Sunday, December 30, 2012

Holy Innocents

Sermon on Matthew 2:13-18
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
December 30, 2012 (Holy Innocents - transferred)

Christmas has consequences.  Jesus Christ is born, and suddenly everything is different.  We move from the Old Testament into the New.  Instead of looking forward to the coming Messiah, God’s people now look back upon Him and His completed sacrifice on our behalf on the cross.  Christmas isn’t just a break from everyday life, a holiday that we celebrate and then go back to our normal lives as if nothing had happened.  The Second Person of the Trinity has taken on human flesh.  Our creator has become one of us.  That’s not something you can ignore.  It changes things.  It changes the world.  And, of course those who have it pretty good in the status quo are going to resist change, even those who used that word as a campaign slogan.  The rich and the powerful, especially, don’t like change that doesn’t serve their purposes and interests.  And there is no more radical change in all the world than the change from allegiance to this world’s prince, Satan, an allegiance into which we were originally born by nature, to an allegiance to the King whose kingdom is not of this world.  The idea that us Christians have an allegiance that goes beyond what we owe to any earthly ruler is threatening to many of the rich and powerful.  Right now the big religious bogeyman in our country is Islam, but I would not be surprised to see any religion that makes exclusive claims about itself, including conservative Christianity, being portrayed as an enemy of civilized society before too many more years.  We can already see the beginnings of this in the way those who have moral objections to abortifacient medications are being treated under the new health-care law.  And so it’s not surprising that even before this newborn heavenly King was old enough to humanly understand what was happening, His very existence indirectly resulted in the murder of countless other children his own age in and around Bethlehem.

Today we celebrate an unusual saint’s day.  Most of the days in the Church’s calendar that are devoted to specific saints, are days which observe the lives, ministries, and deaths of individuals who did great and noteworthy things for the Kingdom of God as adults.  But today we remember a group of innocent children, killed even before they were old enough to know what was happening.  What we see in today’s Gospel lesson is nothing less than the full fury of the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh against God and His gift of salvation and eternal life to us.  It’s not a pretty sight.  We normally tend to avoid thinking about the fact that we human beings are even capable of such brutality and viciousness.  But it happens just the same.  Just as the thousands of innocent victims in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the hijacked airplanes of September 11th are remembered by our country as heroes, even though many of them did nothing more than be in the wrong place at the wrong time, so also these children, the victims of an earlier and less complex (and more officially sanctioned) form of terrorism, are remembered by the Church as heroes as well, since their deaths were directly related to the coming of the Son of God in the flesh to save us from our sins.  So also the innocent children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary a couple of weeks ago.  So also, by the way, ought we to remember the millions of unborn children that have been murdered in our nation since 1973 simply for the sake of selfishness and convenience.  Just as the blood of Abel cried out to God regarding Cain’s guilt, so also cries out the blood of the Holy Innocents, that of the victims of abortion, as well as victims of every other act of violence and murder which has resulted from Cain and Abel’s parents falling into sin.  Even though it’s not strictly true that we as a nation “deserved” September 11th in the sense that the atrocity committed by those hijackers and their supporters is somehow legitimized, it is also true that it is less than we did deserve.  We have put to death more of our own citizens each and every day since the Roe v. Wade verdict in 1973 than died on September 11th.

As their blood cries out to God, we add our voices to it and cry to Him as well: “How long, O Lord, how long?”  Why don’t You do something about it?  The answer, however, is not as simple as we’d like it to be.  You see, if God were simply to wipe out all those who murder and are prideful and want to have things their way, there would be nobody left on the earth.  The attempt to deal with sin the way we want to deal with it, always has unintended consequences, because it is not just our enemies who are selfish and sinful.  We all have the same sin in our hearts as Herod and Hitler and Stalin and, yes, even Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.  We may not have acted on that sin in the grossly destructive ways that those men did, but our hearts are no different, neither as individuals nor as a nation.  And so if God were to do away with evil in the world by doing away with all the evil men, we wouldn’t like the results.  He’d do away with us, too.

Instead, God deals with evil in the world in a way that preserves His creatures while cleansing them of their sins.  He does it by taking all of the evil and the selfishness and the pride and the lust and the boastfulness and whatever else is involved in the stain of sin on our hearts, and applying it to His own Son.  That’s why Holy Innocents is celebrated as a festival as one of the 12 days of Christmas.  It stands as a reminder to us of why Christmas happened.  Christmas happened so that Good Friday and Easter could happen.  Christ entered the sin-filled world so that He could take that sin upon Himself and in return give us His perfect and holy life.  He was declared guilty so that we could be declared innocent.

In fact, Jesus is the One who truly bears the title of “Holy Innocent.”  Even those babies in Bethlehem were born sinners like the rest of us, so that even their untimely deaths were not more than they deserved.  But He is the only one that is truly innocent, so that His death sanctifies them and their deaths.  And so, since those Old Testament Christian babies, who had been made part of God’s people and been given faith in the coming Messiah through the sacrament of Circumcision, died in that faith, they too were Holy Innocents, not because of their own righteousness, but because of what their Lord would do for them some 30 years later on the cross, and because of the faith in Him that had been granted through the Old Testament Word and the Sacrament of Circumcision.  And thus their deaths were sanctified by Christ to become for them the gate of eternal life.  And their blood cries out, not just of the sin of Herod, but also and more importantly of the salvation of Him who shed His blood for them on the cross.

The same thing is true of you.  Even though you bear the guilt of sin, not just of original sin but also all of the actual sin you have added to it during the course of our lives, you now carry the name of “Holy Innocents.”  Christ’s perfection has become yours.  You have been baptized into Him and have heard His Word declaring you “not guilty,” and you will soon eat His body and drink His blood which was shed on your behalf.  Therefore your death, whenever it comes, will be a testimony not only, not even primarily, to your sin or the sin of those around you.  Rather your death will proclaim to all the world the salvation which Christ has given you.  Death for Christians has become the gate of everlasting life, where the evils of this present world will no longer trouble us or cause us to weep any more.  Rachel will no longer weep for her children, for there will be no more sin, sorrow, or suffering.  Christ the Innocent One has made all of us Holy Innocents with Him, and we will all share in that blessedness with Him forever.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve

Sermon on Luke 2:1-20
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
December 24, 2012 (The Nativity of our Lord)

“Nails, spear shall pierce Him through, the cross be borne for me, for you.  Hail, hail the Word made flesh, the Babe, the Son of Mary.”  Not the sort of love, peace, and joy that you normally hear about at this time of year, is it?  But that’s really what we’re here for.  The baby born in Bethlehem is the Savior, Christ the Lord.  But what does it mean to be the Savior?  It means taking the effects of our sin upon Himself.  It means death, because that’s the wages of sin.  God came to earth, yes, but He came to die.  Tonight has meaning precisely because of Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Many times during Jesus’ ministry He reminded His disciples of this.  And just as many times they failed to understand what He meant.  Mary, who treasured all these things up in her heart, would live to see it all happen.  The shepherds came to worship, not just a baby, but the Good Shepherd who gives His life for the sheep.  The angels sang of peace on earth, but that peace came at the price of the cross.  We celebrate the birth of our Savior, but His salvation is from sin, death, and hell, by means of His taking our place.  Christmas doesn’t mean anything without Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

But because He was born, lived, died, and rose again for us, we really do have peace with God now.  All the things which go wrong because of sin in the world are now no longer permanent because He took these things upon Himself.  We celebrate His birth because the angels in heaven now can celebrate our eternal birth into His kingdom in Holy Baptism.  We rejoice with them because He was born to save us.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Advent 4, Series C

Sermon on Luke 1:39-56
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
December 23, 2012 (Fourth Sunday in Advent)

Today we celebrate the occasion when St. Mary, immediately after finding out that she had conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God which Gabriel had spoken to her, traveled to visit her relative St. Elizabeth, who was already three months pregnant with St. John the Baptizer.  One thing we notice about the events recorded in our text today is how Elizabeth uses the phrase, “Why me?” as she greets Mary.  It’s a different use of those words than what we usually mean when we say them.  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?  Why did I have to be the one to run into that deer and wreck my car?  A thousand similar questions are asked every day by people who are undergoing hardships, as well as by those who are frustrated with a thousand silly little things that go wrong in their daily routine.  “Why me?”

However, this is not an innocent question.  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 we can bear relying upon His power.  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.  God sometimes brings us to repentance for our selfishness by taking material blessings away from us to remind us to rely on Him.  If we have come to rely upon the creature rather than the creator, we are committing idolatry, and it is better for us not to have those blessings which we have turned into our false gods.  This is God’s answer to the question of “Why me?” when it is asked in this selfish 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!  Especially 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, but as a human embryo inside Mary’s womb, barely visible at this time even with a microscope.  Elizabeth had no physical way of knowing He was there.  She 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 does the same thing when she sings the Magnificat.  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.  We became part of Him and He a part of us.  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, we 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 16, 2012

Advent 3, Series C

Sermon on Luke 7:18-35
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
December 16, 2012 (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.  I’ve already been tempted to throw something at the speaker system at Walmart.  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 9, 2012

Advent 2, Series C

Sermon on Luke 3:1-20
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
December 9, 2012 (Second Sunday in Advent)

Repent!  The kingdom of God is near!  This is the message of John the Baptist.  It has been the message of the Advent season in the Church as long as there has been such a thing as Advent.  Repent!  The kingdom is at hand!  You could say that this has always been a core part of the preaching of the Church, in whatever season of the year.  Repent!  Confess your sins and receive baptism for the forgiveness of them!  The tone for this message was set by the last Old Testament prophet, John the Baptist, whose ministry is begun in today’s Gospel lesson.  Now, in some times and places the preaching of repentance has taken on extreme forms, especially when men have presumed to think they knew exactly when our Lord was going to come, and unfortunately failed predictions of our Lord’s coming tend to take away from the credibility of the message to repent.  But the message still rings forth.  Repent!  The kingdom of God is near!  Repent of your sins!  Receive forgiveness of them in the waters of Holy Baptism!  Repent!

John the Baptist came to the region around the Jordan River to preach precisely this message.  He preached to everyone who came to him that they should repent of their sins and receive forgiveness through the washing of Holy Baptism.  And why did he preach this way?  Because he was sent to prepare the way of the Lord who was coming to His people.  Of course, when the events recorded in our text took place, Christ had already come in one sense.  He had already been born as a baby in Bethlehem over thirty years ago and had grown into manhood as the son of a carpenter in Nazareth.  But John was preparing His way, because He had not yet come to His people in the sense of bringing His Word to them.  Jesus had not yet begun His public ministry, but he would soon.  It was to prepare for Jesus to begin preaching and teaching publicly that John was sent to preach in the wilderness.

John’s mission of preparing the way for Christ to come to His people took the form of the preaching of repentance.  What John is there to do is to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah which forms the last part of today’s Gospel lesson.  John is literally “crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.”  What John is doing when he preaches repentance is preparing the way for the Lord to come in to the hearts of His people.  There are obstacles however, barriers and rough terrain which make it difficult for the Lord to come.  These barriers are what is called sin.  Every human being born since Adam and Eve fell, except for Christ Himself, has had sin dwelling in his heart.  Since Christ has come to forgive sin, the Law must first be preached so that we become aware of how sinful we are, and become repentant of our sins, so that when the good news of forgiveness is preached we can receive it with thanksgiving and take it to heart and treasure it.  After all, how can a person receive forgiveness of sins if he is not aware that he is a sinner?  John prepares the way of the Lord by preaching the Lord’s Word of Law.

The sins which John preaches about are described in Isaiah’s prophecy as mountains and valleys and crooked places and other obstacles that prevent the construction of a smooth road.  Some places are too high for the road to climb over, and these must be cut down.  Some places are too low for the road to go into, and these must be filled in.  The road should be as straight as possible, because if it is too curvy a person on it will go twice the distance they need to.  And finally, the surface of the road needs to be smooth.  We can compare the obstacles that are present when a road is built to our sin.  Some of our sin is things we do, and some of it is things we don’t do.  These are known as sins of commission and sins of omission.  The things we do that are wrong must be broken down and reduced to nothing by the crushing blows of God’s “Thou shalt not.”  Thou shalt not steal.  Thou shalt not kill.  Thou shalt not commit adultery.  Thou shalt not covet.  Thou shalt not bear false witness.  The things we don’t do must be filled in and supplied.  Love the Lord your God.  Honor the sabbath day.  Love your neighbor.  Honor your father and mother.  Help those who are in need.  Defend your neighbor, speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.  And so on.  The crooked places in our hearts are to be made straight.  Instead of putting on a show and trying to fool everyone with our own holiness, we are to be honest about ourselves and our own true spiritual condition.  The rough places are to be made smooth.  Even those sins which are part of our personalities, such as anger or stubbornness or pride or selfishness, must be done away with.  Everything must be made ready for the coming of Christ.

Of course, it’s one thing to say that this must be done, and its another thing to do it.  In fact, we can’t because even trying to do so on our own denies that God is the giver of all good things.  The Holy Spirit must do it through the preaching of repentance and the forgiveness of sins.  To simply say that all of these sins must be avoided and that all of these good works must be done does not allow us to actually do that.  All that it does is to make us realize that we cannot do any of it.  We cannot please God on our own.  Without Him, we are poor, lost, miserable sinners.  But as poor, lost, miserable sinners we are prepared for Christ to come to us through the Gospel and build in our hearts new, straight, smooth roads of love to God and the neighbor.

Through the Gospel Christ comes to us and creates in us a clean heart, renewing a right spirit within us.  When we were baptized into Christ, we were clothed with Him.  And when we were clothed with Him, that means that His righteousness has become ours.  He committed no sin, neither sins of omission nor sins of commission.  He was obedient to His Father by helping the people He met, healing their diseases, giving them life, speaking the truth, keeping the sabbath day, and so forth.  He was also obedient in that He suffered under the abuse that was heaped upon Him.  All the guilt of the sins of the whole world was put upon Christ when He died on the cross, and He did not complain or open His mouth, but patiently suffered so that we might be free of those sins.  His heart had no hills or valleys in it, but was straight as an arrow.  This righteousness of His became ours in Baptism and continues to become ours as we return to Baptism in Holy Absolution.  And so, just like John the Baptist prepared the way for Christ to come in the flesh by preaching Christ’s Word and baptizing them into Christ, so today Baptism and Holy Absolution prepare a person to receive Christ’s flesh and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar, as well as preparing us to receive Christ when He comes again in glory.

So the message of John the Baptist is the same as the message of the Church today: Repent!  The kingdom is near!  While we cannot know exactly when Christ will return again in glory, the kingdom is near in many ways.  Christ comes to us with all His blessings in His body and blood.  His people, united and strengthened by His body and blood, go forth to serve their neighbor out of love.  When Christians live in the world, and perform their respective jobs with the idea that they are doing these things to serve God and not just men, then the kingdom of God comes to all the world in and through them.  The kingdom of God is indeed near, nearer than we can ever comprehend.  We have been washed with Christ, we have put on Christ, we eat His body and drink His blood, and when we serve our neighbor it is Christ who is serving in us.  The kingdom of God is very near.

When John preached in the wilderness, he preached a message of repentance and the forgiveness of sins.  In doing that he was preparing the way, smoothing and paving the road, for Christ to come and begin His earthly ministry.  But through John’s preaching Christ was already coming to His hearers through the power of the Holy Spirit.  We cannot prepare ourselves to meet Christ; we are too filled with sin, but God does so through the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments.  He has prepared us for Christ to come.  Let us now receive Him who comes to us in His body and blood.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Advent 1, Series C

Sermon on Luke 19:28-40
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
December 2, 2012 (First Sunday in Advent)

The Palm Sunday Gospel has done double-duty as the Gospel for Advent 1 for many centuries.  The three-year series which the Roman church came up with in the late 1960’s replaced it with other Gospel lessons, but in LBW the Missouri Synod’s Commission on Worship decided to restore the Palm Sunday Gospel to its proper place at the very beginning of the Church Year in each of the three series.  This reading is entirely appropriate for the First Sunday in Advent, because it depicts for us what the season of Advent is all about: preparing for and meditating upon the coming of our King to us, His people.  Of course, there are many ways in which our Lord comes to us.  For the sake of convenience, we usually talk about our Lord’s advent in three ways: past, present, and future.  He has come to us, referring to Christ’s incarnation at Christmastime, which we will celebrate in less than a month; he comes to us in Word and Sacrament, and He will come to us, referring to His return in glory on the last day.  Just as Christ came to Jerusalem lowly and riding on a donkey, He came to this world lowly, born of a poor young virgin named Mary, in a cave that functioned as a stable because there was no place else to stay.  Just as when He came to Jerusalem the people sang, “Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord.  Hosanna in the highest,” when He comes to His Church Sunday after Sunday we sing these very same words that He has first given to us in Holy Scripture.  When He comes again in glory there will be no stopping Him despite the wishes of those who would rather He stayed away, just as the Pharisees couldn’t stop Him or His disciples when He entered triumphally into Jerusalem.

The first thing we notice about what happened on that Palm Sunday is that Jesus chose to ride into Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey, a lowly beast of burden.  We might have expected Him to ride on a fine horse or a chariot drawn by several horses, instead of this lowly donkey.  But then, we might have expected Him to choose a more glorious method of becoming man than to become an infant and be born in the normal manner from the womb of a young carpenter’s fiancĂ©e named Mary.  And when He comes to us now in the Divine Service we would expect Him to come in a way more glorious or noble than water, the words of a pastor who is a sinful human being like everyone else, and bread and wine.  But God doesn’t do things in the way we might expect.  He comes to us in simple, lowly things out of love, so that we in our sinfulness can be healed by His forgiveness rather than destroyed by His righteousness.  Only when He comes again in glory will His divine power and majesty be shown forth to the world.  When He came to us at Bethlehem, and when He comes to us now, he shields His power and majesty under lowly and ordinary things, just like He did when He came to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

But because He comes to us in this lowly and simple way, it becomes too easy for our sinful human nature to think that there is nothing special here.  It is too easy for us to dismiss the words of the pastor in Holy Absolution and in Preaching as just the pastor’s words, and not as God’s Word.  It is too easy to forget about the glorious reality of death and resurrection that Christ works in a person being baptized, and instead focus on the cuteness of the baby and how he reacts to having water poured upon his head.  In the same way, it is too easy to forget the purpose for which Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, namely to die and rise again, and simply focus upon the cuteness of the baby lying in the manger.  It is too easy to forget the glorious reality of the heavenly feast of victory of which we partake in the Lord’s Supper, and simply focus on the fact that it adds to the service time and makes things complicated when we celebrate it so often.

This failure to see things in their proper focus is exactly what the problem of the Pharisees was when they complained to our Lord on the road outside Jerusalem.  Their Old sinful flesh didn’t want to be bothered by the Lord’s coming to Jerusalem, because His message and His life was an upset to their complacency and their pride.  It makes us uncomfortable when we remember what our Lord came to do for us, and what He does for us when He comes to us now, because our pride doesn’t like the idea that we needed Christ to die on the cross.  Our pride doesn’t like the idea that we need Christ to forgive our sins, to wash us clean in Baptism, to give us His body and blood.  We like to think we can do it ourselves.  We, like the Pharisees, would rather Christ didn’t come, because His coming shows us our own unworthiness, and we’d rather pretend that everything is alright.

But of course the Pharisees weren’t the only ones who were with Christ on that day.  He also had with Him a large multitude of His disciples who worshiped Him and sang His praises.  These disciples had been born again through the Word of Christ and lived no longer for themselves but for the Lord who was going to Jerusalem to win their freedom from sin, death, and hell.  Despite the lowliness of the donkey upon which Jesus rode, His disciples gave Him the treatment fit for a king.  They made the dusty road into a royal, cushioned highway using their own cloaks, and waved palm branches, and sang His praises.  Even though Jesus did not exalt Himself but rather humbled Himself, He was still the Lord of heaven and earth, the creator who ruled in heaven over all of creation.  His people, those who had been born again through His Word, saw Him for what He was, and they treated Him as well as they were able like the mighty ruler He is.  And even though He was humble and lowly in that manger in Bethlehem, His praises were sung by angels, and He was worshiped by the shepherds and even by the wise men from the east.

We do the same thing when He comes to us in the Divine Service.  When He comes to us in the Word, on most Sundays we sing the same song the angels sang on Christmas night, “Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”  We didn’t sing that song this morning because the season of Advent has a character of repentance to it, but it is noteworthy that the Gloria we sing, which is an echo of the angel’s song, is also what the people sang that day on the road into Jerusalem.  And when He comes to us in His body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar, we echo the words of Psalm 118, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the highest,” just as the people on the road that day did.  Despite the common appearance of water, human speech, bread and wine, it is Christ who comes to us, and we his people recognize Him and praise Him for it.

When He comes again in glory, the majesty and power and glory which have been hidden under His seeming lowliness will be seen by everyone, and whether or not they want to, all people will acknowledge Him as the Lord of the universe.  We who have received Him in Word and Sacrament will be overjoyed at His coming, and even those who would rather ignore His coming will for once not be able to complain, because they will see their true Lord coming to judge them.  His coming again will fulfill everything that we have received in His life on earth and His coming in Word and Sacrament.  During this season we focus on preparing for His coming to us, and we do that by receiving Him in His Word and His body and blood.  By His grace, we will be ready to sing His praises when He comes in glory.  Come, Lord Jesus!  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +