Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Holy Innocent and the Holy Innocents

Sermon on Matthew 2:13-18
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
December 29, 2013 (Holy Innocents)

There are several places in the Church Year that end up being a little backward.  There’s nothing wrong with that fact, but it is a reminder that the Church Year is a human construct.  The Church Year is useful to keep order in the Church (as well as keeping pastors away from dwelling on their own pet ideas to the exclusion of the rest of Christian doctrine – or to try to, anyway), as well as give everyone a bit of structure as we consider the most important events in our Lord’s life and our salvation, and so the fact that it’s a human invention doesn’t make it wrong to follow it.  But, since the Church Year is, properly speaking, a human invention, it does sometimes do things in a bit of an illogical way.   For example, we observe the tragedy of the killing of all the infant boys in and around Jerusalem by Herod before we celebrate the arrival of the wise men whose news about a newborn King sent Herod into that murderous rage.  We remember the sacrifice of those infant boys today, but we won’t celebrate the arrival of the wise men until next Sunday.  It’s backward, I know.  But it’s how things developed over the centuries, so if we’re going to follow the Church Year we sort of just have to deal with it.

But there’s another way in which this particular festival is unusual.  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 infant boys, 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 little more than a year ago.  So also ought we to remember especially 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.  It’s been said that September 11th, 2001 was the bloodiest and deadliest day in the history of the United States.  Well, it’s not true.  There have been countless days since 1973 which were truly deadly to far more Americans than September 11th ever was.  And we only have to look at the horrors that came to light during the Kermit Gosnell trial to see the ugly reality of what has happened to these innocent children during that time.

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, and even Kermit Gosnell.  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 23, 2013

Come Let Us Adore Him

Sermon on Luke 2:1-20
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
December 24, 2013 (Nativity of our Lord)

“Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”  These words are very familiar to us, both as part of the liturgy, and because the King James Version of this Gospel lesson is probably engraved in our memories, although for the younger generation at least, our memory has it associated with the voice of the Peanuts character Linus.  In any case, these words are so familiar to us that we hardly blink when we hear them.  But when the shepherds first heard it, now that was an extraordinary experience.  Think of it.  These words were first said by the angels, not in a synagogue or in the temple, but in the sky above the fields outside the small town of Bethlehem.  They were said, not to the very religious people of the day, the Pharisees, but to ordinary shepherds who were spending yet another night out in their fields making sure their sheep didn’t wander off and get themselves into trouble, or get attacked or stolen as they grazed upon the hillside.  And while the message that the angel had given those shepherds was pretty extraordinary, His birth didn’t look like anything to make a big deal about.  A woman from out of town had given birth in an animal stall, because, not surprisingly given the crowding caused by Caesar’s census, there was no place else for her and her husband to stay.  The whole Christmas story is one paradox right after another, where the extraordinary and the incredible meets the ordinary and the commonplace.

Mary and her husband were pious believers in the promises of the Old Testament, but there were a fair number of Jews who expected the Messiah at the time, as we can see when we look at how many people often came to hear Jesus preach later in the Gospels.  There was nothing special about the Holy Family that made them especially worthy for Christ to come and dwell with them.  And even the Child who was born that night didn’t look all that extraordinary; He looked like an ordinary baby.  More than that, He was really beneath the notice of many people, having been born in the lowliest of places at a highly awkward time for His mother and her husband.  There didn’t seem to be anything special about what happened in that stable that night.

While we all know the story, the paradox that we see in the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ defies comprehension and drives the mind to awe and wonder at what is taking place here.  The Almighty, while He governs heaven and earth, must be breast-fed and have His diaper changed, He is that helpless.  The Light of the World relies on strips of cloth and on His mother’s care to keep Him warm and comfortable in the cold night.  The King of Kings has as His throne a feed-trough for animals.  When you meditate upon what really happened that night in Bethlehem, the mind cannot comprehend it all.  Human words cannot describe the incredible wonder that is shown to us when Christ becomes incarnate and is now born of the Virgin Mary.

And the sense of awe and wonder becomes even deeper when we consider that it was for us that all of this happened.  God the Son became man so that mankind might be restored to fellowship with God.  He was born, grew as a normal human being, bore our sins to the cross, suffered and died, rose again, and ascended to God’s right hand so that humankind, whose nature He now has, might go with Him through it all and be restored to fellowship with our Creator.  All of this He did for us, poor sinful beings.

Even the announcement of His birth is full of paradoxes.  As I mentioned before, the angels come, not to Caesar or Herod or to the High Priest but to simple shepherds outside Bethlehem.  The angels whose song fills the highest heaven with music and praise of the Creator of heaven and earth,  sing for the benefit of the poor, miserable shepherds who have to pull an all-nighter to make sure their flocks stay safe.  The fact that it was the shepherds and not the rulers of the world at that time who heard the angels’ song should be a great comfort to us.  The angels came to those who were best able to receive the message.  It was the common people of that day who were ready for Messiah to come.  The rulers were only upset by the birth of Christ.  The massacre of babies that Herod commanded when he found out about the birth of Christ was only a foretaste of what would happen to Christ throughout His life, leading ultimately to His death on the cross.  The leaders of those times did not want Messiah to come and upset their comfortable lives.  But the common people were ready, and those shepherds were their representatives on this night, as were Mary and Joseph themselves.

Likewise it is to us that the Messiah comes today.  It is not to those who are comfortable in their lives on this earth, who are secure in their sins and think only about life in this world, that Christ comes today.  Rather, He comes to those who know that they are sinners and that they need the forgiveness and salvation that He can bring.  He comes to the common people whose lives aren’t wonderful or perfect, who experience all sorts of trouble and problems.  The reason, of course, is that the forgiveness of sins is only possible where there are sins to forgive.  It is precisely when we confess our sinfulness that we are ready to receive God’s forgiveness.  Absolution, preaching, and especially the Holy Supper are not for people who feel especially good about themselves or who feel especially holy; rather they are for people who know that they are sinners and that they need the forgiveness and healing that only Christ can bring.  It is to the poor in spirit, the meek, the humble, and those who know their true unworthiness to receive Him that Jesus comes.  They are the ones who will welcome Him and let Him be their life and their light.

We can see this by the reactions of the characters in this story.  Mary, evidently a quiet, meditative person, treasured up everything that had happened to her in her heart.  We can imagine that she sang the Magnificat to herself many, many times over the years as she considered how God had blessed her.  The shepherds were bursting at the seams.  They told everyone they could about the tiny Messiah whom they had just bowed down and worshiped.  It is the same way with us today.  We who receive Christ for the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our faith today cannot help but meditate upon His blessings, as Mary did, and declare to all the world what He has done for us, as the shepherds did.  It is to us that Christ has now come through Word and Sacrament.  Come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Do Not Fear

Holy Cross cancelled services this morning, so this sermon was never actually preached.  If not for the snowstorm, this is what you would have heard.

Sermon on Matthew 1:18-25
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
December 22, 2013 (Fourth Sunday in Advent)

“Do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”  Usually when we hear an angel saying, “Do not fear,” it’s because whomever he’s talking to is afraid of him.  Just within this part of the church year, there are several times when an angel shows up and the first thing he says is, “Do not fear.”  Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, is serving in the temple and Gabriel shows up and has to tell him not to be afraid.  Mary is so troubled at the Gabriel’s initial greeting, “Greetings, highly favored one, the Lord is with you,” that the angel has to follow up immediately with “Don’t be afraid.”  And of course, as we will celebrate only a few days from now, the shepherds had to be told, “Fear not.”  The sudden appearance of one of God’s supernatural messengers normally provokes fear in human hearts.

But this time, the angel’s assurance not to fear isn’t because of the angel’s own appearance.  This angel (most likely Gabriel as well, though St. Matthew doesn’t tell us) asks Joseph not to fear for a completely different reason.  Joseph had recently found out that his betrothed wife had, as far as anyone could tell up to this point, been unfaithful to him.  Now, he would have been within his rights to denounce her publicly and have her stoned, in accordance with the Law of Moses.  But instead, because he does still love her and wants to protect her, he decides to divorce her quietly.  It hurts him and troubles him that this has become necessary, but despite her apparent sin he still wishes to do things in a way that protects her from the harsh judgment of the law.  Joseph had a stake in this, too.  After all, if he went ahead with the marriage and then Mary had one of those “miracle pregnancies” that take a lot less than nine months, if you know what I mean, Joseph’s own standing in the community, not to mention Mary’s, would be severely reduced.  (By the way, I suspect this was part of the reason God sent them to Egypt: not just to flee Herod, but also so that the timing of Jesus’ birth would not become a subject for conversation and gossip among their neighbors in Nazareth.)

Which is why when the angel tells him not to be afraid to go ahead with the original plans for the marriage.  Joseph’s fear was not of the angel but of what he thought he was going to have to do.  Instead, the angel tells him not to fear what may happen if he went ahead.  This was no ordinary pregnancy.  This was the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, God Himself, who was developing in Mary’s womb.  Mary had not been unfaithful to Joseph, but instead had been chosen to be the mother of God.  Joseph had been chosen to be the adoptive father of none other than the singular Angel of the Lord who had been appearing to His people in the tabernacle and temple throughout the Old Testament.  The baby in Mary’s womb was Himself the one who had given Moses the law regarding adultery that Joseph, out of mercy toward his bride, had here decided not to follow.

But this is the point, isn’t it?  God the Son went through all this in order to have mercy on His wayward creation.  What we have deserved by our sins is far worse than death by stoning; it is eternity separated from God’s love and grace, experiencing only His wrath.  Mary was innocent of the sin of which she was accused, but we are guilty every day of sins more than we can possibly number, let alone atone for.  We who, as the Church, are supposed to be His bride, follow the temptations and enticements of the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh far more often than we would like to admit.  And yet, He takes us under His protection.  The Church’s Bridegroom does not fear to take His bride under His care despite how unfaithful she has been to Him.

Even His coming into this world as a helpless infant shows us what kind of bridegroom He is.  It is precisely because He loves us and wants us as His own that He is born in this humble way, of a young Jewish girl from a backwater town called Nazareth.  It is precisely because He is willing to bear the punishment for our unfaithfulness that He takes upon Himself our weakness, including the death we deserved.  It’s precisely because He wants us as His pure and holy bride that He allows His birth to happen in such a way that even His own mother is put in what seems to be a questionable position with regard to her pregnancy.  It’s precisely because He wants us to be born again in Him that He is born among us.

But, that’s how He works.  He purifies from the inside out.  He joined us in our humanity not by descending from the clouds with power and glory, but by becoming a baby within his mother’s body.  He comes to us now by allowing us to eat and drink of His body and blood.  It is not what goes into a man that makes him unclean, it’s what is already inside of him and comes out in the form of hurtful words and deeds that shows that he is unclean.  And so Jesus’ cleansing of us has to start from within.  Baptism puts to death and resurrects the heart before we can see the effects on the human body at the grave and in the final resurrection.  It is precisely within our minds and hearts that His Word takes root before it produces the fruit of good works.  And it is precisely in our bodies that His body, crucified and shed for the forgiveness of our sins, takes up residence and will bring forth the fruit of eternal life.  Do not fear to receive Him into your very selves, for what is conceived in you is of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Are You the One Who Is to Come?

Sermon on Matthew 11:2-15
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
December 15, 2013 (Third Sunday in Advent)

“Are You the coming one, or should we look for another?”  How should the Messiah act?  What should He be doing?  How do we know who it is we are dealing with?  As He himself said later on in His ministry, many false messiahs would come.  How do we know that He is the true one?  That’s the question John was asking in his prison cell, or at least, John’s disciples were asking it.  And so they go to the source and ask Him directly who He is.  Are You really the Messiah promised in the Old Testament?  Are You really the one who will save Your people?  And, of course, if He says “yes,” then even that doesn’t answer the question, does it.  There’s nothing that prevents a false messiah from saying he’s the coming one.  After all, if he didn’t claim to be the messiah, he wouldn’t be a false messiah, now would he?  He’d just be some guy minding his own business.  Which means that both a false messiah and the true Messiah would each say he’s the messiah.  That doesn’t help us any.

And so Jesus points to what He is doing.  The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, and the poor have the good news preached to them.  But the reason He points to these things is not because He’s carrying on some sort of “signs-and-wonders” type of ministry where He uses outlandish miracle-working shows to get the people’s attention and, more importantly, their money.  Rather the reason He points to these things is because this is what Isaiah had prophesied He would do in today’s Old Testament lesson: “The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.”  These are things that Messiah will do because these things are who He is.  Blindness, deafness, lameness, muteness, and so on are among the many possible symptoms of being descended from Adam and Eve.  They are reminders to us of the brokenness of this old world.  If Jesus were merely doing signs and wonders for their own sake, He’d also be doing silly things like knocking people down with a wave of his hand (which, by the way, is the exact opposite of healing, when you think about it) or even silly things like making stuff float in the air or whatever.

Instead, the signs Jesus points to here have to do with what sin has done to humanity.  Some are blind, and all of our eyes deteriorate to one extent or another as we live in this old world (says the pastor who’s probably going to need multifocal lenses the next time he gets his eyes checked).  Some are deaf, and many end up needing hearing aids at one time or another (some seem to be more deaf when their spouse talks than at other times, though, uh, not that I’m being autobiographical here or anything).  Some are lame, and most need wheelchairs, or at least canes or walkers by the end of their lives.  Some are unable to speak, and a stroke could easily cost any of us a significant amount of our vocabulary.  It’s precisely these things Jesus deals with, because it’s precisely sin He’s come to deal with.

But these physical symptoms of sin in the world are only reminders to us of the true problems sin has caused us.  It hasn’t only damaged our physical eyesight, it’s made us completely blind to His face.  It hasn’t only impaired our physical hearing, it’s made us deaf to His Word.  It hasn’t only made us lame, it has made us incapable of making any progress toward Him by our own reason or strength.  It hasn’t only made us mute, it’s made us incapable of praying, praising, and giving Him thanks at all.  The fact that we are damaged and deteriorating physically are only outward signs of our sheer helplessness when it comes to fixing our broken relationship with Him.

And so the fact that it is these things that Jesus is fixing is an indication that He comes not just to impress people by fixing our bodies temporarily, but that us poor, blind, deaf, miserable sinners have the good news preached to us that these afflictions will be fixed eternally.  He makes the spiritually deaf hear His Word, the spiritually blind see His face, the spiritually lame walk before Him, and the spiritually mute sing His praises, but these things are true not just spiritually but physically in the resurrection of all flesh.  Not just our souls but our bodies will be raised from death perfectly healthy and able to perfectly serve Him when He comes again in glory.  And that is a “sign and wonder” that nobody will be able to fake.  Only God can raise the dead.  Only God has raised the dead.    Only God can make others share in His death and resurrection by water and the Word.  Only God can make His own body and blood, broken, blind, lame, mute, deaf, and dead, into a meal that gives us healing, sight, hearing, and the ability to praise Him without end.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand

Sermon on Matthew 3:1-12
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
December 8, 2013 (Second Sunday in Advent)

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!”  “Even now he axe is laid to the root of the tree!”  “His winnowing fork is in His hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  Sounds like John is predicting the end of the world and the arrival of Judgment Day.  And yet here we are, almost 2,000 years later, still awaiting the final judgment.  Should we disregard John’s warning?  Many so-called prophets have showed up over the course of those 2,000 years, claiming to know when the end will come.  Harold Camping is one of the more well-known false prophets who have dared to predict when Judgment Day will happen recently.  We’re still here, more than a year after his most recent prediction was supposed to happen.  Is John simply an ancient version of the same sad story?

Well, John really is predicting the arrival of God’s Kingdom.  The kingdom is where the king is.  God Himself really had arrived on earth.  In fact, it was nearer than anybody had thought.  John had met Him personally already, in his mother’s womb, and rejoiced to see the day.  The King was already among His people.  The fire had already been kindled for the eternal burning of those who would not repent.  The axe really was ready to chop down the unfruitful tree and throw it into the eternal fire as well.  John’s prediction of Judgment Day was not at all inaccurate or premature.  The kingdom had already arrived.

What nobody understood at the time, and what far too few understand in our own day, is that the King was also the tree which would be chopped down.  The winnowing fork would cast Him into the fire.  Judgment Day really was at hand, but the sentence of death would be borne by the King Himself.  The sky would be darkened.  There would be earthquakes.  The dead would be raised.  Judgment Day itself had come upon the world.

And yet, God in His mercy has allowed the world time yet for repentance.  The fires of hell are kindled, and those who refuse to accept that the King died in their place will still suffer them eternally.  This world was already carried down to destruction on Good Friday, but it still staggers on, giving us time for repentance and faith.  But the time really is limited.  Harold Camping may have been wrong in his claim that the world would end in 2012, but for a vast number of people, 2012 really was the end.  Even the day he had set really was the last day for a great many people.  Every day, including this day, many die or are killed, whether due to sickness or old age, whether due to intentional or accidental events, whether due to natural or man-made violence.  Even to those who try to pretend that the end isn’t coming, it comes.  Even those who think that they’re too good for death or destruction, are laid low by the axe of death.  Even the outwardly pious brood of vipers, who offer us the same temptation as the serpent in the garden to try to become like God apart from Him – even those vipers will share in that serpent’s fate.   The end comes to all of us, sooner or later, and beyond that point our eternal destiny is fixed.  We live in a world that is dying, and thus we are dying.  Just as it will eventually die, so will each of us, on that day if not before.  The kingdom of heaven is near, and we dare not be casual or careless about that fact.

But carelessness is not the same as hopelessness.  To heed John’s warning is not to panic or to despair.  Because, even though the world continues to stumble along blindly toward its own destruction, the King has already brought into existence the new heavens and the new earth.  While many die rejecting Him, and thus become rejected and dying eternally, He calls all to join Him on the other side of the grave.  The world’s fatal wounds became His wounds.  The world’s scars became His scars.  The world’s death became His death.  Which means that His resurrection is the birth of the world to come.  His presence now indicates the presence of the new heavens and the new earth.

And so, the kingdom of heaven is near.  It’s right here, in fact.  The king comes to us, and brings with Him forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.  The crucified king crucifies us with him so that we may join Him on the other side of the grave.  We drown in the water connected with and comprehended in His word, and rise again, our robes washed clean in the flood of His blood.  He gives us Himself as He is both host and meal at the victory banquet which has no end.  We hear with our ears, and eat and drink with our mouths, Him who is the great King who comes as judge of both the living and the dead.  The kingdom of heaven is near.  We eat and drink with the King Himself.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +