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The Seed is the Word

Luke 8:4-15

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

There’s a reason why Jesus told the parable in today’s Gospel.  He didn’t just randomly decide to tell a story about a sower and a seed.  Something was happening, and the disciples needed to understand what was going on.  It’s important for us to pay attention to the context of this story.

It is written here that a great multitude had gathered around Jesus and that people had come to Him from every city.  Everyone had heard about Him and wanted to see Him.  And so Jesus proclaims this parable to make something clear, especially to the twelve.  They might have been getting a little puffed up, thinking that this was going to be just one big victory procession, everything seemed to be going so successfully.  Jesus speaks a parable that gives a dose of reality.  He says that there are four possible outcomes to the hearing of the Word, and only one of them is good.  For three out of four hearers, the Word of God comes to no lasting effect.  The apostles are sometimes going to experience more failure than success, more rejection than acceptance in the long run.  They shouldn’t be fooled by the large crowds coming out to see Jesus.  Big numbers don’t mean anything.  Not all of them were believers.

In fact, remember that there actually came a point in Jesus’ own ministry when the crowds stopped following Him; all He had left were the 12 disciples, and even one of them would turn away from Him and betray Him.  After the feeding of the 5000, Jesus had been teaching how the bread that He would give for the life of the world was His flesh, and how His flesh was real food and His blood was real drink (John 6:55).  That was too hard for the people to accept; Jesus went from 5000+ down to only 12 followers.  Finally Jesus asked the 12, “Do you also want to go away?”  Peter replied in those familiar words, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

And that’s where we can find some comfort, especially in this little flock called Mt. Zion.  When everything is going great in terms of numbers, we can be tempted to self–absorbed pride; when things are going poorly in terms of numbers, we can be tempted to self-absorbed despair.  But what we must finally cling to in both cases is not outward signs of success, but the sure promise that the Word of Christ is living and powerful to fulfill its purpose.  Sometimes the purpose of the Word is to reveal the unbelieving heart. That’s why we have those unsettling words in the Gospel, when it says that Jesus spoke in parables so that, “seeing, they may not see, and hearing, they may not understand.”  Blindness and deafness to the Word unveils God’s judgment.  But above all, the Word of God is sent to give life and joy to us descendants of Adam created from the dirt.  God said through the prophet Isaiah, “(My word that goes forth from My mouth) shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.”

The going forth of God’s Word is like the scattering of seed on all different kinds of soil.  God scatters the seed of His Word recklessly, freely, even on places where there seems little hope of a harvest.  For in His love He desires all to be saved.  The Lord’s Word is alive with His Spirit to give life even to the worst of soils.

First, like the hardened, foot-worn path, some people become hardened to the Word of God.  Perhaps they’ve been “walked all over” in their lives, mistreated, abused.  Or they’ve been pressed down and wearied by the struggles and difficulties of life.  They say, “Where has God been for me?  Why should I even listen to His Word?”  Or Satan has pressed and hardened some with his lies about the Word as being untrustworthy, or that it’s foolish superstition, or that it’s all just a power play by church officials to manipulate people.  And so the Word goes in one ear and out the other, like seed bouncing off a dirt road. The birds of the air snatch it away–which is a reminder of that passage which describes the devil as the prince of the power of the air.  Think of all the stuff that flies across our airwaves which seeks to counter the truth of God’s Word, to make you doubt it or reject it.  For the first group, then, the Word doesn’t penetrate the heart and bear fruit and do what it has the power to do.

Be on guard, therefore, against inattentive and unserious listening to the Word of God.  Martin Luther once wrote that the third commandment is not only violated by those who don’t come to church each week as the commandment requires, but it is also violated by those who do come to church, but only from force of habit or out of compulsion, who listen to it like they would listen to entertainment, and then who leave church no different than when they came in.  On the other hand, Luther said, “when we seriously ponder the Word, hear it, and put it to use, such is its power that it never departs without fruit. It always awakens new understandings, pleasure, and devotion, and it constantly creates clean hearts and minds. For the Word is not idle or dead, but effective and living.”

In the second instance, in the planting of the Seed on the rocky soil, there’s the listening that hears and rejoices, believes and thanks God, and yet it’s only a shallow, good-times faith. When the bad-times come along–and they always do sooner or later–the person lets go of the Word and their faith withers and dies. One of the purposes of hearing the Word regularly–weekly, even daily–is  to store up in your heart and mind those passages that will see you through the hard times with your faith intact. The Word has the power to do it, if we don’t let it go. So often this happens when bad times come–people stop going to church, stop listening to the Word, and then they’re surprised when their faith grows weaker and weaker and finally dies. Remember: faith is never something you can keep alive inside yourself. It only comes from hearing and holding the Word of God.

Thirdly, our Lord reminds us that even folks who listen to the Word, can still lose it, if they let it get crowded out of their lives by the thorns.  Jesus says the thorns are the cares, riches, and pleasures of life–which is odd because usually when you think of thorns, you think of something that’s painful, something that hurts.  And yet the thorns Jesus mentions include riches and pleasures, which seem to be the opposite of pain!  But experience teaches that Jesus’ words are true.  For, in fact, the things that promise us the most pleasure end up bringing us the most pain.  The things of this world give a temporary happiness but leave us with a lasting sadness and emptiness if we set our hearts on them.  These thorns can sedate us into apathy and cause a choking of the Word of God, squeezing it into an ever smaller place in our lives until in the end we don’t really hear it at all.

But then our Lord reminds us that it is possible to hear His Word in such a way that it bears abundant fruit. He describes those hearts that hear and hold fast the Word as honest and good.  How did those hearts get to be honest and good?  Well certainly not of themselves.  All of us are by nature the first three soils.  Only the Word and Holy Spirit of God has the power to till up and clear the soil and renew our hearts.  If, as the Apostle says, faith in Jesus is what purifies the heart, and faith comes by hearing the Word of God, then our hearts will be “honest and good” in no other way than by that Word making its home inside of us, and creating in us a clean heart–the heart of Christ.  

Here’s really the best way to think of it:  Jesus is Himself the perfect fourth soil.  He is the eternal Word of God, the Seed, having taken root in the earth of our humanity–fully human but entirely without the rocks and thorns and hardness of sin.  

This Word became flesh and bore all that has infested your soil.  Jesus was planted in this world by His heavenly Father to save and redeem you.  Behold how this Seed is cast to the earth, how Jesus the Word is thrown onto the wayside, the way of sorrows, where he is dragged to His cross, mocked in His suffering like the crowing of scavenging ravens.  But notice that the birds of the air do not devour Jesus’ body, as was often the case with other crucified criminals who would be left for the animals to consume.  This Seed is hurled upon the rocky ground of Golgotha, where he lacked moisture and cried out, “I thirst!”  But in spite of his suffering and thirst, this Seed would not wither away permanently.  And Jesus was even crowned with thorns, the very symbol of Adam’s curse; yet this Seed would not be choked out of existence, but would rise again.  A Seed has to die, if it is to rise out of the earth and bear much fruit.  The fruit of Jesus’ suffering is your salvation.

In this way our Lord has overcome all that stands against you, all that keeps you from having life, all that keeps you from growing to maturity.  In Christ you are free from hard-heartedness and the rocks of shallow faith and the thorns of this world.  In Christ alone you are the holy fourth soil, pure and righteous and fruitful and forgiven.  In you, like the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Word of God is implanted.  You have been watered with the Word in your baptism.  And the Word is sown in the soil of your body, placed on your very tongues, in the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.  The power of God to give life is in the Seed.  And the Seed of the Word is in you and with you and for you, the Word of the Father who wants you with all His heart to share forever in His life.

Let us, then, be eager to confess this Word with our mouths before the world.  Let the scattering of the holy Seed continue outside of these walls, out in the daily callings that God has placed you in.  Let the Word accomplish its purpose with your unchurched or de-churched friends and family.  Invite them in to divine service, to adult instruction classes.  Together with them, let us all seek the Lord while He may be found, and call upon Him, for He is near; His Word is here.  Return to the Lord, for He will have mercy on you, and He will abundantly pardon.  His grace in Christ is more than sufficient for you, even in the midst of your weakness.  For His strength is made perfect in the weakness of the cross.  “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”

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

I Will Give You Whatever is Right

Matthew 20:1-16

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

Jesus tells us a parable today that He knows is going to make us grumble if we’re really paying attention.  He is deliberately setting us up by telling a story that strikes us as unfair.  How can we not side with the workers in this story who feel cheated because they worked, in some cases, twelve times as long as other workers – including working at the hottest time of day – only to get paid the same wages?

No labor union would endorse this parable.  Nobody who has ever been treated by a boss unequally compared to other co-workers is likely to be happy with the ending of this tale.  It just sounds like some kind of propaganda designed to justify unfair labor practices, a perpetuation of the power of wealthy business owners to lord it over those who must work with their hands for a living.

The workers who felt cheated “grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’” We can resonate with that, and with the children of Israel in the Old Testament reading, unhappy with the leadership of Moses, who brought them out into the desert with no plan as to how they would drink water.  We would likely be grumbling right along with them.

But when we grumble at what has or hasn’t been given to us, when we grumble because we covet what has been given to others, we are really grumbling at God Himself.  We are saying to Him: “You don’t know what You’re doing; You should be doing things My way.”

But the children of Israel did get water to drink.  For God was with them and had not forsaken them but was testing them.  By God’s grace and mercy, Moses delivered water out of the rock.  We are told in today’s Epistle that “they drank from the same spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ,” who allowed Himself to be struck with a spear on the cross so that living water would wash away the sins even of grumblers.

Jesus explains what the kingdom of heaven is like by reminding us grumblers that God is in charge; He determines what is fair, and He gives according to His will, His mercy, and His bountiful goodness.  All things belong to Him, and we have no claim on anything.  And really, if God is merciful to someone else, how does that affect us negatively anyway?–any more than if an employer were to give a needy coworker a special bonus just out of the kindness of his heart.  God owns everything.  Is He not allowed to do what He chooses with what belongs to Him?  Who are we to begrudge His generosity?

It’s important to remember in this parable, though, that no one was treated unfairly.  No injustice was done.  The first workers got a fair day’s wage.  That was good and right.  It’s just that the others were the recipients of the landowner’s great generosity.  People might expect that Jesus’ message would be different, that He would side with the workers seeking equal pay for equal work.  However, it turns out that Jesus is like the landowner who has every right to do what He wants with His own things and to be generous to whom He wants to be generous.

You could try to make a political point out of this parable about socialism or capitalism or liberalism or conservatism.  But, of course, that would be missing the main point of this parable, which is not about politics or economics but about what the kingdom of heaven is like.  Jesus says that in God’s kingdom, “The last will be first, and the first last.”  Jesus says that “fairness” according to the ways of the world is not how His kingdom operates.  In fact, it’s turned upside down.  Those who think God owes them something more than what He’s given are gravely mistaken.  His ways are both just and gracious.

Here’s really the key spiritual point to take from the Gospel reading: the difference between the first laborers and the later laborers is that the first had a specific contract, a legal compact, with the landowner, whereas the last workers had nothing specific, just a promise that the landowner would give them whatever is right.  That’s a big difference, isn’t it.  Would you work for someone without knowing in advance what your wage was going to be?  You might.  It depends on the character of the one hiring you, doesn’t it.  Is the person greedy or generous?  Are they trustworthy or not?  Is it a stingy next door neighbor wanting to get their snow shoveled on the cheap, or is it grandma and grandpa looking for an excuse to give their grandchild a big gift?

So you might say that the first laborers were operating under the Law, and the later laborers were operating under the Gospel.  The first laborers were relying on their own works, the last laborers were living by faith in the goodness of the landowner.  That’s why the last are first, because their confidence is not in themselves but in the Lord and what He does.  Remember what the landowner said, “Is your eye evil because I am good?”  The Lord is good, and His mercy endures forever.  

The truth is, we should thank God daily that He doesn’t judge us by what is fair; He doesn’t give us what we deserve.  For we deserve death and hell.   We may be considered good people in a worldly sense.  But how often have we been idle and lazy in doing good works?  Have any of our words or deeds perhaps even done damage to Christ’s vineyard?  We deserve wrath.  “The wages of sin is death.”  However, because of and through the atoning work of Jesus, God shows mercy to us.  He is free to do good to us which we have not merited or deserved.  In the death of Jesus, justice (what is fair) and grace (what is undeserved) come together.  At Golgotha, the just punishment for sin is carried out.  Justice is done; Jesus pays the price.  And at the same time grace overflows.  Your sins are forgiven; you are treated as if you worked perfectly and tirelessly all day.  The merits of Jesus are credited to you.  “The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

He who is the first and the greatest humbled Himself to be the last of all on the holy cross.  He Himself is the one who bore the burden and the heat of the day that brings us the generous reward of salvation.  Jesus was handed over to Pontius Pilate at dawn, crucified at the third hour of the day; darkness covered the land at the sixth hour, noon.  Our Lord died at the ninth hour as the perfect and complete sacrifice for our sin.  He was buried at the eleventh hour of the day just before sundown.  So see how the work was all done for you, simply for you to receive by faith.  Hear again those words from the cross, “It is finished.”

One more point: Very often when we hear this parable of the laborers in the vineyard, those of us who have been lifelong Christians and lifelong Lutherans like to think of ourselves as having worked the whole day.  We didn’t come to faith later in life; we were baptized as infants and have been a part of the church right from the very beginning.  And that’s certainly an acceptable application of this parable–although it is also a warning.  Remember what happened to those hired at dawn!  Let us never grumble at the grace of God shown to sinners and to those who repent and receive the denarius of salvation later in life!  

But there’s another way to think about and apply this parable, too.  And that is that we ourselves are actually among the last workers hired.  Those who have really borne the burden and the heat of the day in the Church have come before us in history.  We’re not the ones who fought the early heresies and formed the Scriptural Creeds of the Church.  We’re not the ones who faced the power of emperors and the power of popes, risking death for our faith (though that day may soon be coming).  We’re not the ones who crossed oceans and sacrificed everything to be able to practice our faith and raise our children according to the truth.  We’re not the ones who preserved the liturgy and penned the great hymns of the Church.  Truly an astonishingly rich heritage has been handed down to us which we are privileged to carry on.  And here we are near the close of the age, at the end of the Day, eagerly waiting for the Last Day, relying on the goodness of the Master, mercifully called to work in the vineyard and to be a part of the one, holy, Christian, apostolic Church.  Truly, it’s all a gift of God’s grace.

Our Lord does what He chooses with what belongs to Him.  And that is true here again today, as Jesus freely chooses to give you His very body and blood, once offered up as the atoning sacrifice for all of your sins.  Here at the altar you all are paid the denarius of salvation, regardless of how long you’ve been in the vineyard.  For in truth we are all those last fortunate workers who just squeaked in, though we do not deserve it.

The Lord is just.  The Lord is gracious.  The Lord is good.  Blessed is the one who trusts in Him.

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

(With thanks to the Rev. Larry Beane)

What do You Do When the Wine Runs Out

Epiphany 2
John 2:1-11

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

What do you do when the wine runs out?  Which is to say, what do you do when the things that brought you pleasure or contentment have reached their end, when the good times are no longer merrily rolling along like they used to and like you assumed they would continue to?  After a long stretch of comfort and ease, sometimes the bottom drops out of life, the happy times turn to sad times, and the joy of life turns to heartache.  Then what?  Just like Cana’s wedding feast was thrown into crisis by this relatively minor embarrassment, we know that it doesn’t always take much to throw our lives out of whack and put us over the edge, to create stress and anxiety and even desperation.  And, of course, sometimes the stuff we’re confronted with is not so minor–financial troubles, broken relationships, a bad diagnosis, the sudden death of a loved one.  What do you do when the wine runs out?

The mother of our Lord shows us the way here.  Whether your concern is something big or something small, the place to turn is to her Son and to trust in Him even when He doesn’t appear at first to care.  Mary knew well who her Son was, how He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, how He was the Son of God and the Savior.  The angel had told her that, and the shepherds.  Simeon had spoken of an hour when a sword would pierce her soul, a mysterious reference to her Son’s death.

But Jesus’ hour had not yet come there in Cana.  The countdown had begun at Jesus’ baptism.  He had three years to live.  He knew His time was short.  The clock was ticking, the battle with the devil had been joined, and He was on His way to redeem fallen mankind.  And then Mary comes at Him with this trivial request, “They have no wine.”  He had a mission to fulfill from His Father.  What did it matter to Him if this wedding reception wasn’t quite as spectacular and successful as the planners had hoped, and the bar ran out of supplies?

So Jesus answers his mother rather abruptly and seems to reject her request.  He really says something worse then “no.”  He says it’s not His concern.  And yet, Mary believed.  She believed that despite Jesus’ seeming apathy about the whole matter, He would still be the One who Helps.  She clung to that truth about her Son; this is what He does–He rescues and helps.  That faith is perhaps an even greater miracle of God than turning water into wine.  After all water gets turned into wine all the time in vineyards and wineries.  It just takes a few months.

The mother of our Lord could hardly have been more indirect with her request, “They have no wine.”  It really wasn’t a request at all; just stating a fact.  The petition was only implied– sort of like  a mother telling her husband or children, “The garbage is full” or “Your bed hasn’t been made.”  What Jesus’ mother was saying of course was: “Do something about this problem.”  Jesus knew what she meant.  And despite appearances, He does not ignore His beloved mother, even as He does not ignore us because of our shyness about praying or our fearfulness or our lack of adequate words.  He hears the prayers of His people.  He knows what we want and what we need.  And, most importantly, He knows what is good.

Jesus is not rude to His mother, but He is direct: “What does your concern have to do with Me?” which is to say, “I’ve got bigger things on my plate.  How is this My problem?”  Not only was this request inconsequential, the people at this party were probably already a little tipsy, anyway.  They didn’t need more wine.  Nor would they appreciate it.  And some of them would surely overdo it.  Who knows what evil would result from more wine.  So whatever it was that Mary was hoping for, at first she was denied.  Jesus did not offer to run to the liquor store.  He did not lament the sadness of a poorly planned wedding and an embarrassed couple.  He did not even bother to lecture her on moderation.  He simply told her that her concern and her request were insignificant in the face of His looming betrayal and suffering and death.

But her response to this rebuke couldn’t be better.  She believed.  Despite the rejection, she believed that Jesus was good, that Jesus would rescue her and the couple in some way.  Because that is what Jesus does.  That is who Jesus is.  This is His story: He is always rescuing people.  So despite the rejection, she believes that nothing, nothing that concerns her is outside of His concern, that no request she makes is actually trivial, and that He hears her and answers her every prayer.  With perfect faith she gives the servants the best advice the world has ever heard: “Whatever He says to you, do it.”  And what a surprise He has in store.

He gives them wine like the world has never known.  The volume was somewhere around 150 gallons of wine.  So we’re talking hundred and hundreds of bottles of wine.  As to the quality, we can only imagine, though we know it was better than the good wine the bridegroom provided at the beginning, the stuff used for their champagne toast.  Jesus gave them the best wine, and an awful lot of it, more than they could have consumed in a single night.  And so what if some was abused and some was wasted and some was thought to have come from the bridegroom?  God gives His gifts to people for them to enjoy them.  He never gives His gifts in hopes that we’ll attach a plaque and remember Him or send a thank you note.  He does not do these things for His pleasure, because it makes Him feel good to help.  He does them for us, because we have need, because He delights in making our hearts glad.  He was not in Cana merely to enjoy Himself.  He was there for the wedding, to give of Himself, to provide His blessing; for that is what we truly need.

And so to this day we rightly pray with Lady Israel, in the way of the blessed Mother of Our God: “They have no wine.”  None of our prayers are trivial to Him.  It’s good to lament to Him and to look to Him for everything: “This life is hard, Lord.  I am sad and tired.  I am unmotivated and frustrated.  I am angry.  I wish, O God, that the world was not always undermining and corrupting what is good.  I wish my job was better, that my home life was more peaceful.  I wish that these annoying pains in my body would go away.  I wish that I could just have a good night’s sleep.  I wish, O God, that there was more wine.”

And what does God say to our little petitions?  It seems, more often than not at first, that what concerns us doesn’t really concern Him.  But we learn in today’s Gospel to trust Him still.  He never ignores His beloved for whom He laid down His life.  He will do what is good.  He will do what is right.  He will surprise you.  Pray away, in boldness and confidence.  Nothing is insignificant to Him if it concerns you, His baptized people.  And if He holds out for a while, do not despair.  If you wait long enough and seek your Lord’s help through your troubles, you will find that the last wine is better than the first.  All your prayers are answered “Yes” in Him.

The Gospel says that Jesus manifested His glory in this miracle.  But John points to an even greater glory of which this miracle was a sign.  In John 12, Jesus refers to His looming crucifixion when He says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”  It is the glory of Christ to give Himself for you in love, to sacrifice His life that you might live.  It was water and wine that were poured out at Cana.  But at Calvary it was water and blood that flowed from Christ’s side to sanctify and cleanse you, that you should be holy and without blemish.  Christ loves you as a groom loves His bride.  He gave Himself up for you that you might be raised up with Him.

There will always be a lack in this world.  Things will always come up short in the end., just like we ourselves do, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  The wine will always run out.  But Jesus came precisely to redeem this sin-cursed world which fails us, and to make all things new and right again.  That’s why it is prophesied in Amos that in the new creation to come, “The mountains shall drip with sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it.”  By the death and resurrection of Christ on the third day–as this miracle occurred on the third day–you are redeemed and restored and given to share in His glory.

God is good.  He knows you and what is good for you.  He will not fail.  You will have wine, your heart will be glad–if not now in all the fullness you desire, then you will have it in the Kingdom to come.  In the meantime, while you wait, remember Mary’s words to the servants. “Do whatever He tells you.”  What He tells you is: “Take, eat.  Drink of it, all of you.  Do this in remembrance of Me.”  Eat the Body of Jesus.  Drink His Blood given and shed for the forgiveness of your sins.  Hear the Word of absolution and have the balm of His resurrection applied generously to your heart.  For this Lord of Life loves you.  It is written, “As the bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.”

Dear bride of Christ, both at Cana and this very day, our Lord has saved the choice wine for last.  He has given His best, and it is all for you.  The servants knew.  The disciples believed.  Let us be numbered among them.  For it is written, “Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” (Rev. 19:9)

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

(With thanks to Erik Rottman and David Petersen)

The Blessed Name

Numbers 6:22-27; Luke 2:21

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

New Year’s Eve has never really struck me as a particularly cheerful holiday in spite of all its festivities.  For we’re marking another year gone by.  And while it is good to reflect on the blessings of God in the year past and give Him thanks, to think about the growth of our children or grandchildren and the new things that have happened and our hopes for the future, more often than not, we don’t like the passage of time.  It takes away what’s familiar and comfortable to us.  It takes away friends and family.  In the end it takes away our health and our life.  And so the Psalmist prays, “Lord, make me to know my end, and what is the measure of my days, that I may know how frail I am. Indeed, You have made my days a mere handbreadth, and my age is as nothing before You; certainly every man at his best state is but vapor.”  It seems to me that the New Year’s celebrations carry a good deal of this melancholy undertone.  

So rather than simply marking the new year today, the church marks the naming and circumcision of Jesus.  This is the [Eve of the] 8th day of Christmas when these things occurred for our Lord.  And in particular I would like to have us meditate on the fullness of the name revealed in the blessing that our Lord speaks to His people, the Benediction given in today’s Old Testament reading.  In our lifetimes we have heard this Benediction spoken hundreds if not thousands of times.  But we don’t always fully consider what these words mean.  We don’t always realize all that our Lord is doing for us with these words.  And so as we observe the naming and circumcision of our Lord, we will focus our attention on this threefold blessing in which our Lord gives His name to us.

First of all, please note that the benediction is not a mere wish, like when we say, “Have a nice day.”  It’s not “May the Lord bless you and keep you.”  It’s “The Lord bless you and keep you.”  It’s an actual giving of a gift.  It’s a real bestowal of what the words say.  God Himself is active through these words.  In the Old Testament reading God directed the priests to speak this benediction; and then He said, “So I shall bless them.”  And it’s the same way still today.  Though the benediction is spoken by a man, it should be understood as the voice of God Himself to you.

Specifically, God says that He will put His name on His people through this triple blessing.  And so for us, the benediction is intimately connected to our baptism.  For that is the place where God first put His threefold name on us and claimed us as His own.  Just like we place our names on things that are important to us, that we don’t want to lose or have stolen, so the Lord marked us with the sign of the cross, and in the water He inscribed His name on us as His own treasured, precious possession.  He doesn’t want to lose us.  And so we have on us the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

In a very real way, then, the benediction re-applies and confirms us in our baptism.  Even as we became His people with the threefold application of His name, so also we depart divine service with the threefold application of His name, to live as His people out in the stations of life where He has put us.

Each of the three parts of the benediction correspond to the three persons of the Holy Trinity.  First, we receive the blessing of the Father with these words, “The Lord bless you and keep you.”  Notice that He’s the one who does the keeping.  While we do cling to Him by faith, the greater truth is that He is keeping and holding on to us.  He keeps us in the faith through His Word and Spirit so that we may endure in the faith to the end and be saved.  It’s like a father holding on to the hand of his child as they walk together across a slippery patch of snow and ice.  The child may be holding on to Dad, but what really counts is that Dad is holding on to his child, especially when the child slips.  That’s the only thing that will keep the child from falling.  So also, God the Father holds on to us, so that even when we slip, we won’t fall away from Him.  That’s how the Father blesses us–not only does He give us life and sustain our lives in this world, but He also gives us everlasting life in Christ, and by the Holy Spirit He keeps us with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.  James 1 reminds us, “Every good and perfect gift comes down from above, from the Father of lights.”

Second, we receive the blessing of God the Son with these words, “The Lord make His face shine on you and be gracious to you.”  Jesus is the face of the Father, as He said, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.”  In the humble Jesus in the manger, in the Word made flesh who willingly submits to the Law of circumcision, we see God in His mercy and love, who comes to redeem us by fulfilling the Law in our place.  The words about the Lord making His face shine on you especially calls to mind Jesus’ transfiguration, where the Scriptures say that His face “shone like the sun.”  And it is also written in II Corinthians, “It is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”  

For the Lord to make His face shine on you means for Him to accept you and look upon you favorably.  And how could God look on you any more favorably than to send His Son into your flesh and blood to save you from sin and death and to restore your humanity by His cross and resurrection?  Because Christ’s face has shined on you in self-giving love, you are now given to shine in His glory in the resurrection to come.  That is how He is gracious to you–this all comes to you without any merit or worthiness in you but purely out of His grace and goodness.

Thirdly, we receive the blessing of God the Holy Spirit with these words, “The Lord lift up His countenance on you and give you peace.”  Countenance is another word for the face, or more specifically, for the attitude or the expression that is on the face.  So a lifted-up countenance would be a sign of God’s good will toward you.  The opposite would be for Him to turn away from you with an angry countenance and forsake you in hell.  Through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, God reveals that His countenance and expression is lifted up toward you because of Jesus.  The Father turned away from Christ on the cross in order to turn toward you in love.  

This is how the Holy Spirit gives you peace.  The word for peace is “shalom.”  It has to do with health and wholeness, with being put right again.  Through the working of the Spirit, you are put right again with God, and with one another.  You are given eternal health and wholeness and life in Christ.  When Jesus spoke of sending the Holy Spirit, He said, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you.  Not as the world gives do I give to you.  Let not your hearts be troubled; neither let them be afraid.”

There’s one final thing to consider regarding this benediction.  And that is the name of God that is used here.  Our translations have it as Lord.  But it is actually the name Yahweh, the name God revealed to Moses in the burning bush.  “Yahweh bless you and keep you; Yahweh make His face shine on you and be gracious to you; Yahweh lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.”  Yahweh means I AM.  It’s the name of the Creator who has always existed, who is, who was, and who will be.  And yet it’s a name that seems also somewhat incomplete.  I am . . .  what?  The good news for us today is that Jesus came to reveal the name of God completely.  He fills in the blank for us.  For He said, “I am the Good Shepherd; I am the Light of the World; I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; I am the Vine.”  I am Jesus, which means, “The Lord saves.”  Though you are cursed under the Law and condemned to eternal death, I am the One who came to redeem you from the curse by being cursed in your place, hung on the tree of the cross.  Even as I first shed blood for you in my circumcision to fulfill the Law, so I poured out my blood for you at Golgotha to cleanse you from all sin.  Now you are released from the curse, forgiven, set free.  You are children of God in Me, the Son of God.

The benediction has been put on God’s people for thousands of years.  And God will continue to bless you with His saving name in the year 2023 and to the very close of the age.  It is one thing that is constant and sure in the midst of this changing and decaying world, even as Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  God grant you His heavenly benediction in the year to come, that you may know His great blessing for all eternity.

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

Your Brother in the Flesh Stands Up For You

Acts 6:8 - 7:2a; 7:51-60
St. Stephen’s Day
Aaron A. Koch
Preached at Luther Memorial Chapel
Shorewood, Wisconsin

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

It really is a little bit jarring to hear readings like those appointed for this day, St. Stephen’s Day.  In a season normally associated with merriment and good cheer, in the midst of our specially decorated churches, it seems strange at first that this 2nd day of Christmas, the season marking Christ’s birth, should be devoted to meditating on a martyr’s death.  The message of the angels was, “Peace on earth, good will toward men.”  There doesn’t appear to be either peace or good will in Stephen’s bloody murder.

The holy Child Jesus has indeed brought peace between God and man.  For God and man have been brought together again quite literally in Jesus.  That’s why He is the only Way for you to be reconciled to God; He alone bridges and rejoins heaven and earth in Himself.  But Christ Jesus was delivered and born of woman in order that He might be delivered into the hands of sinful men; God’s good will toward men is manifested in how He was willing to be despised and rejected by men to win our forgiveness.  The wisdom of the church’s calendar reminds us today that those who follow and cling to this Jesus can expect the possibility of similar treatment in this world.  Peace with God means enmity with the world.  The righteousness of Christ given as a free gift will always be at odds with the righteousness that man tries to achieve for Himself through his own spirituality.

We see this enmity very clearly as Stephen stands before the Sanhedrin and speaks the truth to them–the truth of how they resist the Holy Spirit, who calls them to turn from their works to Christ’s that they might be saved.  Earlier at Pentecost, the hearers of Peter’s preaching were cut to the heart, and they said, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?”  They were brought to repentance and were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins.  Now, these members of the Sanhedrin are also cut to the heart it says by Stephen’s preaching.  But a different word is used here showing that their stony hearts were not pierced–like the seed on the hardened path.  For it says they gnashed their teeth at him–growling like the beasts their sin had reduced them to.  One cannot help but think about our Lord’s words regarding those who reject Him in unbelief–for them there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth forever.

Stephen also testified to the truth of what he saw in that moment: the heavens were opened and Jesus was standing at God’s right hand.  The Sanhedrin–the same council that had condemned our Lord–when they heard Stephen say this, they stopped their ears, and they rushed at him with one accord, cast him out of the city, and stoned him to death.

There are several things we should learn from this.  To begin with, we must confess that we also don’t like it when our sin is laid before our eyes and we are called to turn from it.  Our old Adam is a one-man Sanhedrin, who tries to silence the ones calling us to repentance–either by verbally stoning them and attacking them or just by covering our ears, so to speak, ignoring the truth.  God grant that when you are confronted with His Word of truth and cut to the heart, you will be pierced and given repentance, that He will unclench your jaw and unstop your ears, and create in you a clean heart and renew a right spirit within you.

Most clearly, though, we learn from Stephen’s martyrdom how this fallen world, with the powers that uphold its false spiritualities, is a Sanhedrin to Christ’s church.  The world does not want to hear the words of God and wants to silence the voice of those who confess the Christian faith and the saving name of Jesus.  Whether it’s in matters of the teaching on creation, or sexuality and marriage or, above all, in matters of salvation by grace alone through faith in Christ alone, the world stops its ears to the truth, it mocks and marginalizes the faithful, and where possible it tries to cast them out as hateful blasphemers of the cultural dogma and underminers of society.  We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that we’ve yet been persecuted in any way approaching that of the early church.  But perhaps you have been given to glimpse and to experience not just disagreement but the utter disdain the world has for you and your beliefs and your Lord Jesus who said, “If the world hates you, know that it hated Me before it hated you” (John 15:18).  So let us take to heart the words of 1 Peter 4, “Rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.”  

Stephen was blessed by God in this way.  It is written that his face was like the face of an angel.  What does that mean?  Well, where are the angels’ faces turned?  Jesus said that they always see the face of His Father in heaven.  The angels reflect His glory.  So it is also with Stephen.  His face reflects the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.  We become like what we fix our eyes on (another reason not to spend too much time staring at two-dimensional screens).  We become like what we fix our eyes on.  Wasn’t Stephen like Jesus here, asking forgiveness for his enemies, commending his spirit into God’s hands?  We have the sure promise of Scripture, “When [Jesus] is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.”

Stephen speaks as one baptized.  For He saw the heavens opened, just as they were opened at Jesus’ baptism.  The heavens are opened for all of you who are baptized into Him.  And in these opened heavens, what does Stephen see but Jesus standing at God’s right hand.  Ordinarily, we use the language of the creed, that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God, the position of ruling and reigning.  But here He is standing.  This is important.  For remember that Stephen is on trial here.  This is a courtroom scene.  Though he is condemned to death by the Sanhedrin, there is One who stands in his defense, who intercedes and speaks on His behalf before the court of the Most High, and who will deliver Stephen from the judgment of ungodly men.

And so it is also for you.  Jesus stood in for you in death as your substitute, and now He stands up for you as your Intercessor and Advocate and Defender.  It is written in Romans 8, “Who shall bring a charge against God’s chosen ones? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written: ‘For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.’  Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.”  Sin and Satan and the world may condemn and attack you, but you have a mighty Defender and Advocate before the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous.  He Himself was cut to the heart for you, pierced with a spear, and the blood and water that flowed cleanses you and protects you.  It is good that you stand up for Jesus and confess your faith in Him as Stephen did here.  But what finally counts in the end is that Jesus stands up for you, the incarnate and risen Lord, who has human feet and legs to stand with, your blood Brother, the Almighty Son of God.  

And if I may carry this one final step further: standing is also a sign of honor.  Jesus here is honoring Stephen; He stands as if to receive Stephen out of this world and unto Himself.  The psalmist prays, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.”  So it is for you.  Jesus honors you.  He stands for you, as a Gentleman for His elect Lady, His holy Church.

This is where we find our strength to confess the faith boldly as Stephen did, whether it affects our social standing or our economic standing or our very lives.  We confess Jesus before men in the sure confidence that He will rise to His feet and confess us before His Father in heaven.  

Though it may not appear so, Stephen was granted a blessed end.  Though it was not painless, it was blessed, for he fell asleep in Christ, looking to Him who is the Victor over death.  God grant that whether our end is violent or peaceful, that we may die as Stephen did, with our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  He is your Brother in the flesh who stands up for you.

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

(With thanks to another St. Stephen, the Rev. Fr. Stephen Wiest for some of the thoughts above)

Heaven and Nature Sing

Christmas Day
John 1:14, Luke 2:13-14

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

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  What a marvelous reality that is to ponder, and I don’t think we can fully grasp the wonder of it.  The Word of the Father, His mighty “Let there be. . .,” the eternally begotten Son of God, through whom all things were created, the very Logic of the universe in whom all things hold together, who exists outside of space and time–He Himself entered into space and time, took up our humanity into His divine nature, and became our flesh and blood, our fully human Brother.  Amazing.  “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate Deity!  Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus, our Immanuel!”  

But why did our Lord do this?  Why did He join our humanity to His divinity?  Well remember that God created us because of His nature as the One who is Love.  His desire from the beginning has been to give Himself to us and to bring us into full communion and fellowship with Him.  In the beginning God and man dwelt together in the Garden.  There was no division between heaven and earth.  But then as you well know, Adam and Eve caused a great rupture in their relationship with God.  By deciding to go their own way and rebel against God’s Word, they and all of us who have followed right in their steps have been cut off from God.  Heaven and earth were split apart.  Through our sin we distanced ourselves from God.  We created a grand canyon between us and Him that we could not cross.  And so God, in His great mercy and love, Himself crossed the canyon and came to us, that our humanity might be cleansed and that we might be restored to fellowship with Him again.  “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  

One way of understanding what is happening here is by paying attention to the angels.  We heard about them in last night’s familiar reading from the Gospel of St. Luke.  Because it’s familiar, though, we sometimes miss the absolutely unique marvel of that angelic appearance.

Angels were certainly not unknown to Israel, and the entire history of Israel occurred under angelic oversight.  But nowhere in the Bible is there a cluster of angelic appearances like we find at the beginning of the Gospel story.  An angel appears to Joseph to tell him to take Mary as his wife, and Joseph obeys the angel’s instructions.  Angels appear again to instruct Joseph to flee from Israel to escape from Herod and then to tell him to go home from Egypt back to Israel.  Gabriel appears to Zechariah to announce the birth of John, and the same angel appears again to Mary to announce the birth of Jesus.  An unnamed angel announces the birth of the Christ to the shepherds, and then that angel is joined by the heavenly host praising God for the birth of Jesus.  Why are angels suddenly making such frequent appearances?  What do these angelic appearances have to teach us about the meaning of the incarnation?

Angels live in heaven, in the presence of the Lord. They surround Him as His “hosts” or “armies” according to the Psalms, standing at the ready to be deployed to do the Lord’s bidding.  They continuously worship the Lord in heaven.  Whenever an angel appears on earth, he arrives from heaven.  When angels appear at the birth of Jesus, then, they’re bringing heaven to earth.  Note what they sing to the shepherds, “Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.”  Jesus is heaven on earth, heaven become flesh, and so it is fitting that He should be surrounded, as His Father is, by angelic hosts.

We are so familiar with this Christmas scene that we don’t recognize just how unique it is.  Nowhere else in Scripture do angelic choirs sing on earth.  Nowhere.  This is an absolutely unique inbreaking from Heaven to Earth.  Heaven and earth, which are often referred to separately throughout the Gospels, are being brought back together in Christ.  All authority in heaven and earth has been given to Him.  Jesus is restoring proper order within the creation.  

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  Because of mankind’s fall, heaven and earth are out of sync, estranged, at war.  Earth goes its own way, ignoring heaven and defying the God of heaven.  There’s no longer harmony between the different zones of creation.  But through Jesus the Last Adam, God establishes an outpost of heaven on earth.  Because heaven comes to earth, earth will be brought back into harmony with heaven.  Because of Jesus, heaven is exerting its power on earth again, and bringing earth back into the heavenly order.  Because of Jesus, God’s will is going to be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Because all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus, what the church binds on earth will be bound in heaven.  For far too long there has been dissonance between heaven and earth.  Earth was out of tune and didn’t keep in step with the rhythms of heaven.  But all this changes at Christmas.  When Jesus comes as Heaven on earth, He brings the heavenly hosts with Him, so that earth is as full of the music of heaven, so that earth’s music will harmonize with that of heaven.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  Think of what tremendous good news this is!  Think of the great honor that is given to mankind and how this elevates us all.  Through Jesus, the Word, we share the same nature with God.  The devil hates this, but the holy angels rejoice at this.  It has been said that the angels were created to train human beings to rule the earth. And so man is, for a little while, lower than the angels. But with the coming of the Son of God in human flesh, the work of the angels is nearly done. They appear in large numbers at the conception and birth of Jesus because this is the time when they turn their authority over to man in Jesus Christ. One by one, the angels of Christmas throw their crowns down before the Lamb.  And as they cast their crowns before the incarnate Son, they cast them also before us, so that we can take our royal place beside the enthroned Son of David.

Isn’t this wonderful?  It is not our goal to try to escape this created world and our bodily existence.  For the Son of God has come to redeem this world and our bodily existence by sharing in our flesh and blood, body and soul.  He bears the curse, shedding His holy blood for us on the cross to fully redeem us.  And He carries us through the curse of death to the resurrection of the body and the life of the new creation to come.  Your human life has been greatly exalted by the fact that the Son of God shares in your nature.  No matter how ordinary or humdrum your life may feel, no matter how pointless it all may seem sometimes, Christmas means that your lives in the flesh are worth living, and the world in which you live is worth saving.

For heaven and earth are coming together; the incarnation and birth of our Lord is the guarantee of that.  We see it here today in the Christ Mass.  Heaven and earth are joined on the altar as the body and blood of our Lord Jesus, true God and true Man, are given to you for the forgiveness of your sins.  Here you get to be like the shepherds and join with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven in glorifying God.  For in the Sacrament of our Lord Jesus we behold His heavenly glory by faith, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.  

And we set our hearts on the Last Day when all of this will come to its goal and fulfillment, as it is written, “Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.’” “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  And heaven and nature sing.

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

With thanks to Peter Leithart for some of the thoughts on angels in the middle of this sermon

Image: Seeing Shepherds by Daniel Bonnell

The Mystery of Christmas

Luke 2:1-20
Christmas Eve

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

It is good that you are in the Lord's house tonight.  Perhaps you’re here because Christmas Eve service is a tradition.  Perhaps you’re here because this is one of those few times in the year when the family is able to get together for church.  Perhaps you’re here because you love the lights and the candles and the music and all the stuff of Christmas that brings about a certain sense of nostalgia and wonder and mystery.  All of that is good.

But I hope and trust that you would be here even if family couldn’t be, even without the lights and presents and all the rest.  For there is a wonder and mystery here that those things can only begin to point to.  In the midst of the darkness of this night, in the midst of the darkness of this world, you recognize that there is something here that you need, even if you can’t always put your finger on it.  You have a sense that things aren’t quite right with you, that there is something about our humanity that has gone wrong and needs saving.  Tonight we are here to go back to the beginning and return to the Source.  Tonight is about how our broken and fallen humanity is restored.  Tonight is the unveiling of how you are made fully human again.

What we are celebrating here is not merely a birthday.  We are celebrating the fact that God has embraced our humanity in order to redeem it and ennoble it and raise it up.  The Son of God took up our flesh and blood, our body and soul, and was born of the Virgin Mary in order to sanctify us and make us holy and right again.  He shared fully in our humanity in order that we might share fully in His divine life.  

Jesus is the only one who is truly and fully human, without any sin polluting and corrupting His nature.  And the joyous message of this night is that by embracing your humanity and joining it His divinity, He has made you truly human again.  His birth cleanses you and gives you new birth.  Through faith in Jesus, the image of God is restored to you.   Baptized into His body, you find your humanity.

That’s what you’re looking at when you see the baby in the manger. You are seeing your life restored to God.  You are seeing peace and reconciliation between God and man.  For Jesus is both God and man in one undivided person.  That’s why He’s the only way to be saved.  Only He brings God and man together again.  The unmasked, unveiled face of this holy Child is both the face of God and the face of redeemed humanity.  Here is God not keeping His distance from us.  Here is God with us, Emmanuel, God so close to us that He shares in our very life, our flesh and bones.

This is the real wonder, the real mystery of  Christmas:  The One who holds the whole creation in His hands is cradled in the arms of His virgin mother.  The One whose divine essence no man can touch is wrapped in swaddling cloths.  The One who gives daily bread to all is Himself fed on milk from His mother’s breast.  The fullness of God chooses to dwell in an infant.  God becomes man, so that man might be restored to God in Christ.  The Uncreated One is created; the Timeless One enters into human history in order to give us everlasting life in the new creation.  He who is made of woman is Himself the Maker of that woman.  She who delivered the Christ-child would herself be delivered and redeemed by Him.

Consider also the mystery of how Jesus’ birth foreshadows His death and resurrection.  He  was born during the reign of the Roman Governor Caesar Augustus that he might be crucified under the Roman Pontius Pilate.  He was born in earthly poverty so that all who trust in Him might become rich in heavenly treasure.  He slept on the green wood of the manger, so that he might sleep on the dry wood of the cross to pay for our sins.  He was wrapped in swaddling cloths, so that he might be wrapped in burial cloths and lay in a tomb to save us from the grave.  His birth was announced by angels, so that angels might proclaim His rising from the dead.  He was worshiped by lowly shepherds, because He came to be the Good Shepherd who would lay down His life for the sheep.  He came in humility to die so that those who humble themselves in repentance and faith might be raised from the dead in His glory.

The Christmas message, then, is not only given to the shepherds this holy night, it is given to each and every one of you.

To you who are faint-hearted, who are weary, who feel the burden of your sins: To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who Himself will become weary, who will bear your heavy load to set you free.

To you who are broken-hearted, to you whose loved ones are far away, to you who feel depressed and downcast and taken advantage of: To you is born this day in the city of David of Savior, who is near to those who are have a broken heart and saves those who are crushed in spirit, whose heart will be pierced for you on the cross to mend you.  

To you who are fearful, to you who are burdened by the darkness of doubt, to you who are struggling with bodily pains and chronic ailments: To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who will go through the valley of the shadow of death for you to bring you through it all and into the light of the resurrection of the body.

To you who have wandered from the Lord and have foolishly forsaken His command to remember the Sabbath Day each week, to you who have squandered what the Lord has given you, to you who feel isolated and cut off: To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, the Shepherd who has become a lamb in order to restore you to the flock so that you may dwell in the house of the Lord forever.  

And to you who are puffed up and proud, to you who have arrogantly trusted in your own merits and strength: To you also is born this day in the city of David a Savior, born in humility so that you might learn to humble yourselves, that the Lord might lift you up in due time.

To a world full of anger and conflict and anxiety, out of heaven comes the angelic message: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”  God is glorified in the high places by sending His Son to us in the depths, the Prince of Peace, who reconciles God and sinners.

To the sons of Adam is born this day the new Adam.  To those battered by the storms of life is born the One who stilled the storms with a word.  Are you weak? Look, Jesus becomes weak for you!  Are you sad? Look, Jesus comes to share your sorrows, and to give you His joy in return!  You who are dying, see in the manger your Life!  You who are lonely, see in the manger the Friend of the outcast and the forsaken!  You who are unrighteous, see in the manger your Righteousness, freely given to you as a gift!  Behold in that feeding trough the Living Bread from heaven, born in Beth-lehem, the house of bread, in order that even beasts like us might feed on Him and become human again and live forever.

So revel in the marvelous mystery of this night.  In all the massive expanse of this universe, the Lord pays attention to you; He has heard your prayers and your cries.  This Child comes to you and says, “Do not be afraid.; be at peace.  I have come for you to save you. I have come to remove your guilt. I have come to bear your afflictions and your thorns as My crown. I have come to be your life.  Do not be anxious.  Take heart!”

A blessed and merry Christmas, then, to you all.  For your humanity has been restored in Jesus.  There is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

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

With thanks to Christopher Esget and William Cwirla for some of the above thoughts

Image: "Emmanuel Altarpiece" by Edward Riojas.  You can purchase prints of his work here: