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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:

St. Thomas the Twin

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

In talking about our Lord’s birth, it would be blasphemous, of course, for me to say that Jesus had a twin.  For Jesus alone is the holy Son of God who took on our flesh and blood to redeem us from sin and death.  There is none other like Jesus.  And yet, on this St. Thomas Day, I would suggest to you that there is a sense in which we can speak of our Lord having a twin.  The life of Thomas teaches us of that.

Most of us know St. Thomas only as doubting Thomas.  He was the one who wouldn’t believe the other disciples when they told him that Jesus was raised from the dead.  He said the only way he would believe was if he touched the nail marks in Jesus’ hands and put his hand to Jesus’ side where the spear had pierced Him.  He just wasn’t going to be hurt further after he had seen his Lord dead by believing what he thought was some desperate tale about a resurrection.

And so we usually think of Thomas only as a skeptic and a doubter.  But the fact of the matter is that he could also show great loyalty and devotion.  We heard an example of that in today’s first reading.  Word had just come to Jesus that one His friends, Lazarus, was deathly ill in Bethany.  In the course of events Jesus told His disciples that they were going to Bethany to see Lazarus.

But the disciples balked at this idea.  For Bethany was in Judea, and it was only a short time before that the religious leaders in Judea had tried to stone Jesus and kill him.  Jesus had made the claim to them not only that He existed before Abraham but that He Himself was the Lord God, the great I AM.  The Jews took this to be blasphemy and desired to stone Him.  But He hid Himself from them and eluded them.  Therefore, to go back to Judea would be to risk life and limb, both for Jesus and His disciples.

But after their discussion, Thomas said these words, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.”  Despite the risk, Thomas was willing to go with Jesus.  Even in the face of death, Thomas did not want to depart from Jesus’ side.  Though Thomas, like the rest of the disciples, would not be so bold later on, His courage and faithfulness here is to be praised.

The name Thomas literally means “twin.”  In fact sometimes he was called “Didymus” which is the Greek word for “twin.”  This is a good name for him to have.  For it is a fitting description of all who would be disciples of Jesus.  Remember, Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.”  This is precisely what Jesus calls us to do, to be like Him and to have twin lives that look just like His, dying with Him in order that we may live with Him.  Jesus said, “If any one would come after Me, He must deny himself and take up His cross and follow Me.”  To be a Christian is to be Christ’s twin, to be crucified with Him, which means to drown the old Adam with all sins and evil lusts, to repent.  It is to lay down your life for others in your daily callings and to be willing to suffer.

However, you are also given to be Christ’s twin not only in His death but also in His resurrection.  For through your baptism into His body and your faith in His name, you now share in His risen identity.  You are little Christ’s before the throne of heaven, brothers and sisters of Christ bearing His very image before the Father.  You are as pure and holy as Jesus Himself by His grace.  Sharing His identity and image, you also share in His life.  Jesus said, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.  He who believes in Me will live, even though He dies.  And whoever lives and believes in Me will never die.”  Jesus is the firstborn twin who leads the way for you second born twins out of the womb of death into new and everlasting life.

This is the way about which Thomas asked in the second reading.  Jesus said,  “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  No one comes to the Father, except through Me.”  Jesus has prepared a place for you in the Father’s house by His cross and empty tomb.  And Jesus alone is the doorway into that house.  Participating in His cross and empty tomb by faith, counting yourself dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus, you are given entry to your heavenly home.  

Thomas would certainly participate in Jesus’ cross.  According to tradition Thomas went on a missionary journey to preach the Gospel in India.  There is to this day a Christian community in India that claims descent from Christians first converted by the preaching of Thomas.  

The tradition states that Thomas suffered a martyr’s death, and that he was speared to death for what he preached.  What a wonderful irony that is!  For even as Thomas wouldn’t believe until he had touched the spear mark in Jesus’ side, so it was a spear that Thomas would take in His own body for the name of Jesus.  Because of His faith in Christ the very symbol that is now identified with Thomas is a spear.  He truly was Christ’s twin.  He shared in Christ’s death, and He will also share in Christ’s resurrection, even as He now dwells according to his soul with Christ His Savior in heaven.

So it is also for you.  Like Thomas, you have been marked as Christ’s twin.  You have received the sign of the holy cross both on your forehead and on your heart to mark you as ones redeemed by Christ the crucified.  Wearing the sign of His death, you shall also wear the crown of life which He has won for you.

This is the sure hope that Christmas brings to you.  God has come in the flesh for you.  Light has broken into the darkness; especially on this shortest day of the year we recognize that. And as Thomas would later see and believe, God is raised in the flesh for you. Our Lord became just like you, so that you might become just like Him.  Blessed are you who have not seen and yet have believed.  

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

Blessed is He Who is Not Offended Because of Me

Matthew 11:2-11

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

In today’s Gospel, John the Baptist has his disciples ask the Lord Jesus, “Are you the Coming One?  Or do we look for another?”  You can understand why John might ask that question.  After all, John is now in prison.  John had come as a mighty preacher, preparing the way of the Lord, calling people to repentance, baptizing them for the forgiveness of sins.  Everyone was coming out to John at the Jordan River to hear him.  John spoke of a Messiah who was mightier than he was, who would clean out the threshing floor and burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.  All of this carried with it images of power and glory.

But now John is in King Herod’s dungeon.  He had been put there for condemning the sin of King.  Herod had taken his brother’s wife for himself and was therefore committing adultery.  Talk about speaking truth to power–John wasn’t afraid to tell people what they needed to hear and call them to repentance, even if it made them angry.  Truth was more important than people’s feelings and how much they liked him. It’s not a preacher’s job to be popular but to be a truth-teller.  That’s the way it is really for all Christians, to care more about the salvation of people’s souls and what they’ll think of you in eternity than what they think of you right now.

That’s how it was with John.  His first allegiance was to the Lord.  And for that, Herod’s new “wife” wanted John killed immediately.  But oddly enough, the king had some respect for John and what he said.  And so the king had John thrown into prison instead.  In the end, though, the scheming of Herod’s wife would win the day.  John would eventually be beheaded.  

As John sat in his dark cell, the thought may well have crossed his mind, at least for a moment: Did I get it wrong in saying that Jesus is the Messiah?  If He is the Christ, then why is this happening to me?  If the Messiah comes to bring God’s righteousness, why is this unrighteous king Herod being permitted to rule unchecked and go unpunished?  Why am I the one who is suffering?  “Are you the Coming One?  Or do we look for another?”

I would guess that there have also been moments like that in your own life.  In your own times of suffering or difficulty, when you feel it in your bones that you’re withering like a flower, when a child or grandchild has a fearsome disease, when you’ve been victimized or treated unjustly, you may have wondered: Is Jesus really the One?  Is Christianity the right way?  Is all of this real?  Or should I be looking for someone or something else that maybe works a little better?  How easily doubts can creep into our fallen minds.  And then we’re tempted to question God’s ways and give up on church and God’s Word when things don’t go the way we planned or expected, when God doesn’t come through for us the way we hoped or make us feel the way we want.  Is Jesus really the One?

Even though John may have had his questions, He knew all along that Jesus was the Messiah.  For when does John send two of his disciples to Jesus to ask this question?  It is when he hears in prison about the works of Christ, the works that are the evidence that Jesus really is the Coming One.  John sends his disciples to focus on that, to see for themselves the One whom John had been preaching.  John’s disciples, and every Christian to this day needs to go to where Jesus is, to hear His words and take in His works.  Only that divine service of Christ can overcome our doubts.  Apart from church and the words and works of Jesus, we’re left in the darkness of our own dungeons.

Consider also what Jesus Himself says about John: “Among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist.”  What tremendous honor Jesus there bestows on John!  That means that John is greater even than Abraham, than Moses, than Elijah, than all the prophets.  Above all others, John is a picture of great faithfulness and zeal and love for God.  

Jesus says, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?  A reed shaken by the wind?”  No, not at all.  John the Baptist didn’t bend to the prevailing breezes of the day, like a reed in a marsh, in order to become more well-liked.  He wasn’t a preacher who told people what their itching ears wanted to hear, compromising with the culture around him.  “Oh, you want more sermons on how to achieve all your dreams and find self-fulfillment?  Sure, whatever keeps the money coming.”  Instead, John preached the truth which God had given him to preach.  He said things like, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  That’s how he prepared the way of the Lord Jesus. He said to the multitudes that came out to him, “Brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruits worthy of repentance. . .  Every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  That may not have been the best way to win friends and influence people.  But John knew that until the people had confronted the reality of their fallen condition, they would not be ready for the One who came to deliver and save them from their bondage to sin and death.

The same thing is true for you still today.  You too must hear that message of John, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Jesus is near.  Turn away from your sin.  Stop justifying it and becoming comfortable with it.  Seek to bear the fruit of faithfulness and love.  Take refuge in Christ alone.

For though you are a fading flower, Jesus is Himself “the word of our God (that) stands forever.”  Though the grass withers, the everlasting Word of God declares that there is full, free forgiveness and real, enduring life for you in Him.  For the Son of God took your wilting and withering condition upon Himself in the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary.  Though He was without sin, He took the curse of your sin into His own body and He broke the curse, putting it to death on the cross.  All the power of the devil to drag you down to hell, all the power of sin to condemn you was completely destroyed and abolished there at Calvary.  Now, through faith in Jesus, you are released, you are free, you are holy.  St. Peter writes, “You have been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever.”  You have been baptized into Jesus, the Word made flesh, and so you will live and abide forever in Him.  Just as a lily dies in the winter but comes forth to life again from the bulb in the spring, so also you will rise again to an everlasting spring when the risen Jesus returns.

So even though the message of John the Baptist doesn’t seem particularly Christmassy, all warmth and happiness, He gives you the only way to really be ready for Christmas.  He tells you the truth, not ultimately to condemn you but to comfort you, as the Old Testament reading said, “Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and 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.”  The Messiah whom John proclaims and points to doesn’t give you just the bare minimum forgiveness required.  Rather, the Lord gives you overflowing mercy and forgiveness, so that you may be absolutely certain that all of your sins, the big and the small, have all been covered and answered for and taken away.

John sends His disciples and points His disciples to Jesus.  That’s where it’s at.  Not in the tragic events that would surround the ending of John’s life, but in the life and ministry of Jesus, in His suffering and death and resurrection.  John said, “He must increase, I must decrease.”  So also John points us to Jesus as well, saying, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  Whoever would be a disciple of Jesus must deny himself like John and take up the cross of Jesus and follow Him.

And finally, don’t forget that Jesus sent John’s disciples back to him to report to him in prison.  For they needed to confess the truth of Jesus; and even though John believed, the Lord still was at work to strengthen John.  Jesus said to John’s disciples, “Report to John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them.”  That’s another reason why John sent his disciples.  John needed to hear the message that they brought back from the Lord.  And if he did, so do we, week by week, in the midst of our own struggles.  “Lord, I believe; help My unbelief!”

Never forget that these are the kind of people that Jesus came for–not those who are proud in their own righteousness and self-sufficiency, but the weak and the helpless and the unrighteous.  Are you beginning to lose your sight or your hearing?  Are your legs and your arms not working like they used to?  Are you contending with some nagging ailment or disease?  Are you living from paycheck to paycheck?  Do you feel unclean?  Do you sense the death in you that sin brings?  Then Jesus is for you.  He took on your flesh and blood in order to redeem your humanity and cleanse you and restore you in both body and soul to the fullness of His resurrection life.  Jesus doesn’t save you by immediately taking away all your troubles; He saves you through those troubles and even through death itself for the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.

Jesus says to John and to us all, “Blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.”  Blessed are you who are not scandalized by My suffering and cross, who are not offended by your need to repent and to trust in Me alone to save you.  Blessed are you who, like John in prison, are not caused to fall from faith by the difficulties and the crosses you must yet experience, but who continue to cling to Me and hope in Me.  For yours in the kingdom of heaven.

Fellow saints of Mt. Zion, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.  It is at hand not only because Christmas is near, not only because the second coming is near, but because the King Himself is near.  His body and blood are at hand, given from this very altar for you for the forgiveness of sins.  Here is your Comfort in life.  Here “the glory of the Lord shall be 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 ✠