Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Nails, Spear, and Peace

Sermon on Luke 2:1-20
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
December 24, 2014 (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 +

Saturday, December 20, 2014

You Have Found Favor with God

Sermon on Luke 1:26-38
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
December 21, 2014 (The Fourth Sunday in Advent)

Being reminded of our own sinfulness is not pleasant.  Most people go out of their way to avoid it if they can.  Of course, it’s not just the reminders of the end of the world that do this to us.  Our old selves flee from any reminder that God’s Law makes demands of us that we have not, and cannot fulfill.  And this includes the reminders of His Law that come to our minds when we see or encounter one of His messengers.  Even human pastors make some people uncomfortable, because of the reminder we represent, even without saying anything, when someone sees one of us wearing a clerical collar in public, of whatever has been bothering that person’s conscience.  Even my co-workers at Walmart take an extra second or two to recognize me if I stop by the store where I work to pick up something while I’m wearing my clerical collar, because they see that collar and are suddenly blind to everything else about me, including my face.  Even when I’m wearing my Walmart vest, some of my co-workers who know I’m a pastor will suddenly apologize if they’ve used foul language in my presence.  Of course, there isn’t much I haven’t heard, so if they think they’ll offend me specifically, I’d rather they not bother apologizing, because that just ends up being hypocritical.  On the other hand, if remembering that I’m a pastor causes them to remember that they shouldn’t be using foul language in the first place, that’s another thing entirely.  In any case, however, if that’s the reaction that God’s human messengers get from their fellow sinners,  it’s not surprising that God’s supernatural messengers provoke outright fear in the hearts of those who see them, even in the heart of the virgin Mary.

But Gabriel says to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”  And he then goes on to tell her what will happen to her, that she will become the mother of the boy-child who is God Himself, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.  It is through the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God on the lips of His messenger, His angel, that God the Son comes to dwell within her.  And the Word does what it says, as always.  God the Son does, in fact, come to dwell within her.  He is conceived as an infant in her womb, but He also comes to dwell within her in an even more miraculous way, the same way He comes to dwell within each of us by the power of the Word.  He comes to dwell within her heart, to put to death the fears and doubt that come from her old self, so that a new heart can be created within her, a right spirit renewed within her.

That’s what God’s Word does for us.  Remember, God can’t lie.  Not so much because He’s good and won’t tell a lie, but because His Word is powerful and creative, and whatever He says comes true even if it wasn’t true before.  For those who don’t know or refuse to acknowledge their sin, God’s Law comes and crushes us and causes us to fear God’s wrath and punishment.  But more importantly, the Gospel, the good news of what God has done for us, tell us that we should not be afraid.  The old Adam is right to be afraid; Christ’s coming to us means that he gets drowned underneath the waters of Holy Baptism, and that this old life and the ability to pretend God doesn’t exist and we can continue living comfortably in our sin are themselves temporary.  But what God says to us then is, “Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.”  And that’s the whole point of what we’re about as the Christian Church.  That’s the whole point of my job as your pastor.  Because of Christ’s innocent life, sacrificial death, and glorious resurrection, we have found favor with God.  God comes to dwell within us, under bread and wine, with the same body and blood that were conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.

As we examine ourselves according to God’s Law, this doesn’t seem possible.  We see our sin, our selfishness, our tendency to do even outwardly good things for the wrong reasons.  We know we aren’t worthy to have God’s messenger speak to us, let alone for Christ to come and dwell with us.  But what is impossible with men is possible with God.  What we couldn’t do for ourselves, He did for us.  He lived a perfect life, died an innocent death, rose again, and ascended into heaven, so that we could die to our sins and live a perfect new life with Him.  For Christ’s sake, we also have found favor with God.  It may look impossible that this could be true, but with God, nothing shall be impossible.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, December 13, 2014

We Are Not the Christ (And That's a Good Thing!)

Sermon on John 1:6-8, 19-28
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
December 14, 2014 (The Third Sunday in Advent)

John confessed and did not deny.  Usually when we hear those words, we expect an affirmative statement of some sort.  Something without the word not in it.  To use the word not is what we would normally call a denial, not a confession.  We would expect the Gospel writer to say that John denied that he was the Christ.  But that’s not what the text says.  It says that John confessed and did not deny, saying, “I am not the Christ.”  A confession, not a denial, which nevertheless contains the word not in it.

In many ways, however, John’s confession is the fundamental confession of the Christian faith.  As St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians, no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.  This confession, however, is set against the first and most basic temptation from the Garden of Eden: “You will be like God.”  The most basic idolatry, the most basic breaking of the First Commandment, is not a matter of worshiping carved images or other obviously false gods.  The most basic idolatry is thinking that we are our own gods.  The most basic idolatry is thinking that we can control our relationship both with God and with the rest of creation.  And so, when John says, “I am not the Christ,” he’s not so much denying that he’s the Coming One, as he is affirming that Someone Else who is coming is the Messiah who takes away the sin of the world.  He’s affirming that Jesus, not himself, is Lord.

Of course, under pressure from the Jewish religious leaders, he’s forced to expand on that confession.  After a couple of other fishing questions, he’s finally asked point blank, “What do you say about yourself?”  And even there he doesn’t simply identify himself, but refers to an Old Testament prophecy from St. Isaiah, in which John is identified simply as one who prepares the way and then simply gets out of the way.

We’re not put on this earth to promote ourselves, but to confess in word and deed our Lord Jesus Christ.  But how often, even when we think we are proclaiming Jesus, do we end up talking about ourselves, about “what Jesus has done in my life” rather than what Jesus has done for all of us on the Cross given us in Word and Sacrament?  It may sound at first like we’re giving all the glory to God, but the more we talk about things that are unique to us as individuals, things that relate to blessings we may have received in this life or ways that our own lifestyles have become better, rather than the salvation that has been worked for all mankind in eternity by Christ on the cross, the more we end up sounding like the Pharisee who prayed in the Temple, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like other men.”

Of course, there is the opposite error, too.  Satan loves to use this one against us.  There is another way of focusing entirely on ourselves.  Now, it is good to examine oneself and know that one is a sinner in need of forgiveness.  But where self-examination becomes morbid self-condemnation, then again you set yourself up against Jesus Christ and try to promote yourself over against Him in a perverse way.  The idea that your sins are too big to be forgiven.  This, too, is a sinful and wrong focus on self.  Jesus has died for your sin, it’s forgiven and forgotten and done away with.  As far as God is concerned it never happened.  That’s what the words “I forgive you” mean.  To continue focusing on our sin after we have heard Christ’s own messenger, sent to prepare His way, say, “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” is to promote yourself at the expense of Christ who has taken your sin and given you His righteousness in its place.

You see, that is the point.  We are nothing, Christ is everything.  Both as sinners and as saints, our focus is not on ourselves.  Who we are doesn’t matter.  Christ and His word of Law, crushing overconfident, self-righteous hearts, and of Gospel, rebuilding those who know their sins and their wretchedness so that they become the saints God created them to be, these things are what matter.  It’s all about God.  It’s all about Christ and His Word.  Even in the Divine Service, we don’t express ourselves, we confess what God has first said to us concerning those great things He has done for all of us.  That’s why, by the way, I wear these robes.  I’m not here as Tim Schellenbach to tell you about Tim Schellenbach.  Tim Schellenbach is nobody.  These robes are there to cover me up so that I end up looking like any another pastor.  I’m just a voice, like John the Baptist, calling in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.”

And that is what all of us are as we confess back to God, to each other, and to those around us who do not know Christ yet, the great things God has done for us.  We do not promote ourselves or even our congregation.  Yes, we’re a lot smaller than we once were, and yes, that’s worrisome.  But if someone is brought to faith through our confession of faith to them and they end up hearing God’s Word and receiving His body and blood on a regular basis at Grace or Pentecost or Faith or Messiah or somewhere else, so what?  We’ve done our job.  Whether or not they come to this place to continue to feed on God’s Word is really beside the point, so long as they continue to feed on God’s Word.  We’re not here to promote ourselves but to prepare hearts for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

After all, it’s His coming among us that church is all about.  And thank goodness.  If we came so that we could do something for Him first and foremost, we’d always fall woefully short.  Even the largest churches in our Synod have their share of mistakes and mishaps during the service.  Their organists also play one too many or too few verses sometimes, their pastors also occasionally say things that don’t quite come out right despite the best of intentions (not to mention getting their tang tungled up during the sermon), their secretaries also commit typos in the service folder.  And so we shouldn’t be surprised that our little congregation is no different.  We try our best, but our best (and for that matter a large church’s best) could never compare to the angels and archangels in heaven if you look and listen with earthly eyes and ears.  But it is the one who comes among us in His body and blood, whose way His messenger stands in the pulpit right now to prepare, who is the real star of this show.  And He is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  What He brings to you is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  He came, He was born, grew up, lived a perfect life in your place, died for your sins, and rose again for your salvation.  He gives you that perfect life, innocent death, and glorious resurrection to eternal life here and now.  And He will come again in glory to take you to that place where you will experience the fullness of these joys, these blessings, these gifts from His hand.  That’s what this service is all about.  God does it all.  I am merely the voice preparing His way, as are we all as we confess back to Him, to one another, and to the world around us what we have heard.  He is the one who is really important.  We aren’t even worthy to loose the straps of His sandals.  But He gives us forgiveness, life, and salvation nonetheless.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Friday, December 5, 2014

Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord

Sermon on Mark 1:1-8
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
December 7, 2014 (The Second Sunday in Advent)

“Aren’t the Abana and the Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the rivers of Israel?  Why should I go wash in that muddy Jordan River?” asks Naaman the Syrian.  It really does seem a bit silly, doesn’t it.  At least to human wisdom.  Something as ordinary as water serving as the transition from sickness to health, from impurity to purity, from death to life.  And yet, here’s John, washing people in the same muddy old Jordan River in which Naaman had bathed centuries ago.  Only, now it’s not just physical, temporal and temporary healing that is at stake.  It’s eternal health, eternal life.  It’s about the forgiveness of sins, that which cleanses us not just in the sight of our fellow human beings, but which cleanses us in the sight of God.

But John isn’t the one doing the baptizing, just as Elijah wasn’t the one telling Naaman to go and wash.  Yes, it was John’s hands that were pouring the water on people’s heads, and Elijah’s mouth that was being used to tell Naaman to go and wash.  But it was God doing the speaking and the washing.  John wasn’t even worthy to untie the sandals of the Son of God who was to come.  And yet it is that same Word, who had already 30 years before this point become man, that was being spoken through John’s mouth.

John is nothing, Jesus is everything.  Your pastor is nothing, Jesus is everything.  You yourselves are nothing, Jesus is everything.  When John says that he’s not worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals, he’s not just saying that he’s simply of some sort of lower rank than Jesus in terms of how well he’s lived up to God’s Law.  He’s confessing his utter sinfulness and ability to come anywhere near God Himself.  When we confess our sins, we’re not just saying we’ve made a few mistakes here and there, and that God will help us fix them and become better people, we’re saying that we’re completely and totally sinful, and that even our best good works are filthy rags which do nothing for us when it comes to our relationship with God.  That’s our problem.  We do see symptoms of our spiritual leprosy in our lives.  We may be ashamed of them, or we may try to excuse or justify them, but either way they’re mere symptoms.  The terminal illness which afflicts us and which causes us to be put into the leper’s colony we call this old world, is the real problem.  Disobedience, anger, lust, covetousness, and dishonesty may be what we see in ourselves, but a born enemy of God is what we really are.

And yet, here comes John, crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord.  And yet he also says he’s unworthy even to stoop down in the dust and loosen Jesus’ sandal strap.  He’s not worthy to get even that close to God.  He’s in the same boat we are, and yet he tells Jerusalem, and us, to prepare the Lord’s way.  Impossible!  But what is impossible with men is possible with God.  The remarkable, the amazing, the downright miraculous thing here is that it is God Himself who prepares the way for us to come and meet Him.  Yes, it is our hearts which need to be changed, but we simply can’t do it.  It is only Jesus who can change our hearts.  And He does so, through the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit.  He is the one who baptizes us into His own death, in order that, just as Christ is risen from the dead, so we too may walk in newness of life.

And so we are prepared to receive the Lord as He meets us.  He Himself has made us ready.  Locusts and wild honey give way to His own body and blood.  And yet, even though they may not be as disgusting as locusts or as hard to get as wild honey, He also feeds us in, with, and under things that don’t seem to be all that wonderful.  A small, manufactured wafer of unleavened bread.  A tiny sip of wine, whether from a silver chalice or even a small plastic cup.  And yet, this is the food God gives us in the wilderness.  But no matter how much it may look like the sort of thing John ate, this is the food of heaven.  We have crossed over the Jordan from death into life.  We feast on the bread of heaven.  The way of God is prepared, and we who are not worthy to be close enough to unstrap His sandals have Him inside ourselves and therefore we inside of Him, for eternity.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +