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The Enfleshment of God

John 1:14

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

    It’s always curious to me that even in the secular and entertainment world, everyone feels compelled to point out what they think the “true meaning” of Christmas is.  And then you’ll usually hear something about giving or world peace or being together with family or the warm glow in our hearts.  Those are all certainly good things.  But today’s Gospel from John 1 draws our attention to the real heart of this festival, the truth of what this Christ Mass is all about.  It says very simply but very profoundly, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  The center of Christmas is the Incarnation, the enfleshment of God, the historic fact that some 2000 years ago in a village called Bethlehem God visibly entered this world by being born as a true human being.  

    God became Man.  The Creator of all things became a creature.  The Lord of the universe sets aside His royal robes and exchanges them for a set of diapers and strips of cloth.  The One who perfectly reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of His nature, takes on human flesh and blood.  The Eternal breaks into time.  The Son of God was given birth by the mother He had created,  delivered by the one He would later deliver by His death on the cross. The Bread of life now humbles Himself to receive nourishment from her.  St. Paul speaks of the marvel of this Child, “In Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”

    In the Old Testament, God’s dwelling place was a tent, and later a more permanent temple in Jerusalem.  That was where the glory and the name of God dwelt among men.  But now, in these last days, God has come to dwell with us in a far more intimate way.  His dwelling place is now our flesh and blood.  His temple is His human body and soul which He inseparably united with His divinity at His conception in the womb of the Blessed Virgin.

    This Incarnation is a strange concept to us.  In fact it is an offensive thing to our fallen human reasoning that the infinite God and finite man can be brought together like this.  Almost all religions have nice things to say about Jesus–that He’s a great prophet or teacher or guru.  But other than Christianity, they all reject the incarnation, that God became flesh.  And even for us, it can be a troublesome thing to ponder God’s lowering and emptying of Himself when we are usually thinking about how we can fulfill ourselves and raise ourselves up.  Just like our first parents, we human beings all try to be like God.  Not content to be creatures made in His image, we try to be independent creators of our own identity.  We become competitors with God, wanting to be the masters of our own lives, to assert our self-exalting philosophies over God’s Word.  Apart from His image, there is no inherent desire in us to become servants, nothing in us that would stoop down to the level of the manger, to lay down our lives and deny ourselves for the sake of another, particularly our enemies.

    But that is precisely what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.  He has reached down to us deeply, to be with us who continually strive to take His place.  To save us who wanted to become like God, He became like us.  He became the least among us, a poor and helpless infant.  He came without our invitation, without our preparation, without our decision, without our welcome, without our help.  This is entirely God’s doing, that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

    In so doing God has brought honor back to our dishonored humanity.  Luther once said that the angels of heaven are not so blessed as we are, even though they are greater and stronger than we are.  For the Son of God did not come as an angel, but as a man.  This is the ultimate honor that God can bestow, to take up our human nature and become one of us.  God dignifies our flesh and blood by taking it as His own.  He didn’t simply take possession of a man.  He became man, fully human.  His body is not just some avatar that he inhabits and controls.  God actually is man, with a human body and soul; divine and human natures, yet one undivided person.  “The Word became flesh.”

    And the Son of God did this without sin.  That is the one difference between Jesus and us.  Jesus has no earthly father.  God is His Father.  He bears our humanity without the inherited stain of Adam.

    This too is cause for great rejoicing on our part today.  For in this we see that our sin is something foreign to our humanity.  The Word became flesh without sin.  We often make excuses for our sins and imperfections by saying, “Well, I’m only human,”  as if to say that what God made wasn’t really “very good” as He said, as if to say that our sin is somehow God’s fault.  But the Word become flesh tells us that is not so!  Our sin is not human, it is inhuman and subhuman.  Sin dehumanizes us and makes us less than human.  It is a foreign object, a cancer, a toxin that has seeped into our human nature and polluted it.  It robs us of our dignity.  It drives us to despair and a miserable death.

    But the Word made Flesh recovers our humanity.  He reclaims the dignity we once had as God’s foremost visible creatures.  He restores the image of God to our flesh and blood.  In Christ, God in His fullness is pleased to dwell with us bodily.  We can boast before all creation that our flesh and blood sits enthroned at God’s right hand and rules over all things.  Not just our souls but also our bodies, therefore, are sanctified and holy in God’s sight.  Even the angels bow in adoration before this man Jesus Christ.  

    It used to be the custom to bow the head or even bend the knee in Church at the words of the Creed, “and was made man.”  That is a good custom.  We sometimes rattle through the words of the Creed as if we were in a hurry to get it over with.  And we end up gliding right over the greatest wonder in this world: God became Man in His Son Jesus Christ.  This is our God, the God who can be our substitute in death because He’s one of us, whose divine blood is sufficient payment to cover your sins and the sins of the whole world, the God who has taken up your suffering and death into His own person, who shared in your sorrows completely in order that you might share in His joy and His glory and His life.

    The Word made flesh dwells among us still.  Though He is enthroned in glory at the right hand of His Father, the Father extends His right hand into our midst.  Jesus is still God with us.  He dwells among us incarnate in the Word of the preached Gospel, in the Word of Baptism, in the Word of the Supper.  His manger is now the baptismal water, the words of Scripture, the Bread and Wine.  Here He continues to dwell among us kindly and gently, as humbly as when He was a nursing infant.

    So do not look for God anywhere else except in His Incarnation, His real bodily presence among us.  Don’t seek Him in His majesty but in His humility.  Seek the glory of God in His flesh.  For God has revealed Himself to us in a meek and humble way, a way in which we may look on Him and live.  Here is the glory of God, full of grace and truth, our Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal God in touchable, tangible skin.  Hear it one more time, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”  That is the real meaning of Christmas.

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

The Christ Child and the Dragon

Luke 2:1-20; Revelation 12
Eve of the Nativity of our Lord, 2023

In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit

    Right from the very beginning, our Lord was not afraid to get His hands dirty for us.  He forms Adam from the dirt, the dust of the ground, and into that hand-formed clay God breathes the breath of life.  Then, He takes from Adam’s side and creates Eve, giving male and female to become one flesh.  God is not above interacting with the physical stuff of His creation.  He declares it all to be very good.  He’s not afraid to get down in the dirt for us and for our blessing.

    Now what do you think Lucifer thought when he saw all of this?  He was a great and glorious angel whom God had created, and yet it wasn’t to any angelic spirit but to bodily human beings that God said, “You are the ones created in my image.  To you I give dominion over all creation.  Carry on my creating and ordering work.  Fill the earth and subdue it; be fruitful and multiply.”  Lucifer was moved to jealousy over this.  In rebellious pride, he led a mutiny against God together with 1/3 of the rest of the angels, and in the end he was cast out of heaven.  We of course know him as Satan, meaning “adversary,” and the devil, meaning “accuser.”

    After the devil succeeded in deceiving our first parents into joining his mutiny, luring them to forsake the Creator’s Word and follow their own deathly wisdom, God spoke this curse on Satan, which is the first Gospel prophecy in the Bible.  The Lord said to the devil, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed.”  (Perhaps God was taking a jab at prideful Satan there, since the devil has no seed; he can’t be fruitful and multiply in the way that human beings can.)  Then God goes on to describe what this Seed of the Woman will do, “He will crush your head, Satan, and you will crush His heel.”  

    So the promise of our being saved from the curse of sin and death is tied to the Seed, the Offspring, the birth of the Child.  That’s why it is that, ever since the beginning, the devil has hated children and has sought to devour babies.  Remember how Pharaoh sought to kill the Israelite baby boys in Egypt, or how Herod slaughtered all the male children 2 years old and under in Bethlehem.  Consider all the pagan religions with their child sacrifices.  Consider our own pagan practice of abortion, more than 900,000 a year in this country–not to mention the willful practice of rejecting God’s gift of children and pregnancy even within marriage.  The devil hates children and babies, because he hates the promise of the Gospel, the promised Seed of Eve, the One whose birth we are celebrating this holy night, Christ the Lord.

    So while it may seem strange on Christmas Eve to hear talk of warfare in the readings–battle and garments rolled in blood and a dragon trying to consume the Child–this helps us to see what is actually going on in the narrative of Christ’s birth.  This is combat that is being engaged in.  The Son of God has infiltrated enemy territory in and through the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary.  The devil knows He’s here.  The dragon is just waiting for the right moment to strike.  

    Sometimes you’ll find that children have put some strange toys or action figures into a nativity scene in the house.  Not something I would necessarily encourage–although it actually would not be inappropriate to include a dragon lurking in the background behind the ox and the donkey and the shepherds.  For the incarnation of Jesus is an act of war against the evil one.  It is written, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (1 John 3:8).

    Think about what a wondrous thing it is that we’re observing and celebrating tonight: God the Son, through whom all things were created, both visible and invisible–He Himself is now entering into and joining Himself to His creation.  True God becomes true man.  The Lord shares in our flesh and becomes our blood brother.  Just like in the beginning, He is not afraid to get His hands dirty for our benefit.  He is born where there is a dirt floor.  He is laid in a cattle feeder.  He becomes like us so that we might become like Him.  He shares in our human nature so that we might be partakers of His divine nature.

    And already here we are seeing the victory being won.  For remember that with the fall into sin, we were cut off from God’s presence, separated from Him and bound for the emptiness of unending death–that’s what we deserve.  But now God and man are brought back together again in Christ, who is both God and man in one undivided Person.  By becoming human, Jesus has sanctified your humanity and made it good and holy again.  By believing and being baptized into Christ, you get your humanity back that Satan stole away from you through sin.  You are no longer cut off from God; Jesus brings you back into fellowship with Him again in His flesh and blood.  He is the Way back for you, no matter who you are or what you’ve done.

    That joyous reality is what we are witnessing with the angels appearing to the shepherds.  It’s as if heaven and earth are no longer separated.  The angels spill over heaven’s edge and fill the air with the reflected light of God’s glory.  The barrier is broken down as the song of heaven is heard on earth, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”  There is truly peace now between God and man in this divine and human Child Jesus.  God and sinners are reconciled; you are reconciled to your Creator.  “There is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

    This isn’t some namby-pamby Savior.  You have a Savior who fights for you.  Just consider what His taking on of our human flesh means.  It means that whatever the devil did to us human beings, he’s now done it to the Son of God, too; and that’s simply not going to stand.  Jesus is here to do something about it.  The devil is a prideful, narcissistic bully, who taunts us and knocks us around and tries to belittle and demean and disgrace us with various sins and afflictions and troubles.  But we have an older brother who can stand up to the bully now, One who is without sin.  

    And so Jesus faces the temptations we face; he endures the taunts and the mocking and the mistreatment in our place.  He makes Himself to be such a tempting target that the devil cannot help Himself.  Jesus lures the dragon in and allows him to do his worst to Him.  Our Lord stands in for us.  For He has real human hands that can get dirty and can be nailed to a cross, a real human head that can be pierced with thorns, a real human side that can be thrust into with a spear, real human blood to shed.  But because this is the Son of God we’re talking about here, it is also divine blood, powerful blood that cleanses us of our sin, that destroys death, that conquers the evil one.  Having drawn the bully Satan in, Jesus lets the devil punch himself out on Him and use up all his ammunition until he has nothing left.  And then Jesus takes him down to the depths of death and crushes his ugly head with His bruised and bloody heel.  And our Lord rises again victorious, having reasserted man’s dominion over creation.  All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to this Jesus.  

    And it all starts here in Bethlehem, this battle for humanity, this war for your soul.  Revelation 12 indicates how the dragon, unsuccessful in his attempts to devour the Christ Child, persecutes the woman and makes war with the rest of her offspring.  This woman is both a picture of the blessed Virgin Mary and also of the Holy Christian Church.  All of you who hold to the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus are her offspring.  The final skirmishes of this battle will carry on until our Lord Jesus returns.  So be vigilant; because your adversary the devil is still walking about like a prideful, roaring beast, seeking whom he may devour.

    But then remember especially what the Scriptures say, “We are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (Romans 8:37).  For those who take refuge in Christ, not even the devil can separate us from the love of God.  The dragon is defanged and declawed; he breathes no more fire for those who believe and are baptized.  Together with our Lord, we also crush Satan under our feet, as it is written, “They overcame (the devil) by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.”  Confessing our faith in Jesus the Lamb of God, we share in His victory.  He was born as one of us so that we would be born again in Him to eternal life.  He was laid in a lowly manger so that the lowly would reign with Him on high.  He was willing to get His hands dirty in order to rescue you and re-create you and breathe new life into you.

      So if you are suffering some bodily affliction, know that Jesus shares in your bodily humanity to restore you to wholeness.  If you are feeling isolated or are broken-hearted this holiday season, know that Jesus has come to bring you the light of His fellowship to comfort you.  He’s not a God far away;  He is Immanuel, God with us.  If you are struggling with sin, if you’ve drifted away from being in the Lord’s house and at the Lord’s table each week, know that Jesus doesn’t give up on you but longs to have you back with Himself.  Come home into the refuge of Christ, the only place where you are safe from the onslaughts of the evil one.  In Jesus you have the forgiveness that brings victory over sin and Satan and even death itself.  

    Come today, and kneel before this nativity scene–not just the one below the altar, but the one on the altar.  For Jesus is humbly mangered there for you in the consecrated bread and wine.  Bow before Him and receive Him.  Let your humanity be restored by receiving His true body and blood, born for you of Mary, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.  A blessed and merry Christmas to you all.

In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit

Not Comfortable, But Comforted

Matthew 3:1-12
Advent 3

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

    By nature we all want our Christianity to be comfortable.  We don’t mind if it makes some demands on us–we expect that.  But we don’t want it to rock the boat too much or get in the way of our dreams and desires.  Our old Adam inevitably tries to domesticate the faith, to make it something manageable and under our control, something that fits into our designs rather than something that places us into God’s greater design.  And so we go to church (at least somewhat regularly), we know the right answers, but we grow numb to the sin in our life, resistant to our need to change.  The Christian faith just becomes just one part of our lives rather than life itself.    

    But in today’s Gospel John the Baptizer teaches us that Christianity cannot be domesticated like that.  He calls out to us with uncompromising words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  He won’t let us settle in to this world and be comfortable with our lives.  He’s always calling us to turn away from our sins and worldly loves, to prepare for the coming kingdom of Christ and to have no other allegiance than to Jesus.  If you are to be a Christian, you can never be entirely settled or comfortable in this world.  For repentance is not just a one-time action but a way of life, daily dying to sin and self and living the new life of Christ.

    John calls us out of our comfort zones into the wilderness, away from the supposedly civilized world with its illusions and lies.  It is written that the people went out to be baptized by John in the Jordan, “confessing their sins.”  We do something like that here each week, “I, a poor miserable sinner, confess to you all my sins and iniquities.”  And yet, it’s not exactly the same, is it?  For they were confessing specific things.  The problem with general confession is that we then become generic sinners.  Generalities are safe.  What’s the threat in admitting you’re a sinner, just like everyone else in the world?  Big deal.  But what is it specifically that you do that is wrong?  And perhaps more importantly, what is it that you don’t do that you should be doing toward God and others?  In what ways do you try to justify and make excuses for yourself?  The Law John preaches leaves no room to escape our need to repent.

    This is no small matter; this is no game.  For John says, “Even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  You are to bear fruits worthy of repentance, humble deeds of love which demonstrate that you are relying not on yourself and your own spiritual pedigree but on Christ alone and His coming salvation.

    “Prepare the way of the Lord.”  The Lord seeks to push down anything that stands between you and Him.  The terrain of your life will not be left the same after the bulldozers of God’s Law have plowed their path.  Everyone must become different and new.  For it is written, “All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.  The grass withers, the flower fades.”  Everything we are, everything we do and accomplish is only temporary.  All this talk from John may sound a bit Scrooge-like.  But it's for our good; he doesn’t want us to count on things that don’t last.  Only the Word of our God stands forever.  And it is upon His Word, and not anything in us, that our eternal life rests.  Only what comes from the mouth of the Lord is sure and lasting.

    Hear, then, today what the Word says, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand!”  The King is coming!  Jesus is near!  He’s about to arrive!  And that’s good news!  For He comes to save every penitent heart and to help those who have been humbled and laid low.

    From the Lord’s mouth now comes a Word of Gospel, a Word of consolation, “Comfort, comfort my people!” says your God.  “Cry out to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned; for she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”  Christianity is not comfortable, but it is comforting.  The Lord tells His preachers, “Speak tenderly and lovingly to the Church, speak to the heart of my bride, and preach kind words to her.  Tell her that she is forgiven.”  

    Do you see how the Lord comforts us?  He reveals that His hand is not a closed iron fist waiting to pound you, but an open hand giving you the free gift of mercy.  For while every tree that does not bear good fruit is indeed cut down and thrown into the fire, there is another tree that stands in the place of our own, the tree of the cross.  Though that wood was dry and lifeless, yet it yielded the most precious fruit on its limbs, the very body of Christ sacrificed for the sins of the whole world.  Though He was entirely without sin, yet Jesus was chopped down in death for us.  He was thrown into the fiery judgment we deserved so that we would be spared and forgiven.  We are not worthy even to carry his sandals, yet He stooped down and carried us out of death through His resurrection.  He has arisen from the earth as a fruitful Vine, and we have been grafted into Him so that we may share in His life forever and bear fruit by His Spirit.

    So hear the prophet’s message:  Your warfare is over.  The battle against sin and Satan and the grave is won by Christ.  You can rest; you are at peace.  In the midst of all that would weary you, in the midst of all that stands against you, the victory is already yours in Christ.  The Lord is for you.  Nothing can separate you from His love.  You have received from Him double forgiveness for your sins, twice as much as you need, and then some.  God has given you everything He’s got, without limit, all of Jesus, so that you may never doubt that you have truly been made right with Him.  All of your sins have been answered for and taken away.  As John said of Jesus at Jordan’s baptismal waters, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”  

    That’s how Jesus is mightier even than the mighty preacher, John the Baptist.  Jesus baptizes you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  Though fire means judgment, now in Christ it is a cleansing, enlightening fire.  For the Holy Spirit and fire were poured out by Christ on Pentecost.  Peter would declare that Pentecost day,“Repent, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”  And also note that John says this: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”  That means that Jesus is the one who baptized you, regardless of who the pastor was.  He has given you His mighty salvation by the fire of His Spirit.

    And so you are called today, then, to live in that light of your baptism.  Die with Christ to your stubborn self will.  And rise with Him to a new life in His good and sacrificial and perfect will.  Learn to live a life in this world that is not comfortable, but that is comforted and comforting.  Trust in Christ, the incarnate Son of God, and find your real life in Him.  

    For the tree of the cross does bear good fruit for you to partake of–the body and blood of Christ, given and shed for your forgiveness and healing and comfort.  It is toward this great Feast of Christ that you repent; it is to this Food and Drink that you are turned.  For here at His Altar, the very Kingdom of heaven, the Lord Himself is at hand: not with a heavy hand, but with the right hand of fellowship–peace with Him and with each other through His mercy.

    This is your true Christmas preparation.  For here we humbly kneel before the Lord as before the manger.  Here the glory of the Lord is revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.  For the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

The God of Hope

Romans 15:4-13
Midweek Advent 2

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

    “For whatever things were written before were written for our learning. . .”  The Apostle Paul is referring there to the Old Testament Scriptures.  They were written for our instruction in this New Testament age.  So what are we to learn from them?  To begin with, we can learn what not to do.  We can learn from what happened to the children of Israel, who grew impatient waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain, and turned instead to the immediate gratification and pleasures of the worship of the golden calf.  As a result 3000 men were killed, and a plague came upon the people.  We can learn from what happened to Israel when they were afraid to enter the promised land because of the strength of its inhabitants.  They walked by sight and didn’t trust in the Lord or His words.  Only Joshua and Caleb believed that the Lord would be with them to give them victory.  The Lord had done great wonders for them in bringing them out Egypt, but because of Israel’s fearful unbelief, they had to wander in the wilderness for 40 years.  None of those who were 20 or older would enter the promised land, except for Joshua and Caleb.  The carcasses of the rest would be scattered in the wilderness.  We can learn from what happened to individuals, too–like greedy Gehazi, the servant of Elisha.  When the prophet refused to receive any money or gifts for healing Naaman of his leprosy, Gehazi went after Naaman to get silver and clothing for himself.  As a result, Gehazi himself was struck with leprosy.  “Whatever things were written before were written for our learning.”

    However, Paul goes on to say, “that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.”  So the Apostle is not primarily directing us to learn moral lessons about how not to behave.  He’s especially encouraging us to learn from the faithful in the Old Testament and to follow their example.  He wants to encourage us to hope in Lord, to persevere and endure in clinging to God’s words, and to set our hearts on their fulfillment. Consider, for instance, childless Abraham, who trusted in the promise that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky, and that through his seed all nations on the earth would be blessed.  Abraham believed God, even though the fulfillment of the promise was afar off, and it was counted to him as righteousness.  Or consider faithful Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers because of envy.  He did not turn away from the Lord but continued to look to him for help and mercy.  He would not engage in adultery with Potiphar’s wife, but remained faithful to the Lord.  And after many years, he was exalted to the right hand of Pharaoh and finally restored to his father and his family.  Consider righteous Job, who suffered for reasons he could not understand, and who was vindicated and restored in the end.  Or consider Gideon, who trusted that, even though he had inferior strength compared to the enemy, if the Lord was with him he would have the victory; and he did.  

    Let these true narratives, these words of the Scriptures comfort you and encourage you and work perseverance in you–especially if you are growing weary, if you are facing multiple uphill battles, if it’s hard to see any light at the end of the tunnel, if it appears that there’s no relief in sight.  Learn from the Scriptures that the Lord is true to His Word, that He does not forsake those who trust in Him and call on His name for help.  It’s hard to be patient; it’s hard to wait.  But consider what these Old Testament Scriptures say, “Wait on the Lord; be of good courage, and He shall strengthen your heart.”  “Wait on the Lord, and keep His way, and He shall exalt you.”  “Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

    Note the key word that Paul repeats in Romans 15: “. . .That we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.”  Hope is the great gift that God gives to you in Advent–that there is a future for you, that there is something marvelous for you to look forward to with the Lord.  He is returning.  The Day is coming.  “The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us.”  

    It’s nearly impossible to live without hope.  So much of the troubles and upheaval we see in our culture can be traced to a growing hopelessness and uncertainty and foreboding about what the future holds.  Perhaps you’ve experienced this yourself, or with people in your life who have sort of given up and feel like they’re just existing.  More than once I’ve had a shut-in mention to me that they wonder why they’re still around and alive, what their purpose is.  I always respond that if they’re still alive, God most certainly has a purpose for them, not the least of which is that they have been given time and opportunity to pray, to intercede on behalf of the church and individuals they know that are in need.  And God is always at work through our afflictions to accomplish His good and gracious will, both for ourselves and for others.  We may not always be able to see what His will is, but we can always trust in its goodness.  “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good, and His mercy endures forever.”  

    Baptized believers always live in this hope, in the confidence that our redemption is coming, that our deliverance is near.  Because of God’s faithfulness in the past, we look with confidence to the future.  There is always hope.  And if we can be motivated by and get excited about a coming birthday or Christmas gathering or wedding or vacation trip, if those things can give us something to look forward to, how much more can we find strength by looking forward to the return of our Savior, to the new creation, and the life of the world to come with Him!  This is not fairy tale stuff.  It’s more real and substantive even than this fallen and hollowed out life we are experiencing right now.

    “Whatever things were written before were written for our learning.”  Let us then learn to hope in God confidently.  As it is written, “O Israel, hope in the Lord; for with the Lord there is mercy, and with Him is abundant redemption.”  We have a sure hope as Christians because those things that were written before in the Old Testament all point us to Christ and His sure salvation.  Jesus is our faithful Joseph, who was handed over by His Jewish brothers because of envy, who was laid low and mistreated, but who was raised up in the end to the right hand of the Father as Lord of all.  Jesus is our faithful Joshua who leads us across the Jordan, through death, to new life in the promised land of the new creation.  He is our righteous Job, who suffers faithfully for us in the flesh in order that He might vindicate us together with Himself and exalt us to His side.  He is our faithful Gideon who, though appearing to be weak, overcame the hordes of darkness by the light of His resurrection and who will return in power with the sound of trumpets.

    This is your sure hope.  And it’s a hope that we share together as we receive one another–whatever our background or ethnicity or economic status–young or old, rich or poor, Jew or Gentile.  We are given with one mind and one mouth to glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ for His great goodness to us.  

    Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

Your Redemption Draws Near

Advent 2
Luke 21:25-36

✠ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

    There is a huge difference between Jesus’ first coming and His second coming.  In His first coming Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes in the manger, noticed almost by no one.  In His second coming He will be clothed with light, and every eye will see Him.  In His first coming Jesus rode into Jerusalem in lowliness on a donkey.  In His second coming He will ride on the clouds with power and great glory.  In His first coming Jesus bore the cross, despised and forsaken.  In His second coming, the risen Lord will be accompanied by hosts of angels, and to Him every knee shall bow.

    It is important for us during this Advent tide, then, to focus our attention on both of these advents of our Lord–His coming at Christmas, and especially His coming again on the Last Day.  You don’t get one without the other.  The baby in the manger and the Judge of the living and the dead are one and the same person.  First Jesus comes to win our salvation.  Then He comes again to bring us our salvation in all its fullness.  Not only do we look back in faith to what Christ has done, we also look forward in hope to what Christ will yet do.  This age is coming to a close.  The kingdom of heaven is at hand!

    A pastor friend of mine once wrote: Advent reminds us that Christmas may not happen this year.  Have you ever thought about that?  That’s what we’re talking about here.  Jesus’ return could be at any moment.  So the question is: does that fact bring to you a sense of joy and hope or a sense of annoyance and perhaps even dread?  There’s really no middle ground on this, is there?    Either Jesus is returning to this world as Judge to condemn and punish you, or He’s returning to this world as Savior to deliver you into everlasting life.  His coming will either be a source of great happiness and relief or great terror and despair.

    If the Last Day and the return of Jesus is not something you’re eager for, why is that?  Is it that you fear facing God because of your sin, especially those sins that you struggle to let go of?  If so, then repent and believe the Gospel that Jesus has already taken those sins from you.  He answered for them all at His first coming.  Hold on to Him, not your guilt.  To those who believe, Jesus comes not as an enemy but as a Redeemer and a Friend.  

    Or is there another reason why you’re not so eager for the second coming?  Is it that you’ve got so many attachments to this world, so many plans and dreams for your life, that the return of Christ would actually throw a monkey wrench into it all?  “Not before Christmas and our family gathering!  Not before that trip we’ve been planning on taking!  Not before the birth of our child or grandchild!  Not in the middle of the kids’ sports season!  Not before I finally get to retire!”  It’s because we so often get our priorities turned upside down that the Scriptures say: “Do not love the world or the things in the world.”  And Jesus reminds us today: Take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with good times and all the cares of this life.  For indeed that Day “will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the whole earth.”  Beware of becoming so at home in this fallen and cursed world that you lose your desire to be free of its empty glories.  “The heavens and the earth will pass away.”

    That has direct implications for how you’re going to live your live your life, and what the priorities are going to be for yourself and your kids and your grandkids.  Think about how your conversations might be different, how the way you spend your time might be changed if it’s always done with a view toward the Last Day.  Christians live day by day in the joyous hope of Jesus’ coming, desiring His return and seeking to order and orient our lives toward that goal.

    For there is a time when time will come to an end.  That’s why it’s important to note how Jesus speaks in the Gospel about signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars.  For these heavenly bodies are the markers of time.  Scripture says that they were appointed for signs and seasons, for days and years. They found one of their greatest fulfillments, one of their greatest markings of time, in drawing the wise men from Babylon to Bethlehem to worship the Virgin’s Son, Jesus.

    The heavenly bodies are counting down to the end of time, and eventually they themselves will pass away.  Every sunset is a reminder of our impending death.  Every sunrise, though, is a promise of the resurrection to come on the Last Day.  The movement of the sun and moon and the stars are predictable.  So also is the return of the King–not that we can know the exact time of His return.  But we can predict with absolute certainty that, as sure as there are stars in the sky, Jesus is coming back.  Every moment He is postponed the tension grows greater, for the time is nearer.

    Look and see if there is unusual solar or astronomical phenomena.  Look and see if nations are distressed with perplexity and political upheaval, if there is unusual weather and natural disasters, men’s hearts failing them from fear of what is happening.  Know then that the Day is surely drawing near.  Time will come to an end; it will not continue forever.  The Son of Man will come in a cloud with power and great glory.  Watch therefore, and pray so that the Day will not ensnare you.

    We prayed in the Collect: “Stir up our hearts, O Lord.”  That is a dangerous prayer to pray.  For we are not praying: “Lord, give us a warm, glowing feeling in our hearts, make our lives comfortable and leisurely, make us popular with our friends.”  No, to pray that God would stir up our hearts is to ask that He would shake things up in us, that He would awaken repentance in us and renew our faith and prod us into action. “Stir up our hearts” is a plea for God to end our complacency, overcome our laziness, and stop our self-absorbed melancholy and wallowing. We ask Him to intervene for us against one of our wiliest foes, our own selves, and on the most dangerous battlefield of all, our hearts.

    For while the Bridegroom delays, the dangers increase. Salvation is indeed closer now then when we first believed.  But do we have the same zeal we had then to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Savior?  It is easy to grow weary and to be seduced by the devil’s promise of rest.  “Why fight it?  Why work so hard?  Why care so much about what God says when it doesn’t seem to help?”  The devil advises you: “Take care of yourself.  Don’t offend anyone, and lay up for yourself treasures where you can see and enjoy them.”

    But that is most certainly the way of death.  And so we pray, “Stir up our hearts, O Lord, against the devil and our old nature!  Make ready the way of your only-begotten Son.”  Man does not live by mammon and worldly praise.  The Baptized live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.  All other things will fade away.  But the Word of God will never pass away.  It never lies, never changes, never fails.  Store up your treasure in heaven.

    On the great and dreadful day of the Lord’s return, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, the “spiritual but not religious,” and all those good people who thought they could come to God apart from the grace of Christ alone will no longer be able to deny His power and authority. Satan’s many masks and false names will finally be stripped away.  Then all the spiritually self-sufficient will know the dark lord whom they’ve been worshiping all these years, and they shall be burned up in God’s wrath.  But to you who honor the Name of the Lord, who trust in the mercy of the God born of Mary, He, the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings.  Look up; lift up your heads.  Your redemption draws near.  Your suffering, your trials, your troubles are at their end.

    The decisive battle for your soul was fought outside Jerusalem, where there was another great sign in the heavens.  The sun was darkened in the middle of the day for three full hours as all the blackness of sin’s judgment descended upon Christ.  He bore that for you to set you free.  That’s why the Last day is not a day to fear.  Judgment day already occurred for you on Good Friday.  The last day for you is redemption day!  For it is your Redeemer who is close at hand.  The Father has given you a full pardon through the death of His innocent Son. The Spirit of Life and Resurrection now abides in you.

    It is a dangerous business living in this fallen world. But the end is certain for those who belong to Jesus.  Fear not.  Do not be afraid.  The Savior has not died in vain.  The devil is a liar, already defeated.  Jesus died and rose again for our salvation.  He reconciled all mankind to His Father, and the kingdom of heaven is open to all believers.  Blessed are all those who trust in Him, who rest in Him, who confess Him.  You will not be disappointed.

    So lift up your heads, then, and lift up your hearts to see the sign that the Lord is giving to you right now, the holy Sacrament of the Altar.  To the unbeliever it seems like nothing all that important.  But to you who believe, it is a marvelous sign.  For it assures you that the One who comes to you now hiddenly with His body and blood for your forgiveness will come again visibly to deliver you.  It is written, “As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”  And so the church continually prays, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”

✠ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

(With thanks to David Petersen)

Watch Therefore

Matthew 25:1-13
Trinity 27, Last Sunday of the Church Year

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

    If you pay close attention, you’ll notice that Scripture begins and ends with a marriage.  The creation account can be rightly understood as wedding preparations.  God even hangs the lights in the heavens for the event, and then, like a father of the bride, He literally walks Eve to Adam and presents her to him as they are joined together in the one flesh union of husband and wife.  Those preparations that God did are reflected in many ways in our own wedding planning.  And especially in today’s Gospel, they point us to the great wedding feast that will take place on the Last Day, when the union of Jesus the Groom and His Elect Lady, the holy Church is celebrated with all of creation, and the consummation of all things comes to pass.

    What we do with wedding planning on a small scale with earthly marriages, the Holy Spirit summons the whole Church to do on a much bigger scale. The joyful events that will come at the close of this age is what we are given to be focusing on and preparing for as a matter of highest priority.  We are called to watch and be ready at all times, for unlike most weddings, we don’t have an exact calendar date to shoot for; we know neither the day nor the hour in which our Lord is returning.  

    Now, as we heard last week, some will mock this notion of Jesus’ return as the stuff of fairy tales, a too-good-to-be-true delusion for weak and foolish minds.  But we know from Scripture that in the Lord’s delay is His mercy.  He doesn’t want any to perish or miss out on the gladness but for all to come to repentance and faith and be saved.  He wants all to experience what the Old Testament reading speaks of, the new creation in which there is no more sickness or sorrow or pain.  “The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox.... They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, says the Lord.”  To many that sounds like fantasy and nothing more. But we know it’s real and true, and that it’s even better than any human words can describe it.

    Isaiah expresses very clearly that God’s original plan for this creation has not been set aside. God made this world to be a place of security and peace, where there was no death and no fear, where humanity reigned over God’s world as His vice-rulers, where human beings could walk through the darkness of the night without anxiety or fear.  We’ve made it something else, something dark and terrible. We’ve turned this beautiful world God gave us into a horrible hunting ground and cosmic cemetery, where death reigns.  But the Prophet Isaiah announces to us today that God’s work with this world isn’t done until He has created it anew – new heavens and a new earth where joy fills everything, because the source of sadness and grief – death and sin – will be banished forever, having been conquered in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

    And the joy of that future is described, again, as a wedding.  In the days before His appearing and the great festivities to come, He speaks of His Church camping out in this age, like people waiting for the chance to get once-in-a-lifetime tickets to a concert or sporting event.  The church waits with joy for that moment to break in when Jesus will return in glory and lead His people home, and there will be light and laughter, dancing and singing, celebration and feasting forever–a new age where the love of God for His Bride, for His people, is all in all.  Who would not look forward to that?

    The fact is, according to today’s Gospel, that some are not looking forward to that in any serious way.  They’re not prepared to wait for a long time, or they just don’t think it’s worth it.  And so they are distracted and turn aside to other things.  These are the foolish in Jesus’ parable.  The five foolish virgins think they can make it through to that day with what they already have in their lamps. Not so. They need the extra reserves of oil. They need what God constantly supplies through the preaching of the Gospel and the celebration of the Supper. That’s where you get the “oil” which is the Holy Spirit Himself, who is yours in the lamp of the Word.  He is the One who will see you safely through to that joyous day by sustaining in you the flame of your faith in Jesus Christ.

    The foolish at first appear to be the ones who are wise and more “balanced” in their approach to life.  They’re not so “extreme” as to be preoccupied with the bridegroom’s coming, carrying around extra oil.  The foolish think: “Why overdo it?  I know about Jesus, I pray sometimes, I don’t need the Church; I went through Sunday School as a kid.  I was confirmed.”  They make the horrible mistake of trying to get by with a limited supply of oil.  It won’t work for the long haul.  For we are all cracked vessels.  The oil leaks out through the cracks of our sin.  It needs to be regularly replenished through the Word and the Sacraments, lest the flame of our faith go out.  In the end, the foolish lose out on the wedding feast they had been waiting for. “The door was shut.” And when they come late, asking for admittance, all they hear are those horrible words: “I do not know you.”

    When our Lord says to us, “Watch therefore!” He is not urging us to try to calculate the time of His return.  In fact it’s probably good for us that we don’t know, so that we don’t become complacent and turn our attention away from Him and fall away from the faith, thinking we’ll always have time to repent later.  No, when our Lord urges us to watch, He is simply urging us to camp ourselves out by the spiritual flasks of the Church, Jesus’ words and body and blood.  That is where the oil of the Holy Spirit is that fills us and keeps our faith burning brightly until the day of Christ’s return.  To live our lives devoted to them–that is how you watch; that is how you are counted among the wise.

    The flasks of the Church are truly full to overflowing, for they are supplied from the Lord Jesus Himself, who fills them to the brim with His Spirit and His life. This is the life He came from heaven to give us, that He brought into our very flesh and blood in Mary’s womb. This is the life He died on the cross to pour out for us and into us: the gift of forgiveness, the Life of the Trinity, the Peace and Joy and Love that the Holy Spirit gives and that the Holy Spirit is.  It’s all there for us richly in the flasks of grace.

    But remember, no one else can camp out at the flasks of the church for you, like someone waiting in line to buy tickets for you.  No one else can receive the Spirit for you, and so no one can believe for you. The wise cannot give their flasks to the foolish. Each must have his own. So it’s not a matter of your mother being in church or your sister or your father or your brother or your spouse. It’s a matter of you being where the flasks are full, filling your lamp to keep it burning bright.  

    Thanks be to God that the Church’s jars cannot run dry. For her supply flows from the Blessed Trinity. You will never exhaust the oil that God has placed into your Baptism, into the preaching of Christ crucified and risen, into the absolution spoken over you, into the life-giving body and blood of Christ. “My cup overflows!” says the Psalmist, and it truly does.

    And here’s one final point that you cannot miss today. The Blessed Trinity has made ready for every one of you to be at the glorious feast on the Last Day, to share in the new world where death will be gone and tears a thing of the past. Your place at the table is prepared; there is a card with your name on it reserving your spot.  Remember, Jesus speaks these words of today’s Gospel during Holy Week, just hours before He will taste the fullness of the darkness of this world, bearing our guilt in His own flesh on the cross.  For He knew that in so doing He would bring forgiveness to destroy sin, and life everlasting to destroy death.  In his resurrection the new age has begun.  In Jesus it’s all been prepared for you.  

    It was in that utter confidence that St. Paul could write to the Thessalonians and to us: “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we should live  together with him.”  What marvelous words those are!  Do you grasp what they are saying? God has not appointed a single one of you for wrath and judgment but for salvation in Jesus Christ.  And if God has appointed it, then it’s real and true and sure.

    Brothers and sisters of Christ, believe that Gospel Word firmly, fully, and even fanatically.  Go overboard when it comes to your flasks of oil.  Camp out by the rich vessels of grace, longing for the joy of the Last Day and the return of our Savior Jesus.  For already today, the Gospel cry rings out, “Behold, the bridegroom is coming!  Go out to meet Him at His holy altar!”  You will not be surprised or caught off guard at Jesus’ second coming because you have long been in the habit of going out to meet him here in His divine service.  

    “Therefore, let us not sleep as others do, but let us watch and be sober” as we eagerly look forward to the consummation of this age and the great wedding feast.

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son of the Holy Spirit ✠

(With thanks to William Weedon)

How to Count Your Blessings

Luke 10:17-20
Thanksgiving Eve, 2023

In the Name of Jesus

    You’ll often hear at this time of year that you should “count your blessings.” The idea is that you should survey your life and find all the good things in it.  Which is fine and right, but not necessarily as easy as it might seem. For we often have a difficult time as fallen creatures in recognizing the true blessings God gives us, and think them to be nothing particularly special. And on the other hand we frequently look at things that are lesser gifts and think them to be the greatest of all.

    So how exactly do we go about counting our blessings?  Our Lord’s rebuke of His rejoicing disciples is a good starting point. The disciples had been sent out with a mission. They were to announce the Messiah’s presence, the fact that the Creator had broken into His creation in order to re-create it, to redeem it, and to restore it. And, much to their amazement and joy, they found great success in their mission. Even the demons submitted to them in Jesus’ Name.  But then, strange as it seems, comes the Divine rebuke: “Rejoice not in this,” Jesus says, “but rather rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

    What was the problem that causes Him to reign in their joy?  It was this: Just because the demons submit to them in Jesus’ Name does not mean that the demons have stopped being dangerous.  Nor does the fact that the mission enjoyed such success mean that their ministries are going to be easy, fun, wealth-building enterprises that will gain them prestige and status in the world.  For hard days are coming.  There will be joy in their ministries; there will be triumphs.  But that will not be the dominant thing.  Measured in that sort of a way, from the point of view of earthly success, their ministries will be failures.  They build no cathedrals.  They obtain no worldly fame during their lives.  They live out their days in poverty and  humility and difficulty, and finally, all but John will be martyrs for the Lord.

    Our Lord’s rebuke is serious. His rebukes always are. “Rejoice not in worldly happiness and success and stuff, but rejoice that this world is not all there is.  Rejoice that your names are written in heaven, and that no one can take that away from you.”

    So it has to do with how you count and what you count as your blessings.  What was the main blessing of the disciples’ mission?  Was it their success?  Was it the fact that the demons submitted?  No.  Those things were good, but they were the byproducts.  The real blessing was the Word they preached, the Word they themselves believed, the Word by which they themselves were saved.  The real blessing was the Gospel–the Good News of the Creator’s presence, true God begotten of His Father from all eternity, and true Man, born of the Virgin Mary–that He, Jesus the Christ, had come to seek and save the lost.  That message had gone forth and done its work. The powers of darkness are overcome by the light of the Gospel. That was the great blessing of the disciples’ mission in which they were to rejoice.

    So then, the way we count our blessings is measured first of all by eternity.  What has God given to you that’s going to last forever?  Scripture says that God did not spare His own Son, but gave Him for us all.  Jesus Himself is your own possession by faith.  From Him flow the Father’s blessings of forgiveness of sins, everlasting life, and the resurrection of the body.  Everything else in life is meaningless and useless without these things.  For all the pleasures and the prestige and the stuff of this world can’t undo the torments of hell.  Our 80 or 90 years in this world are a mere blink of an eye compared to eternity.  We must begin counting our blessings, then, with the Word and the Sacraments.  Your names are written in heaven because God wrote His name on you in holy baptism.  You hear God’s own eternal voice of mercy in the Gospel.  You have everlasting life because He puts His life into you with His body and blood.  God’s abiding and infinite gifts of grace are our greatest blessings.

    Now the material things we enjoy are certainly also gifts of God, the daily bread which He teaches us to ask for, our spouses and children and families and friends.  These things, too, certainly come from God and are indeed blessings.  All we have comes from Him and nothing good comes apart from Him.  He is the cause of anything good that anyone, believer or unbeliever, has and enjoys.  He causes the rain to fall both upon the field of the Christian and the pagan, even though one doesn’t recognize the true source of the gift.

    However, even daily bread is subject to abuse.  That is the difficulty with counting these material things.  They can be blessings, and they can be curses.  Our Lord’s earthly gifts can be misused and can quickly become temptations and then curses.  For example, certainly alcohol has noble purposes, for cleaning wounds and killing pain, and for enjoyment and merriment of the soul. It is, however, also the cause of many evils.  Yet it is a gift of God.  Likewise, your new house or car or truck. Is it possible that you become more attached to it than to God?  Is it possible that holding on to and maintaining your stuff drives you to stinginess and an anxious devotion to money and work?  And is it possible that even the spouse and the family whom God has given you as a blessing–is it possible that they can become more important to you than God Himself?  During the holidays especially, it’s important we remember Jesus’ words, “Whoever loves father or mother [or] . . . son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Matt. 10:37).  We must always be on guard against using God’s blessings in such a way that they become curses in our lives.

    The same thing is true with how we think of curses. What constitutes a curse? Sickness, disease, poverty, tragedy? All of these might be counted as curses, but all of these are also used by God to chasten His children for their good.  Psalm 107, which we just prayed a portion of, goes through example after example of how the Lord humbled people so that they might repent and call upon His name and be saved.  Only then were they truly able to give thanks to the Lord.  Those bad things, then, in God’s hands become blessings.  Those of you who have unbelieving or straying family members or friends–wouldn’t you rather that they experience some difficulty in their life that turns them back to the Lord than that they have a life of ease and self-fulfillment that leads to eternal separation from the Lord?  Prosperity can be a curse, affliction a blessing.  

    For the worst and most cursed affliction of all was what Jesus had to suffer.  Was there ever a greater curse than what was experienced by Our Lord in His Flesh on our behalf?  How feeble and small our own suffering is in comparison.  Scripture itself says, “Cursed is the One who is hung on a tree” (Gal. 3:13).  And yet, by way of that Greatest of all Curses comes all of our blessing.  By way of the cross comes our forgiveness, our joy, our peace in Him.

    So I hope that you get the point our Lord is making: “Do not rejoice simply in temporary earthly blessings; and do not despair simply over temporary earthly curses; but rather rejoice that your names are written in heaven forever.”  That’s how the Apostle Paul could say in the Epistle, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation. . .  I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” Let us not find our greatest joy in the things of this world, even the good material blessings which God has given us.  Nor let us take the Gospel for granted and merely give superficial thanks for it.  Rather, rejoice above all in the One who is the Giver of every good gift, that through Christ we have fellowship with God Himself.  Rejoice in the Gospel, the Scriptures, Holy Baptism, the Lord’s Supper.  Give thanks even for the crosses He gives you to bear.  And then count only secondarily, and hedgingly, the other things in this life that you enjoy.  

    For not everyone’s name is recorded in the Book of Life. Not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord” is known by Him.  But you have that.  To have God know you by name in Christ; to receive the Justice of God appeased through the death and resurrection of His Son; to be declared holy, righteous, and innocent, without blemish or sin for the sake of His Love and His Mercy–to have that is really to have something to be thankful for.

    So, on this Thanksgiving Eve, and every day, do count your blessings; and while doing that, remember especially to give thanks that your names are written in heaven.

In the Name of Jesus

(With thanks to David Petersen)