that the main reason the demons tended to act so bizarrely in the Gospels was because with the Son of God walking around on earth they were in a panic.  This one certainly panics when he hears Jesus’ preaching of Himself as the Messiah, the Savior from sin, death, and the devil.  He panics, and causes a scene.  And in doing so he blurts out the very thing he normally would be trying to hide from those around him, namely that the Savior has come to rescue us from Satan’s kingdom.  Even the demons are forced to preach God’s Word when God Himself is standing before them.  That’s the sort of authority Jesus has.

And so Jesus commands the demon to come out of him, and the demon, rather unwillingly and violently, obeys.  The word for this action of Jesus is “exorcism.”  Jesus commands the demon to come out, and the demon comes out.  Now, a lot of money has been made by Hollywood on some serious and not-so-serious attempts to portray what it is that happens when an exorcism happens, especially when the demon in question is engaged in spooky, unusual, or bizarre behaviors.  We don’t hear about outright demon-possession or haunted buildings all that often in modern society, at least, not in cases that are objectively scientifically provable, but I happen to believe that they can happen.  But did you realize that every one of you has been the object of an exorcism?  That a demon was cast out of every one of you, as well as myself?  You see, Holy Baptism is actually in exorcism.  Modern liturgical books aren’t always explicit about this, though the Lutheran Service Book Agenda does include the option in its baptismal rite of including the words, “Depart, unclean spirit, and make way for the Holy Spirit” immediately before Baptism, a tradition that was universally part of Holy Baptism until the age of rationalism a couple of centuries ago made such explicit exorcism talk sound politically incorrect.

It’s not just those who are outwardly doing strange and demonic things that are part of Satan’s kingdom.  It’s everyone born in the usual way of a man and a woman, going back to Adam and Eve, who is born a subject of the prince of this old world.  That’s part of the reason why original sin is eternally deadly, even in babies who haven’t committed any actual, outward sins yet.  It’s a matter of citizenship.  They’re born under Satan’s dominion, and must be rescued in order to become children of God.  And rescue them God does.  He has given the task today to His messengers, and promised that His authority stands behind them when they speak God’s Word.  Now, like Jesus in His state of humiliation, human pastors and human Christians can be resisted, even when they speak God’s Word with authority.  Some do fall away from the faith, and seven worse demons come back and dwell in them.  But the Word does what it says, even on human lips.  The Word still rescues from death and the devil and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this.

And it’s not like Jesus is absent from the equation, either.  Jesus is just as much present in this room, where at least 2 or 3 are gathered in His name, that is, where His Word is rightly preached and His sacraments rightly administered, as He was in that synagogue in Capernaum.  He is here not only in the preaching of His word, but in His own body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar.  His Word says, “This is My body, this is My blood,” and so it is.  And having that body and blood, risen from the dead and living for all eternity, we too rise from the death of our sins and live the new life that will be seen in us when He comes again in glory.  He says, with authority, “Your sins are forgiven, and you will live with Me forever,” and so it is.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Epiphany 3, Series B

Sermon on Mark 1:14-20
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
January 22, 2012 (The Third Sunday after Epiphany, Series B)

In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus tells Andrew and Peter that He will make them fishers of men.  This text is one that is often referred to when speaking about missions and evangelism, that is, deliberate outreach into the community around us or around the world.  What Jesus is saying is that the Church is to “catch” people into His Kingdom who do not already know Him, and so bring them to the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation that is ours through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard a lot of mission speakers and evangelism experts who use the imagery of fishing to explain how it is we are to go about catching men.  What I’ve often heard is that we are to choose the right “bait,” that is, find a felt need that will draw people’s attention to our church, and use the right marketing techniques (that is, make the bait move in a lifelike way using various techniques with the rod and the fishing line) to draw people in.  There has been a whole movement in American Christianity (including among Missouri Synod Lutherans) that encourages and teaches churches how to do evangelism in this way.  The idea seems to be that if we can meet the needs people already know (or think they know) that they have, they will come to our church and have a chance of hearing about their true need for forgiveness, and how that need is met in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In actual practice, however, it is often the Sunday morning church service itself that ends up being the venue for meeting these various felt needs, and often it’s done in such a way that the true need, forgiveness of sins, and the true solution to that need, Jesus Christ and Him crucified, ends up being crowded out.  Often He ends up being mentioned only as an example of how to follow this or that Biblical principle for the improvement of one’s marriage, one’s finances, one’s relationships in general, or whatever other topic ends up being the focus.

Now, to be sure, there is an element of truth in the “felt needs” approach, too.  The fact that human beings have unmet needs at all is a symptom of the problem of original sin, and where the Gospel is preached there God’s people will try to alleviate, as best they can, the needs and the problems that are created by sin in the world, as a way of illustrating eternal life, where sin and its effects won’t bother us at all.  This is why churches have historically been the place of charity.  Many schools, hospitals, nursing homes, soup kitchens, shelters, and other charitable organizations have been founded by churches for precisely this reason.  The problem is not with the idea of meeting people’s needs as such.  The problem is when meeting people’s needs in this life crowds out the true need that lies at the root of all the other problems, namely sin, and thus Jesus becomes not a savior from sin but an example to follow in social ministry.

But when it comes to using today’s Gospel lesson as a proof-text for the “felt needs” approach to evangelism and church growth, I do think many interpreters are missing the point.  Most of the analogy I’ve described up to this point of how fishing is done comes from modern recreational fishing, in which you either go out in a boat or stand on a dock or a pier, and cast bait out using a fishing rod and line, and try to trick the fish into biting by your selection of bait and how you move it through the water.  However, that wasn’t the kind of fishing that Andrew and Peter would have been familiar with.  You see, these men weren’t recreational fishermen.  They didn’t use bait, or fishing lines, or poles.  They didn’t go after their fish one at a time, trying to trick the fish into grabbing the bait and becoming hooked on the line.  Commercial fishermen don’t do that.  What commercial fishermen do (and here the basic technique hasn’t changed in the thousands of years since Jesus spoke these words) is simply run a big net through an area of the water where there is a large school of fish, and draw in all the fish that have unwillingly been caught in the net.  Trying to appeal to the fish in order to draw them into the boat isn’t even a consideration here.  The net simply catches a bunch of fish.  Some escape, some don’t, but it doesn’t matter, because the net is what does the work, and often it’s completely random which fish are caught and which aren’t.

And so, when Jesus told Peter and Andrew that they were going to catch men, He wasn’t telling them they’d be using bait and a hook to draw men into the Church one by one.  He was telling them that they were simply going to put the Word of Law and Gospel out there, and let the Word itself do all the work.  Who is brought to repentance by the preaching of the Law and then brought to faith by the preaching of the Gospel, is something of a random chance as far as we can tell.  God only knows why this one repents and that one escapes the net.  It’s not a matter of technique.  It’s a matter of simply letting down the net and dragging it through the water.  God’s Word does what it says.  It will bear fruit, when, where and as He chooses, and often does in the unlikeliest of places.

And that’s a good thing.  The most unlikeliest of places for God’s Word to bear fruit is the human heart, including yours and mine.  We were born enemies of God, and have no natural ability to believe in Him or come to him.  The Word catches us unwillingly, many of us before we were even aware of it, by means of the Word in and with the Baptismal water.  The Word transforms us, makes us into those who believe in Jesus Christ.  We are drawn into the Church by the power of the Word alone.  It’s not the technique or the skills or the personality of the pastor, or what services and activities are offered by the particular congregation.  It’s the Word itself that does the work.

And work it does.  What the Word says about us is that we are perfect and holy, because Christ was perfect and holy in our place, and when the Father looks at us, He sees us through Christ.  And the Word does what it says.  We are declared forgiven, and a clean heart and right spirit that are without sin really are created in us by that Word.  We are declared to be citizens of the kingdom of heaven, and that’s what we are.  And that’s what we have to declare to those around us.  The Word itself will do the work.  The Word itself will draw those who repent and believe the Gospel into the Church, just as it does for us, Sunday after Sunday.  The Word itself makes them, along with us, citizens of eternity.  The Word Himself feeds us with the food of heaven, and will bring us at last to dwell with Him forever.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Epiphany 2, Series B

Sermon on John 1:43-51
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
January 15, 2012 (The Second Sunday after Epiphany, Series B)

If you ever had any doubts about whether the Gospels are factual history or mythology, today’s Gospel lesson is another one which should convince you that what we are dealing with here is a factual account of what really happened.  Mythological heroes just don’t talk like this.  Nathaniel, one of the twelve apostles, one of the founders of the earliest Christian Church, is here depicted as being sarcastic about Jesus’ home town, and Jesus Himself gives a bit of a wry observation about Nathaniel’s personality.  Nazareth?  Can anything good come from Nazareth?  Might as well ask if anything good can come from Gary, Indiana.  And what Jesus says about Nathaniel, while it is a compliment, is one of those compliments that could be taken as a criticism, too.  “A true Israelite, in whom there is no deceit,” sounds like high praise.  But what Jesus is talking about here is the fact that Nathaniel pretty much says whatever he’s thinking.  He’s incapable of deceit, not because he is any better than anyone else; Nathaniel too was born in sin, a descendant of Adam and Eve.  Rather, he’s incapable of deceit because his mental filters just aren’t that good.  He blurts out what he’s thinking even if what he’s thinking is a bit insulting or impolite, such as his commentary on the town where Jesus grew up.

But it is such imperfect men as Nathaniel that God uses to spread His kingdom here on earth.  Show me a perfect pastor and I’ll show you a faker who probably has more than a few skeletons in his closet.  It is precisely because He’s God and all the glory should go to Him that he uses sinful men as His messengers.  It’s precisely because He’s God and He’s all-powerful that He uses those who aren’t necessarily all that great at public relations, or who easily lose their temper, or are stubborn, or are wishy-washy, or lazy, or any of a thousand other faults, to bring His Word to those who need to hear it.  It is His power, and His power alone, that is at work when the Word is preached.  To make that point, He uses men who just don’t have the talents or the personality to draw a large following, to bring His good news of forgiveness and eternal life to their fellow sinners.  It must be God working, because if it were up to us, we would fail, and fail miserably.

This coming Wednesday is known in the Church year as “The Confession of St. Peter,” and the Gospel lesson we would be reading if we had a service on that day would be the account of Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.  What Jesus says to Peter on that occasion also applies to what Nathaniel says this morning as well: “Blessed are you, because flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.”  Nathaniel also confesses who Jesus really is, the long-awaited Messiah, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity in human flesh come down to earth to save us.  But how was that revealed to Nathaniel?  Yes, there was a miracle involved, namely that Jesus saw Nathaniel and knew him when he was in a place where he thought he was alone.  But ultimately it was the Word of God which informed Nathaniel of who Jesus is: the Messiah promised for hundreds of years, going all the way back to the promise in Genesis 3 that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head, and following throughout the Old Testament Scriptures.  That’s partly why Nathaniel believed even though he only saw the one minor miracle: He knew the Scriptures.  The Holy Spirit works through the Word.

But Jesus does promise him that he will see much greater things than this.  The heavens will open, and he will see the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.  It is precisely Jesus who is the ladder of Jacob.  Nathaniel’s ancestor Jacob, also known as Israel, after whom the nation of Israel is named, saw a staircase reaching from heaven to earth, symbolizing that God would come down to us to rescue us from our sin.  Jesus here identifies Himself as that staircase, as well as the man who wrestled with Jacob that same night and renamed him Israel.  To the true Israelite, who cannot deceive because he’s too blunt and even rude, God will show His salvation, His route down from heaven to join us, share in our sufferings, and take us up with Him into glory.

You see, Nathaniel is not the only one in this Gospel lesson who is without deceit.  There is another here who cannot lie.  But Jesus’ truthfulness is different from Nathaniel’s.  Jesus’ truthfulness doesn’t come from a lack of mental filters or a tendency to blurt things out.  But Jesus’ truthfulness doesn’t come from scrupulousness in always speaking true things, either.  Jesus is without deceit simply because He’s God, the Son of the Father, the Word by which the heavens were made.  What He says, is.  Which is why it is by His Word, even when spoken by sinful men, that faith is created in the heart, even the cynical heart which doubts anything good can come from humble beginnings.  The Word does what it says, despite doubt and cynicism.

This Gospel lesson comes from the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel.  Near the very end of that same Gospel, there is an account involving another disciple who confesses Jesus as the Son of God.  Every year on the Sunday after Easter we hear the story of St. Thomas, who claimed he needed to see Jesus to believe in His resurrection.  What Jesus says to Thomas then, is an echo of what happens here in Nathaniel’s case.  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.  Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ.  Which is why God calls preachers.  Which was why Jesus called Nathaniel, and Thomas, and Peter.  All had personality flaws, all had doubts.  All were sinners forgiven for the sake of Jesus’ death on the cross.  It’s the Word itself that does the work.  As we go forth and confess to our friends and neighbors what we’ve heard from God, that’s a comfort for us as well.  The Word itself does the work.  The Word itself comes down to us and gives us eternal life.  The Word Himself comes to us personally to forgive our sins and give us His own body and blood.  It’s all the Word.  It’s all Jesus.  And that’s all that’s necessary.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Epiphany, Series B

Sermon on Matthew 2:1-12
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
January 8, 2012 (The Epiphany of our Lord – transferred, Series B)

As we heard on Christmas Day, the message of the Savior’s birth was announced first, not to Herod or Caesar or the high priests, but to lowly shepherds out in their fields that night keeping watch over their sheep.  Now finally Herod and the high priests do find out about it, but not directly from God or from His angels; they find out from Gentile scholars from the east who saw a star in the heavens.  Herod, of course, was not exactly a pious Jew and so he couldn’t care less that it was these Gentiles to whom God had announced the Savior’s birth.  All he knew was that a rival to his power had been born and needed to be eliminated as soon as possible.  But the chief priests and the scribes of Jerusalem were probably very upset.  How dare these Gentiles, these pagans, have the privilege of worshiping the Messiah, when we Jews didn’t even know He had come?  We can imagine that if they had heard about the shepherds worshiping Him on the night of His birth these chief priests and scribes would have been even more upset.

So why did God do this?  Why did He send the angels to common ordinary shepherds and not to the religious or political leaders of the day?  Why did he allow these Gentiles, who lived halfway across the known world at that time, to find out about Jesus’ birth and not the Jewish religious leadership?  After all, the Gentiles were not those to whom the promise of a Savior had been given.  They were not God’s holy people.  They were unclean, foreigners, who did not know how to keep the Law God had given His people.  Why should they hear about the Savior before the Jewish leadership did?  It just doesn’t seem right.

But God did this for a very good reason.  Those who first learned about the birth of the Savior were those who were ready to hear about Him.  Herod didn’t want another king to be born.  History shows that he had several of his own sons killed so that they wouldn’t rise up against him and take the throne from him.  The murder of the Holy Innocents, which takes place only a few verses after today’s Gospel lesson, is also completely in character for Herod.  In fact, Herod’s reign was so bloody that most secular historians back then didn’t think that the murder of all the babies in the Bethlehem area was even noteworthy enough to write about.  The Jewish leaders were convinced of their own righteousness as Jews and didn’t particularly think they needed a savior from sin (though a political savior, to get Rome off their backs, might be nice).  It was the people you wouldn’t expect, common people like Mary and Joseph, and the shepherds, as well as these learned foreigners from the east, who were best able to receive the Christ, because they knew that any standing they had before God was not because what they could do or who they were, but solely by a gift of God.  And the infant Jesus Christ is that gift.

What happens in today’s Gospel lesson is foreshadows what will happen to Christ throughout His life.  He will be rejected by the Jewish nation as a whole, though many individuals will believe in Him, and eventually His message will go to the Gentiles.  Jesus ordered His disciples to preach first in Jerusalem, Judea, and then Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth.  Paul, even though he is known as the apostle to the Gentiles, always starts from the local Jewish synagogue when he goes into a town, as we read in the book of Acts.  The Jews were always the first to receive the message of Christ, since it was to them that the promises of Christ’s coming were entrusted.  But so often they rejected the message of Christ, while the foreigners, the pagans, accepted it with joy.  This pattern is first seen here with the visit of the Gentile scholars from the east who humbly worship Christ while the Jewish leaders are upset by His coming.  The Jews tended to think of the Lord as their own private national God, and forgot that He is the Lord of all the earth and the creator of all people.  They forgot that even though it was to Israel that the promise of a Savior had been given, that Savior was for all nations.  His sacrifice would be for the sins of the whole world.

You and I, of course, have benefitted from this fact.  The Gentile court scholars from the east who came to worship the child Jesus and give Him expensive gifts are our predecessors.  If it had not been for the fact that the message about Christ is for all nations, you and I would not be here today.  After all, we are not descended from the Israelites.  We are Gentiles.  It is only because the message about Christ was sent also to the Gentiles that we have come to know Him and have come to receive His gifts and offer our sacrifice of thanksgiving today.  The visit of the magi is the first time that Gentiles came to worship Christ in the flesh.  They are the first of a long, long line of Gentiles who have been grafted into the tree of God’s people, a line which now includes us today.

But in another sense, we need to examine ourselves to be sure that we do not bear more resemblance to the Jewish scribes and chief priests.  Even though none of us has Israelite blood, we are similar in some ways to the people of Judah and Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ birth.  Many of us have had the Holy Scriptures, and the promises of God’s salvation, since childhood.  Even though our nation’s culture is rapidly degenerating, there are still many elements of our national character that come from the fact that Christianity is still the most dominant of any one religion among our people, and that even the large numbers of unchurched people are more likely to be lapsed Christians who are at least aware of some elements of Christian teaching, than former members of any other religion.  We have advantages in our relationship to our God that the Gentiles of those times did not have, although the Jews did.  It is tempting for this reason to regard ourselves as somehow special in our own right, because of the fact that we come from a largely Christian nation, and have been associated with the Church for a long time, just as the Jews tended to think that it was their status as God’s people, in and of itself, which would save them.

Unfortunately when we begin to think this way we are as wrong as those Jews were.  It is good that we have been granted free and ready access to the Holy Scriptures in our nation; people in some other nations cannot get the Scriptures very easily.  It is good that we have the right to assemble openly as Christians to receive God’s gifts, which is also something that is forbidden in many other places around the world.  But the temptation is there to think that because of our outward association with the Church and being part of an allegedly Christian-dominated nation that we have some special standing before God.  The truth is that our salvation which is given to us in Word and Sacrament is a gift, not something we have earned by our outward association with God’s people.  Today’s Gospel lesson reminds us of this as well, as it was to these sages from the east that the message of Christ was given through the star, and not to the chief priests and the scribes.

Salvation is a free gift from God, and not due to any good works on our part.  This also means that salvation doesn’t come to us as a reward for our association with Christianity.  Salvation comes through God’s Word and Sacraments preached and administered by those He has sent to do so.  This means also that those who have never encountered the Gospel before, those whose nations are still covered completely or mostly in the darkness of paganism, are just as ready to hear the Gospel as we are, and God will save them through it just as readily as He does us.  This is why the Church through the centuries has continuously reached out to those who do not know Christ in order to bring them to the Word and Sacraments through which the Holy Spirit works salvation.  By God’s grace we are involved in this outreach as well through our Synod as well as through our own personal sharing of the Gospel with our friends and neighbors.  Through our efforts and the efforts of many other Christians throughout the world, those who had no previous contact with the Gospel are being incorporated into the Church.  They are receiving the salvation which Christ won by His innocent death and glorious resurrection.  They are receiving Christ Himself through His Word and His body and blood, the same body and blood which Mary cradled and in which the eastern magi worshiped the King of kings.  This same King is present for our salvation too, here, today.  Come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Circumcision and Name of Jesus, Series B

Sermon on Luke 2:21
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
January 1, 2012 (The Circumcision and Name of Jesus, Series B)

Today is known in the Church’s calendar as the “Circumcision and Name 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.  Now, 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.  As far as the world is concerned, Christmas is long over.  Both Walgreens and Walmart stopped playing Christmas carols over their speaker systems already on the 26th.  Today is a day for looking forward, for looking at what the new year will bring, for new beginnings.  Looking back even one short week to Christmas, is just not what the world wants to do.  But according to the Church’s calendar the year 2012 started over a month ago, way back on the first Sunday in Advent.  Here in the Church, we are still in the Christmas season.  Today 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 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 worldly people use, especially since even though it has become inaccurate over the centuries, that calendar was originally intended to be based on the date our Savior was born.  I say it’s inaccurate because Christ was most likely born in what according to our current calendar would work out to be 5 B.C., and we’re not exactly sure what day of the year He was born on, either.  But that’s just the way it is.  It’s the calendar that everybody uses, and so we use it too.  We too will be celebrating the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012 tonight, either at parties or at home or whatever our plans may be.  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.  Economically, we’re still in fairly bad shape, and that affects our lives, both directly and indirectly, in many, many ways.  Prices are going up (I see it happen daily in the meat department at Walmart), while incomes are not.  Politically, 2012 is a Presidential election year, and what that election will bring us, for good or ill, is anybody’s guess.  And each of us has personal problems and difficulties which may affect us in various ways through the year, whether those be financial problems, difficulties with family members or co-workers, health issues, or any of a thousand other things.

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 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.

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 and prosperity or more wars and more economic chaos and scandal, whether sickness or heath, peace or turmoil in our own personal lives, 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 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 +